Friday, August 19, 2011

Series Book Collecting and Prices

Back in June, I mentioned the problems that occurred online in the late 1990s between several collectors. I believe those conflicts started years before at least in part due to a disagreement over the pricing of series books.

This controversy goes back at least as far as 1980. One group of collectors believed that series books should never be sold for more than $10. Others felt that scarce titles should command high prices due to the great demand. Keep in mind that in the 1980s, books were much harder to find than now. Collectors had to travel to book stores, call dealers on the phone, or send requests by mail. Collecting was very different in those days.

The topic of price gouging was covered in the very first issue of the series book publication, The Mystery and Adventure Series Review, to which I will refer as MASR in this writing. In MASR #1 from 1980 in the column "Hunting for Hidden Books," Kent Winslow wrote, "For the person who collects items because of their personal interest or nostalgia value, paying high prices that pave the way for even higher prices, is in the long run disastrous. Eventually the real collectors for whom the items are meaningful or beautiful abandon their collecting hobby to the professional collectors—speculators who may not have the faintest interest in the items for their own sake, but who see them as abstract investments." Winslow went on to state that this had already happened with comic books, in which the Overstreet price guide had dictated future prices.

In MASR #24 from 1991, one reader complained about the last Ken Holt title being priced at $300 to $400. Another reader complained about a Rick Brant book selling for $950.

MASR #26 from 1993 is full of rants from various readers about "series book profiteers" in the letters column.

In MASR #28 from 1996, Fred Woodworth expressed a belief that certain dealers had hoarded away stacks of scarce titles, selling them one at a time at outrageous prices. He went on to warn readers never to pay high prices for books, because "you're not only being cheated, you're participating in a nasty abuse that will inevitably result in the destruction of series-book fandom, leaving in its place a sad spectacle of profit-driven non-reading speculators."

In the letters to the editor in MASR #28, one reader was annoyed that a dealer priced the first printing of Hardy Boys #1 in dust jacket at $2,000. This reader also reported other high prices, such as Tom Swift Jr. Cosmotron Express at $85 and a Rick Brant (title not identified) at $125. These prices were considered exorbitant.

MASR #29 from 1996 includes many complaints from various readers about "money-hungry dealers" and "profiteering swine." A reader lamented that he would never be able to read the last five Judy Bolton books or the last Ken Holt book. People felt that the end of collecting was near.

I've only mentioned a small sample of what these issues contain, in part because much of the content is too hostile and marked with inappropriate language to reprint here. Even though some collectors were a bit too upset about the situation, they had a genuine concern about the inability to afford certain titles. Each of us has been in that position with regards to one book or another.

People felt that collectors should avoid pricing scarce books at high prices in order to combat profiteering. For instance, let's say that a collector found the last Tom Swift, Jr., Galaxy Ghosts, which in 2011 sells for $150 and up. The feeling was that the collector should sell the book at a low price in order to keep the price down. Some people felt that the book should not be priced at more than $10, while others could see a collector pricing the book at $50 in order to partially share the good find but to still profit at the same time. All agreed that to price such a book at a couple hundred dollars would be greedy and unacceptable.

The readers were not only upset with the people who charged high prices, but also the people who were willing to pay high prices. Both parties were considered equally guilty.

Here are my thoughts. We cannot control the prices of scarce books. It is honorable for someone to sell scarce books at low prices, but the seller cannot control what the buyer does with the book. What happened to some of these collectors who wrote to MASR is that they sold scarce books at low prices and then were upset when the buyers marked the books up higher and resold them. This is what happens in a free market.

What strikes me the most from reading the letters in MASR is that collectors were certain that the hobby would be destroyed by profiteers. No one would ever be able to read the scarce books that they want to read so badly. Have prices continued to rise, never to go back down? No.

While even today, some books are out of reach for most people, many of the books that collectors felt were too high during the 1990s have come down considerably. Some collectors may have since passed on and were never able to purchase these books. However, the collectors who are still around have seen the prices fall dramatically.

We now have the internet, and this has made most prices go down. Back in the early 1990s, the last Judy Bolton book tended to sell for at least $300 to $500 due to the small supply. When eBay came around, the supply increased, although the demand was still far greater. In the late 1990s, Sand Castle sold on eBay for around $200 or so. Now, Sand Castle can sell for under $50 in an eBay auction. Some sellers continue to ask higher prices, but the book can be acquired for far less.

When 500 people want a book that perhaps comes up for sale only once or twice per year, the price will not stay low. The free market does not work that way. Some books remain expensive today, but some people are able to get bargains. Sometimes those people keep the books, and sometimes they resell them at a large profit. That has not changed.

Even today, collectors sometimes get angry when certain other collectors "hog all the books." If collectors who are not buying to resell are not willing to bid higher in eBay auctions, then that is exactly what will happen. In fact, if some collectors were not buying to resell, the prices would be even lower than they are now.

The tweed Nancy Drew books with jackets kept some of their value for a long time due to people buying them to resell. We have finally reached a point where the tweed Nancy Drew books in dust jacket have saturated the market to the point that the books appear to be worthless. Even buying to resell did not keep the value of the tweeds up high.

A certain saying states that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This saying applies to collecting series books. The same concerns that collectors had years ago still apply today. Some books can be found inexpensively, while others will be sold at high prices. Collectors wonder if they will ever be able to read that certain book. With the advent of electronic texts, many old books going into the public domain, and reprints, collectors have a much greater chance of getting to read the scarce books than they did years ago.


seriouslybookin said...

Many of your points are valid, but using MASR for anything approaching research is quite suspect. Winslow, Enright, Ivy, etc. are all *known* aliases of Woodworth.
About half of the letters to the editor are fake also - however, there are a number of legitimate ones.

Anonymous said...

Do you think these complaints came more from collectors concerned about owning first printings, or those concerned about being able to read the book? I can sympathize with the sentiment that those scarce books should have been shared at lower prices so readers would have a chance to obtain them, but I do agree that the value is whatever someone is willing to pay.

I'm glad that many of the older titles are now in the public domain or available online, even if print-on-demand books do take over some searches.

Jennifer White said...

but using MASR for anything approaching research is quite suspect

I do not consider this to be "research." The comments were used as an introduction to this controversial topic. Many of the statements expressed in MASR have also popped up online in the Yahoo! Groups. There are a number of collectors who believe that high prices are unfair.

Most people will never be able to read MASR, and I am certain that most readers of this blog find the content that I mentioned to be interesting, regardless of whether they agree or disagree. I consider the content worth mentioning, even if I don't agree with all of it.

I had to contribute the text that I quoted to Kent Winslow since that is the name given in MASR. The text could very well have been written by Fred Woodworth.

I am aware that Fred uses aliases to support his points, just like some people do to comment in this blog. The other editor, Iris, sounds just like Fred. However, if I were to quote Iris, I would have to use "her" name.

Some of the letter writers were collectors other than Fred Woodworth, so at least their comments have great validity. I recognized many of the names as people who have contributed to other series book publications. The person who complained about the Hardy Boys prices is a well-known collector. I did not want to mention any of those names since this is a very controversial topic.

Do you think these complaints came more from collectors concerned about owning first printings, or those concerned about being able to read the book?

Most of them came from people wanting to read the books. The person who was offended about the high Hardy Boys first printing prices was someone collecting first printings.

I waited six weeks to publish this blog post since I wanted to make sure I had my wording right. This is a volatile topic, and I knew that some people would get worked up about it.

I look forward to reading additional comments.

Note: This comment does not read as well as the first one I wrote and lost due to a browser problem.

stratomiker said...

The funny thing about MASR is that Fred also publishes an 'anarchy' zine called The Match in which he rants on and on about anarchy and anti-government topics in the same way he rants about series books in MASR. AND, he uses the same names and aliases in The Match that he uses in MASR - Iris, Kent, and the whole gang.

It's a real hoot to read Kent Winslow Hunting for Hidden Books articles and then read Kent Winslow ranting about the government and the need to take it down. The zines both look the same, same set-up, type, art work, etc. Fred is the country's foremost series book expert/anarchist!

You can find examples of his anarchy persona online simply by searching his name.

I was one of his favorite victims for years because I was a bookseller, but as much as he complained about price-gouging he was noted for his book-pirating (publishing unauthorized editions), which isn't exactly 'ethical' either.


Paula said...

Very interesting post! I didn't realize there was so much drama going on, LOL! I guess I'm a free-marketer - I want the prices to be low when I am buying and high when I am selling. ;)