Dollars and Sense

People ask me questions, as I have whined elsewhere. One question that comes up regularly is “How do you price books?” The people who ask this NEVER laugh when I say “With a pencil.” Maybe it’s the way I say it.

Sometimes they’re asking for tips on pricing their own books, so what they mean is “How can I find out about book prices?” I told you a little about that in a previous column.

Sometimes, though, they want to know what goes through my mind when I am standing with a book in my left hand and a pencil in my right. What they mean is “How do you come up with these numbers?” Sometimes this is preparatory to asking for a discount, but other people are genuinely curious about the thought processes of a book pricer. I believe they are doing research for a thesis in psychopathology.

I learned my pricing from the founder of the feast, as it were, who told me, and many other people, “Book pricing is not a science; it’s an art.” There is no magic list that will tell you that for the book in your hand, $6.93 is the only possible price. You must use your experience and your knowledge.

See, a book is two things at once. It is a physical object, sometimes of great beauty and sometimes kinda scruffy. It is also a purveyor of information, again running the gamut from sublime to sub-moronic. You need to consider what’s in the book as well as how the book looks from the outside, and then add in what you can look up online about its comparative rarity and its average price.

And once you’ve done THAT, you have to think about your customers. Take a couple of my regular buyers. Call ‘em S and H, because either one would be glad to accept Green Stamps with purchase. (Note to people under 40: this joke is funnier if you’re old enough to remember Green Stamps. Not much, but some.)

S wants only the finest copy of each book she owns. Yes, she does read them, but only with white gloves on. So a dented corner, a previous owner’s inscription, or a clipped endflap where someone removed the price before wrapping the present will all lower the value of the book in her eyes. H, on the other hand, is doing research. He’ll pick a book up out of the gutter, coverless and mouse-chewed, and set it on a windowsill to dry out until he can read what he wants to know. He will pay the same for a copy with Kool-Aid stains on the cover as for a first edition in flawless jacket. He will turn away, however, if it turns out you do not have the revised edition of 1967.

And you can’t even guess about Customer W, who’s been looking for a copy of your book for the last thirty years and had nearly given up hope. Or P, whose motto is “Whatever the price, offer half”.

All of this does actually zip through my mind as I’m holding that copy of The Untold Story of S&H Green Stamps. All that AND the other thing my book pricing mentor always says. “If they don’t like it, it’ll be half price on Sunday.” 

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