Pretty Little Paperbacks, Pretty Cheap

Somebody told me that a certain area of the 2012 Book Fair did not sell well until half-price Sunday. “I saw you raised the prices this year,” he said, “But it didn’t work, did it?”

I always nod and smile when I get pricing advice, particularly when I’m right. (You can always tell if I’m right by watching me closely. I nod and smile when I know I’m right. When I think I’m wrong, I smile and nod.) In this particular case, he was discussing an area of the fair where I have not raised prices…ever.

There are people who complain I never raise prices, and people who whine that I do. Of course, both camps are correct. When I see a subject area where two-thirds of the books are gone by Friday morning, I make a mental note to nudge the prices up. An area where nothing much has sold by Sunday morning means prices need to be nudged downward.

But some things have never changed. For example, volumes of the Little Library of Art will cost you one dollar, just as they did in 1986, when a tall man was our art pricer, and in 1996, when an even taller man was our art pricer. I price the art books now, and I see no reason to move away from the air of contempt with which both these experts regarded the Little Library of Art.

Oh, you do so know what I’m talking about. The Little Library of Art has been available in every college bookstore in North America since the mid-50s. Published by Tudor in this country, and Methuen in England, they are dear little paperback books measuring 4 x 6 inches by about, oh, maybe an eighth of an inch thick. There were 98, as far as I can tell, in the series, with a preference for the 19th and 20th centuries. Picasso, for example, takes up half a dozen volumes, Toulouse Lautrec five, and Van Gogh four. Michelangelo, by contrast, is covered in two volumes. There were also geographic volumes: Chinese Art (4 volumes), African Tribal Sculpture (2 volumes), and Catalan Art (2 volumes), for example.

They’re nice, really: a 9-page essay and 15 to 30 color pages. They are also an interesting picture of how one editor regarded mid-twentieth century art: would Nicholson, Buffet, and Vlaminck still rate individual volumes today? Still, the art book people I have dealt with treat them the way literary people I know view Cliff’s Notes: with contempt and just a little haughty surprise that I allow such things to appear at so prestigious a book fair.

“Don’t you realize that by letting someone buy the Renoir’s Nudes volume for a dollar you’re preventing them from buying a nice ten dollar edition with better pictures?”

Yeah, I’m preventing them from saving up to buy an original Renoir, too, if anybody ever donates one. Anyhow, if they like the one dollar version, they may well come back and buy the ten dollar one next year. I bought that particular Renoir volume from my own college bookstore, and Heaven knows it hasn’t prevented me from buying other books since.

So, bay leaf bouquet, I plan to keep offering the Little Library of Art AND I intend to keep selling shoddily-bound little paperback art studies for a buck apiece. This despite the fact that a few book dealers are claiming that the Vasarely volume of the series is rarer than all the rest put together. They don’t explain why. Personally, I suspect some customer demanded to know why they bothered with those one dollar art books, and provoked a higher price in revenge.

Better to just smile and nod. Or nod and smile.

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