October 2009 | Fine Books Editors

What People Want

For the past few years, the editors of Fine Books have been working with AbeBooks to help them answer their "Ask the Experts" questions for their e-letter.  The original plan was to field questions from readers, pass them along to AbeBooks booksellers, and build readership.  But this plan started going south almost from the beginning.

First of all, pulling a few answerable questions from the hundreds asked proved to be a challenge.  I'll prove this point in just a minute when I reveal a few questions that we didn't answer.  But once we did have a good question, it became difficult to find a bookseller to answer those questions.  Some just didn't have the time.  We can appreciate that.  Others, however, really weren't qualified to answer some of the questions, which wasn't too much of a problem when the bookseller realized that and declined the question. The real problem, of course, came when they didn't realize they weren't qualified and answered the questions anyway.  It stands to reason that you can't know everything about everything, but some people (and I know this will be hard to believe) including booksellers believe they are experts on all subjects.  Well, it was fun to watch, at any rate.

But back to the questions.  I thought it might be interesting to read some of the questions that didn't get answered.  In many ways, these say much about the public understanding of rare books and even more about the public nature.  Punctuation, or lack thereof, is left "as is." Here are some samples:

Hi.  I have 11 books in fair condition.  I think there is one missing.  Could you please tell me if they are worth anything.

I am in possession of Julius Cesar book issued by Penguin which was signed in 2005and little notes have been written by Ralph Fiennes, John Shrapnel, Fiona Show and many others. I am keen to find out what would the value of such a book be on the open market?

Hi, I've recently purchased a copy of the said book. It is volume 2 of an unknown amount, and measures around 5.5X3.5 inches, so is a small book. The condition is utterly lovely; better, in fact, than some modern books i own! I bought it in a small bookshop, and upon getting home, decided to research it. However, doing this, i can find none on ABE, and no reference to that title in the ESTC. Is this unusual, and is there anywhere else i might look? Firstly, out of curiosity, but also, as I would rather like to gain the other volumes too!

About 20 years ago a local Reverend was closing out his library.  At that time I knew so little about antique books. I asked him to show me his oldest book. I purchased a diminutive Almanac- 1777 (2 1/2" x 1/3/8") Printed for the company of stationers. Did I make a good purchase?

I recently found a wonderful copy of Mark Twain's book entitled "Life on the Mississippi" It is red, 481 PPS. and also says it is the "Author's National Edition, Volume IX.  The copyright page says 1874 and 1875, by H. O. Houghton and Company and the second line says Copyright, 1883, 1899, 1903 by Samuel L. Clemens.  Under that it has a trademark by S. L. Clemens.

I have many old books from my father's Antique Store and was wondering if any of them are valuable.

And so on.

What you realize in all this is that most people who come upon a book aren't collectors and that they are motivated by value.  These aren't typically the folks who are courted by rare book booksellers.  It's also the reason why a television show like Antique Road Show, where experts assign values to items brought in by the unknowing, does so well.  People want to know values, and they love it when they've made a good find.

I actually find most of these questions charming.  Unfortunately, most are impossible to answer without seeing the item.  I really makes you wish that all those open used and rare bookshops hadn't closed their doors in recent years and gone online.  There's nothing quite like holding a book, especially if you want to know its worth.