Buying books Part 4: Value

Discussion in 'Horological Books' started by Richard Watkins, May 16, 2009.

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  1. Richard Watkins

    Richard Watkins Registered User
    NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    Prices of books are based on three aspects: age, rarity and condition. Or so one would hope. But some booksellers introduce a fourth factor: optimism. That is, they offer books at often bizarrely high prices which I can only assume are attempts to see if there are any gullible fish waiting to bite.

    Unfortunately the most important fact is never considered. That is, book prices never take into account the value of the contents. This is not surprising, because I very much doubt if book sellers ever read any of the books they have for sale, and so they have no idea of the worth or otherwise of the text.

    A good example is Booth “New and complete clock and watchmakers’ manual”, which you can buy at present, choosing between 7 different copies:

    $250 (1889, “a wonderful antique watchmaker’s book”); $285 (1877); $375 (1863, “her translations from the French of The Marble-Worker"s Manual (1856) and the New and Complete Clock and Watch-Makers" Manual (1860) were long recognized as valuable works of reference in their respective fields”); $392 (1877); $400 (1860, 1st edition); $500 (1860, 1st edition); or $518 (1867. This copy is described as “The book was not in good order, but has been very carefully restored, so that it can continue to be used!” It is impossible to judge its condition from such an ambiguous statement.).

    Unfortunately, in contrast to the booksellers’ flowery prose, the contents is best described as mediocre and my opinion of it can be summarised as: “When it was first published its contents were not new, in no way complete and of little use to watchmakers. And Booth’s suggestion that the ‘design has been to furnish our artisans a comprehensive treatise on watchmaking ... without being confined to an elaborate description of a single speciality’ borders on farcical”. Its a lot of money to pay for something with little educational value.

    Price seems to have nothing to do with quality. Weiss “Watch-making in England 1760-1820” is an excellent book and is available for between $39 and $71. In contrast Cologni “Jaeger-LeCoultre, the story of the grande maison”, admittedly a larger and more colourful book, will cost you at least $115, but my opinion of it is: “I got about half way through this book and lost interest. Its purpose is to give owners of Jaeger-LeCoultre watches a warm glow of satisfaction”. (This book is another Amazon example. There are 10 copies for sale between $115 and $188 and then 3 Amazon listings for $225, $350 and $617. (There is also an Amazon copy at $120, but I expect this would be another “sorry, not in stock” case.)

    The real problem faced by the book buyer is that he or she usually knows nothing about the contents of the desired book and booksellers provide no help. So we have to buy books blind and hope that when we get them we find they are useful and interesting. Unfortunately we are frequently disappointed. This is not surprising. In reality there are very few excellent books (and very few really bad ones). Most books are average, varying between “fair” and “very good”. Very good is OK, but fair books are just that, barely worth the trouble of reading them.

    Even book reviews are not as helpful as I think they should be. Many reviews are non-commital, stating facts about contents but not saying much, if anything, about quality. They definitely help, but often not enough.

    Which is why I must push my bibliography, available free from my web site www.watkinsr.id.au. Only a fraction of the books listed have been read and reviewed, but those that I have read I have tried to provide with useful descriptions and sensible assessments of quality. Of course, they are my opinion and others may disagree, but at least they provide some useful guidance before money is committed. (A second, expanded edition is in preparation.)
     
  2. Jon Hanson

    Jon Hanson Registered User
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    Aug 24, 2000
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    Folks need to understand why there is such a variance of values placed on horological books by various booksellers. A few are:

    1 ignorace

    2 condition

    3 exchange rates

    4 interests and demand (some countries value books much higher)

    5 non specialists book sellers

    6 not understanding demand, current sales prices, or actual rarity

    7 and lastly, the "sucker market" generated by greed, ignorance, overhead and utter stupidity

    Part of the fun of collecting books, like anything else, is the hunt. Rare and useful books show up in the darnest places. However, specialized books usually are found among collectons. Good or advanced collections are usually accompanied by books or a library.
     
  3. Jon Hanson

    Jon Hanson Registered User
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    "Prices of books are based on three aspects: age, rarity and condition."

    This is not necesarily true--DEMAND is a big factor!
     
  4. Richard Watkins

    Richard Watkins Registered User
    NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    I agree demand is important, but I suspect there is quite a strong irrational/emotional factor. There are two nice examples from the recent auction in Paris:

    First Harrison "A description concerning such mechanism ..." sold for about US$10,180. This is not surprising because it one of extremely few copies still at large (not in a public collection). However this corresponds to $94.25 per page (108 pages) which is staggering. Also, from other books it is clear that the writing is unintelligible; the opening sentence extends over 25 pages!! and abruptly ends. And anything important in it (as far as I know just a single sentence) has been published elsewhere. Clearly the bidders (there must have been at least 2) suffered from irrational lust. (As did I but my bid was significantly lower.)

    Second, House of Commons "Report of the select committee ... " on the petition of Thomas Mudge (1793). Again there must have been at least 2 bidders to push the price up to about US$7,775. Now I can understand irrational desire for Harrison, but this is simply ridiculous. Having read it, my copy cost US$395) it is very interesting but of little significance and is unimportant compared with Mudge "Description of plates ..." which only made about US$4,240. I presume the bidders did not realise that the report is a free download (see my Wiki on Google Books) and so is even cheaper than getting the reprint of "Description with plates..." which will cost you US$18. I must admit I am a bit frustrated because I cannot contact the under bidder who missed out; I would be happy to pass on my copy for such a profit!

    In contrast, many "ordinary" books at this auction sold cheaply. It seems most bidders were only interested in the rare.
     
  5. Jon Hanson

    Jon Hanson Registered User
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    Always true in collecting anything--THE QUEST FOR THE RARE AND THE BEST!

    Why not place your copy in a future auction?
     
  6. Jeff Salmon

    Jeff Salmon Registered User
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    The thing I find so weird about this book pricing is that I would think that booksellers would check the competition on the internet and try and price their book competitively. I have also seen books that are currently in print and available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble for the cover price, being sold for 2 to 5-6 times the cover price!!:eek:In trying to fix a reasonable price for some books that I am wanting to sell, I find that the book search sites provide such a wide variation in price for books in similar condition, that I get very frustrated. This pricing problem is in all types of books, not just clock books.
     

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