August 23, 2007

Rare ACW Books and the Internet

Anyone who has been collecting rare or first edition books for more than a decade will fully understand the tremendous impact that the internet has had on used book prices in general. Old Civil War books have certainly not been immune to this Economics 101 certainty. To fully understand, a brief history lesson is in order.

Prior to the advent of the internet and search engines like ABE or, collectible books were bought and sold primarily by dealers in the secondary market who advertised their wares through paper catalogs and exhibited at book fairs. They maintained customer mailing lists and were often closely in tune to the wants of their customers. Many books exchanged hands without ever being listed for sale. As a book buyer looking for a particularly obscure or rare title, you had to hope that the several dealers whose mailing list you were on came up with a copy or if you got lucky, you might find it at a book fair. There was a tremendous sense of loyalty between booksellers and their clients. Even so, every now and then you might even stumble across a very desirable book in a secondhand shop or flea market whose owner clearly had no idea what was on his/her shelf. Of course, if you did not buy from these dealers after receiving four or five catalogs, you could be unceremoniously dropped from the mailing list. Let me stress that this business model is still in active use today.

The point here is that while the wanted titles were out there, they were hard to find. In other words, supply was relatively limited or seemed that way while demand was constant. This tended to inflate prices of collectible titles as well as those newer books that seemed to be rare or hard to come by.

Everything started to change in the early to mid 90’s with the advent of the internet book search sites such as those mentioned above, ABE in particular. These new sites served as a collective, common area marketplace for booksellers from which they could now upload hundreds, if not thousands of titles in an economical manner. Their wares were now advertised to possibly millions of potential customers around the world whereas before, only the several hundred on their mailing list. From the buyer’s perspective, it was if he had stumbled into the biggest bazaar ever seen. All of a sudden, that previously hidden supply was unlocked. In reality, of course, the books existed in a finite sense as they always had but were now available to buyers in quantities that technology had previously not allowed. In other words, perceived supply had increased dramatically, while demand remained at a reasonable constant.

The results were predictable. Prices dropped and in some cases plummeted for those titles whose supply was more than enough supply to meet demand. This was especially the case for newer books that were usually less than twenty years old. As one bookseller told me about six years ago, “The internet was a great place to sell that $15 book when it first started, but now I don’t even list books that are priced less than $50.” Why? Because the potential buyer for that cheap book will often find 100 copies or more for sale. All things being equal, it then became mostly a game of price. Books became a commodity where price was the only factor. Even buyers of books once deemed to be scarce could now readily choose from between five to ten copies of a particular title from sellers all over the word.

For example, a quick search for William T. Sherman’s 2-volume Memoirs in the first edition reveals 8 offerings, ranging in price from $40 for an average condition copy of just volume 1 to $7900 for a set signed by Sherman that also includes a 3-page letter from Sherman to Major Oswald Ernst dated November 29th, 1883. (see picture) If you’re looking for just a sturdy hardcover reprint, then there are over 400 copies to choose from.

Though not as common, the new internet-based sales model also revealed the flipside of the scenario just described. In cases where rare books were truly rare* as evidenced by a lack of supply, prices have skyrocketed. This has especially been the case for high spots of twentieth-century literature but I’m sure it also applies to ACW titles.

So I’d say the bottom line here is that overall, the internet has pushed used book values in general and ACW titles in particular significantly downward. This is good news if you are a collector, but it won’t be good news when it comes time to sell your beloved collection. For the average used bookseller however, it’s dismal news, as evidenced by the slow but steady erosion of used book stores open to the general public. But that’s a post for another day…

* - A rare book used to be defined as one where a copy cannot be found for sale, regardless of price, within a six-month timeframe.


Anonymous said...

Hello Paul

This was a great post. I've been collecting Civil War/American History for over 25 years. Prior to the internet sources becoming popular, I bought most of my CW titles from 4 dealers that knew my tastes and would call or mail me about books that weren't even on my list. It was a fun way to collect. Then when ABE started operating, a new chapter opened for me. I found many books I just never had any quotes on. I've found some great deals and missed on others. It is always nice to find the treasure you have been looking for. I don't collect many books that were printed prior to 1930's. However, there are still a few what I consider classic titles that I can't find. WILLIAM MAHONE - BLAKE, WHIG PLANTER OF OLD LOUISIANA - STEPHENSON, Sword was Their Passport – Warren

The chase is fun, but finding a treasure is better.

Don H.

Paul Taylor said...


I agree, especially when you get that treasure for a heck of a lot less than you were willing to pay!

Drew W. said...

For me, one of the biggest drawbacks of the ABE, Ebay, and Amazon marketplace world is so few sellers know how to (or even care to) properly pack a book for shipment. Damage of some degree en route is almost inevitable.


Anonymous said...

Fellow Collectors

Drew's comments hit a chord with me. It is frustrating ordering something that you have been trying to find for quite a while and have it damaged. What frustrates me worse is that there are many sellers on ABE and Ebay that advertise books as first editions and they really aren't. I collect a lot of recent Civil War material and always try to find true firsts. I'm always looking for inexpensive duplicates that I can have signed and give away as gifts or donations to CWRT. Identifying these can sometimes be a chore as consistency is non-existent in the publishing world. It is amazing how offended a seller can become when it comes to answering a few questions. Many don't seem to care that they may be advertising the books incorrectly. However, some seem to appreciate the information. The internet has brought so many new people into the fray that buyers just need to be a little cautious and need to know what they are looking for.

Don H

Paul Taylor said...

Internet bookselling is, to a large degree, the wild west of retailing. Ebay in particular. Anyone with a modem and shelf of books can now call themselves a bookseller, which is why it's imperative that you're buying from someone you know of or in the case of eBay, has a high feedback. When buying from ABE, I look for the ABAA designation.