Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Valuing a rare detective novel

One of the joys of digital publishing is that it has made it possible for those of us who are fans of Golden Age detective fiction to acquire, at long last, copies of books that have long proved elusive. I've mentioned Bello and Faber Finds here in the past, and there are various other outfits who are doing sterling work in reviving old titles so that a new generation of readers can enjoy them.

But, at least for the present, there remain a great many obscure books that are still very hard to find. (Okay, some of them deserve their obscurity, but by no means all of them!) And there is something about having an original hard copy edition that is still very appealing to book lovers. But even if one can find a rare title, the question is whether one can afford it. And often, the answer is no.

There was a startling case on eBay recently when a little-known book by the prolific John Rhode, under his other pen-name, Miles Burton, was sold for in excess of £500. Yet this was a former library book that, from its description (by a totally honest bookseller from whom I've bought many much cheaper titles) was in pretty scruffy shape. The book was To Catch a Thief - no connection with the Cary Grant movie, though. Normally, you expect that a really expensive book will be accompanied by a dust jacket in good condition, or perhaps a really significant signature or inscription.

This did make me wonder if prices for rare Golden Age books are shooting up well ahead of inflation, driven by scarcity plus increasing interest and demand. When I talk to dealers like Jamie Sturgeon and Mark Sutcliffe, partly out of interest and partly as research for my portrayal of the world of Marc Amos in the in the Lake District Mysteries,the general theme is that it is harder to find old books in good condition than ever before. There is one rule that I've learned. If I come across an old book acceptably priced that I'm interested in, I tend to go for it. But the other day, at a book fair, I broke my own rule, and when I returned to the stall a few minutes later, the book I wanted had gone. A lesson learned!

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, it does seem as if books are indeed shooting up in price regardless of inflation. I would think this is because, in the case of Golden Age detective fiction, the subject is never going to go out of vogue and more and more people are becoming interested.
There is a particular black hole. At one end, the national/international specialist internet booksellers are charging ridiculous prices; at the other, it is harder and harder to get good books from charity shops, as it is clear old books are being weeded out before they even reach the shelves because they are not bright, modern and meet some strange retail impulse which seems to be dominating charity shops (esp national chains of charity shops)these days as they are trying to compete with proper shops for bright clean retailing. This may, of course, indicate why Oxfam profits are down; prices too high and poor to declining charitable image. Not long ago the manager of a charity shop confided that they were sending a lot of books to landfill before they even reached the shops. Makes your heart bleed. Book buying tip: sometimes the best books at the best price come from the untended charity bookstalls in supermarkets - they do not get cherry picked by staff beforehand, which makes ALL the difference. Or go to the very local charity shops, especially hospice or pet welfare shops, which encourage people to rummage - and find treasure! Liz Gilbey

Doug Greene said...

Someone said, "rare books are becoming scarce."

Anonymous said...

As someone once said on another blog, the only book I ever regretted was the one I didn't buy.

John said...

That online auction business has been going on for over ten years now, Martin. I used to sell on eBay and routinely managed to get unheard of prices for reading copies of hard to find books. John Rhode, Miles Burton, George Bellairs and Gladys Mitchell were among the most desired. One auction I will neer forget: I sold a beat up copy of MURDER OF A CHEMIST by Miles Burton for over $400. I was laughing when the final price showed up. It made no sense to me. But there are some truly rabid collectors out there who will jump at the chance to complete a collection or own a copy of a uncommon book as the title may never show up for sale again for years.

Anonymous said...

I have a fairly firm rule that I use when I buy mysteries: I never spend more than $40 for it. The reason is simple, I never got more than $40 worth of pleasure out of one. I notice further that when I check the prices on Amazon.com over time, any mystery that is priced in excess of $40 usually just sits there, sometimes for many years.

Further, the most noted Golden Age mysteries and from even earlier periods are readily available at cheap prices (Carr, Queen, Crofts, Van Dine, R. Austin Freeman, Christie, etc.). You can put together a very respectable library of Golden Age authors fairly cheaply if you are not picky about condition. The more obscure authors are nice to read, but you could spend many years just getting through the ones that are easy to get.

My opinion is that sellers who charge large figures for mysteries are really just killing the hobby. When collectors find that they have been priced out of the market, and cannot complete their collections, they just take up a less expensive hobby. There are always a few fanatics out there who will buy at any price, but I expect they are only a limited pool.

One thing I do notice about the really expensive sales is that a lot of them seem to be centered around John Rhode and his other pseudonym. He is the biggest gap in my collection, I only have about 25 of his books. The problem there is that I think Rhode maintained a fairly high level of quality over the decades, but the reprint rate was low. For reasons I cannot determine, the executor of his estate (Harold Ober & Associates? The Society of Authors?) just sits on it. I understand inquiries have been made by prospective publishers and they don't get anywhere. So until the estate decides they would like to make some money, the current situation with Rhode will continue.

Martin Edwards said...

Liz, these are fascinating observations, and very good tips. Thank you!

Martin Edwards said...

Doug and Anon, wise words indeed!

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting to hear that your own experience bears this out, John. What about books in better condition, are their values rising?

Martin Edwards said...

Anon, you're right, the Rhode situation is a complete puzzle. I feel sure he would rather that his books had a fresh life, I can't imagine many authors would feel otherwise.

John said...

The values are not really rising. I see a fairly even pricing market for crime fiction of all types in VG+/VG+ condition or better. I have seen a slight increase in pricing books that have been published between 1920 and 1940 for rather obvious reasons. But my observations are based only on legitmate dealers who know their business and, more importantly, know their books. I ignore all hobbyist internet sellers who basically have ruined the antiquarian book trade with their avariciously inflated prices, catalog descriptions they plagiarize via the cut & paste method from other online sellers, and their overall ignorance about the books they sell. And don't get me started on those digital inventory devices that amateurs use to decide whether or not a book is worthy of being resold at a profit.

Christopher Borum said...

A local shop had a copy of "Nine Times Nine", 1st edition, for $75. It was in a case, so I didn't take a close look, but it appeared to be in VG condition, at least. $75 seemed fair, but was a little steep, so I passed, but when I got home I remembered that I had a coupon good for 50% off any item. By then the shop was closed and the coupon was only good for that day.

I wish I'd been more attentive. I blame my 6 year old, who was running around looking for books about fairies and unicorns.

Dean James said...

Just FYI, in the US at least, an outfit called Black Curtain Press is doing POD reprints of the Miles Burton titles. They are showing up on ebay.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting, Dean, thanks for letting me know.

Dean James said...

A further note -- right now on ebay, there is an item listed for 19,000 pounds, an anthology entitled _Detection Medley_ edited by John Rhode with an introduction by A.A. Milne and featuring members of the Detection Club.