How do I sell two large-ish book collections?
July 27, 2015 4:30 PM   Subscribe

There are two focused book collections that I’d like to sell, preferably as lots. I’d like one to go to an academic institution. I’m indifferent to the destination of the other. I’ve never brokered deals like these before. How do I proceed? Many details and my current ideas inside.

I describe each collection and what I’m considering doing below, but I really don’t know what I’m doing so I might be totally off base. As in, if there’s a different and better method of selling these from what I describe, I’m very much open to it.

The first collection is 400~ books on a single subject. A handful of universities already have similar collections, but my collection is significantly larger than any library’s current holdings in the subject. It’s not encyclopedic but it’s a large percentage of the books of this kind. The books are worth only a few bucks each on an individual basis, but are rare enough that it would be difficult to assemble a comparable collection. Freely acknowledging here that I’m being weird about divulging the specific topic, but for various reasons I’d prefer not to. The books are not the most engaging reading, but due to the topic they’d be interesting to cultural historians, enough so that I’m confident that the many libraries with large holdings in related subjects would be interested in having them in their special collections.

I don’t really know how academic libraries make special collections purchases, but I’d prefer to sell rather than donate this collection, because I am a poor graduate student (in an unrelated field) with a major book and record habit. I’d like to get a little over a thousand dollars for the collection, which seems to me like a reasonably low estimate of its value.

I’m considering e-mailing the librarian in charge of the relevant area of special collections at my institution briefly describing the collection, how it might be useful in an academic library, and offering to sell it. Not only does it appeal to convenience and my loyalties, but my institution is an obvious fit for the collection. If that’s a no go, I’d send similar e-mails to the relevant librarians at other universities. I don’t mind if this kind of cold-calling is slightly tacky, but it’s not clear to me whether it’s a method that could realistically produce results. And if the approach sounds really tacky, maybe I’d skip pitching it to my university at all. Is there a better way? How do I most decorously broach the fact that I want to sell rather than donate this collection? Do I ask for a specific price? Do I need to have the collection fully cataloged before I approach anyone?

The second collection is an even larger group of books published by Grove Press, probably somewhere around 600 (estimating how many books one has is hard). Currently I have a wall of them in my apartment (picture because hey why not), but I’d like the wall back. That’s 75%ish of the collection. I’m not entirely sure how many books Grove published, but I think this only constitutes about a third of the total – obviously a large number of books, but perhaps not enough that it would be possible to move the lot as a whole.

I’m considering setting aside a handful of items – probably the complete run of the Evergreen Review and about a dozen other books, so not a huge number relative to the total. Then I could try to sell the rest on eBay. Shipping something like this would obviously be an ungodly hassle, but insisting on local pick up seems like a sure way not to move this. Am I missing an easier way? I’d rather sell them sooner than wait to get top dollar, but again, I could use the money and it’s not urgent so options that would involve me getting rid of the collection for peanuts would be suboptimal. Would it be better to break it into smaller lots? I could do it topically, or sell the various series separately, for instance.
posted by vathek to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
They like donations, but they're not idiots. Tell them you're selling and that out of loyalty want to give them right of first refusal. Come up with a number, or several numbers. The worst they can do is say no. I know a guy who collects odd paper and he does this all the time.

Failing that, pitch used book stores, near and far. Some are more catholic than others, and depending on what the subject matter is and their clientele, they maybe more or less interested in what you have. Perhaps email subject matter experts in the field in question directly? If not for them, then for people they know?

Failing that, maybe you could donate and work the tax write off angle.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:48 PM on July 27, 2015

Former academic librarian here... I don't think cold-calling is *tacky* but I don't know that it's going to do you much good.

With the librarian at your own institution, you should go actually talk to the person if at all possible. No library I've worked at would pay money for a lot of books that they didn't choose, but I suppose it's not impossible. At the libraries I've worked at a large percentage of donated books end up on the book sale shelf.

A good place to approach would be a library at an institution that has recently begun offering a program in the subject of your collection, because they will be morivated to build a broad and deep collection quickly.

You will almost definitely get more money for the books if you sell them individually or in small lots. But of course it will be much more work.
posted by mskyle at 6:04 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm in the process of shilling my major book collection (a lot of academic press and otherwise unusual books on unusual topics). Thus far, I've been arranging appointments with local used bookstores. Tell them what you're looking for, but keep in mind that if you're selling to a bookstore, they have to take into consideration all of their other overhead costs (rent, employee dollars spent on processing and selling the books, etc) before they even get to their profit. So, you aren't going to get "used bookstore" retail prices for these books - you're going to get about half that, maybe.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:07 PM on July 27, 2015

If you go the secondhand route, some of the bigger stores, like Powell's, will buy your books and pay you the price of shipping (they might be interested in the Groves, at least). I'd also check with any local secondhand dealers specifically catering to the academic crowd, as they're more likely to be interested in a collection like this. (That being said, as nightrecordings notes, they're also going to give you less $.)
posted by thomas j wise at 6:10 PM on July 27, 2015

I don't think it would be *too* tacky to send a brief email to the collections person at your institution saying "hey, I'm a student here in the D department, and I've got a really good collection of books in field X (including for example A, B, and C, along with many other works you don't already have), but unfortunately I'm not really in a position to simply give them away. Is it possible your library would be interested in purchasing such a collection (or part of it), and if not, do you have any recommendations as to how I should deal with it? Thanks for your time etc." Bring up questions of price only in the case of a positive response.
Even in the case of a donation, a library would need to check the collection against what they already have and make a decision about whether they want to devote extra space (space = money) to works in that field. So you're talking about work + a policy decision (+ more work to catalog and process the books if the decision is yes) in any case. If you're right that it *would* be a good collection for your institution, I suspect an extra $1000 dollars would not be a deal-breaker for them. If not, librarians live to serve, and you might get some good suggestions beyond what you get from this thread. (You might also do better by going there in person, as suggested above; I think *calling* is kind of a bad idea.)
posted by uosuaq at 6:13 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

My librarian SO agrees 100% with mskyle above.
posted by 8603 at 6:51 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I (a professional junk dealer who cut her teeth in used books a quarter century ago) am confused about the part where the first collection involves books so rare that it would be difficult to put together a similar collection, but, the books are 'worth only a few dollars individually...' If the books are rare yet out there, and cheap to boot, why can't I assemble a similar collection in a week or two...?

Books are overwhelmingly simply not worth very much money as books. The used book racket is only rarely about having pricy rare title XYZ in good condition. More often, old books are close to valueless as is unless you are a used book dealer. Like, if you see a book that sold for $5 on eBay and is for sale for $10 on, the book is not, say, worth about $7.50. The worth is pretty close to zilch unless you take the trouble to list it for sale in a place where I can quickly find it, assess the condition, and, in a few clicks, make it land in my PO box without fuss; the bulk of the value lies in the labour, not the product.

I think 10% (or less!) is a more realistic expectation of what one could hope for of the retail price when selling to a book dealer. If used bookstores were paying used book sellers off the street 50% of retail I would be a very rich bibliophile. Important to know: it is really unlikely that any one place will want 100% of what you are offering, unless you make taking the whole bundle a great deal and all but pay the buyer to take the undesirables off your hands.

Grove Press is great but what you have is a collection that is of value to you because you enjoyed collecting it. Some of the volumes will be modestly valuable; some will be the sort of thing a streamlined on-line seller parts with for 0.01c in order to make a few coins on the shipping. It being together in a collection does nothing to the value. People who enjoy collecting the works of a particular publisher (for me, it's Harlin Quist) generally love collecting, and the thrill of the hunt, and the careful personal curating, and so on.

I suspect you will either need to take what you can get from your local used book dealer (often they give a better deal in credit than in cash; good if you're going to keep buying books), or spend some time re-making yourself into a temporary on-line bookseller.
posted by kmennie at 8:33 PM on July 27, 2015 [12 favorites]

To expand on what I was saying earlier, and to hopefully make librarians sound less like book-hating ogres, kmennie's explanation of the labor cost of a used book applies to libraries too - that's why most libraries don't catalog and shelve a lot of donated books and won't buy books just because someone offers them. 400 books at a minimum of 5-10 minutes of processing and cataloging time a piece is a full work week of moderately skilled work. Then you have to find some place to put them - as you know, 400 books is something like 25 feet of shelf space if each book is around 3/4 of an inch thick. The $1000 that you want them to pay you for the books is actually a very small part of the cost of the books to the library.

To maximize your chances of a library accepting your books (even as a donation), make sure you have a list (preferably sortable, at least a spreadsheet or something) of the books, authors, and ISBNs, and if there's any kind of official/well-respected bibliography of "core books" in this subject area you could show how these books correspond to that list (like, an extra column with a star if they're on the "Big List of Foo Books"). I still think your chance of finding a library to take the books is low, but then if you decide to sell them individually instead you'd at least have that information handy.
posted by mskyle at 6:22 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am not a special collections librarian but I am a collections librarian at an academic institution and myskle is so very right about the list part. I'm not sure that libraries are going to be the way to go for you but if you want to try this approach first I actually think that you'd have better luck with libraries that have existing collections in the area--to me it seems much more likely to that they would be interested in getting a number of the titles that they don't already have than that a library without a collection in this area would suddenly want 400 titles in this area.
posted by pie_seven at 7:16 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

In your shoes, my first step would be to check the website for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. This is the trade association, not an ad hoc consortium of mom & pop stores, which is what ABEBooks is. Members of the ABAA are held to high professional & ethical standards.

Then I would search the members of ABAA to find (a) someone near me, and (b) someone who specializes in the books I own. I would hope to find one member who fits both criteria.

As a collector and not a dealer, I should tell you that I've watched dealer friends assist libraries in their review of collections on offer to them, and I would recommend that you keep your expectations low.

As a collector, the single most important thing is that we collect books that we love. Books aren't as valuable as we think they should be. I once watched/helped a dealer friend review a very large collection of first editions of mystery/detective novels that were in pristine condition. And not a single one was the first book (or even a second book) of the writer -- those are hard to find and you have to really be on top of your genre to know when a new writer is coming up. The collection was more or less worth a dollar a book (less than transport).

Also speaking as a collector, I can't tell exactly from your picture but it doesn't look like your Grove Press books are pristine. Paperback originals are tough ones because spines crack so easily and they can get roughed up and bruised. But in order for those books to be worth a lot, they would need to be first printings, pristine, and my best guess is that if the collection isn't complete, your value will drop steeply.

So, you might not end up selling to or with the dealer(s) you find on ABAA, but you are very likely to be able to get a good informal appraisal that will give you a ballpark idea of their worth and with respect to the academic collection, you may be able to find a dealer who regularly works with one or more libraries that collect your subject.
posted by janey47 at 10:41 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Where are you located? I have a very good friend who is a rare book dealer and has extensive contacts with librarians around the country. You could give him a call, tell him what you have, and he could tell you if it was in his wheel house or not. He would probably only want to work with you if you were in the United States. He is a member in good standing of the aforementioned ABAA. My email is in my MeFi profile if you would like his contact info.
posted by trbrts at 2:10 PM on July 28, 2015

Also to add to what I said above, so as not to sound like a hater, I made about $1500 selling a couple hundred books (academic presses, humanities) on Amazon and eBay. Everything that went for $5 or above on Amazon as of the day I searched, I listed, and I estimate my take came to about $10-$15 per hour of labor. It was definitely worth it for me at the time. These were quality books, too, let me add. I didn't take time to make the very best listing (in previous efforts I had been like a cataloger going for a great record); I just threw it up there.

I still had to give away a couple hundred more books to anyone who could come and take them.

The one caveat is that, in addition to librarian SO above, my parents are estate liquidators, so I essentially grew up in this business. You might not do as well...BUT it's not rocket science and you can learn. Good luck!
posted by 8603 at 4:53 PM on July 28, 2015

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