“Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 1

the red widow murders, carter DicksonI suspect that many of my readers are already well along the path to becoming book scouts. If you own a lot of books, as I do, you are almost certainly “in a relationship” with at least one bookseller and probably others. They probably don’t know you by name; you’re “that guy who reads John Dickson Carr” or “the lady who collects those old puzzle mysteries”. And so when you make your way to their bookstore, they may have set aside a copy of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience or The Red Widow Murders for you, if you’ve mentioned that that’s something you’ve been looking for. That’s book scouting — they’re scouting for you.

He Wouldn't Kill Patience, Carter DicksonHere’s a conversation you may have had at some point that takes you further down the path. The bookseller says, “Oh, by the way, I have a customer who wants a copy of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience,” and you say, “By golly, I happen to have a spare one that I rescued from a thrift shop.” Next time you come in, you bring in your battered copy; your bookseller thanks you and might make it very much worth your trouble — or perhaps not, depending upon the book and its associated economics.  (I’ll get into this below.) Perhaps you paid $2.50, she gives you $5, and sells it to her customer for $10.  Congratulations! You’ve just had your first taste of book scouting heroin LOL.

The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr
Your favourite bookseller will almost always have some kind of record of what her customers are looking for (the “want list”). Did you mention you wanted a copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey? She wrote it in the book, along with your contact information, and keeps it in her mind. When she sees one, she’ll pick it up for you. But there’s a group of people — and you can be one of them! — to whom she gives copies of the want list (minus the contact information). Five of her customers are looking for eight different John Dickson Carr titles; you and a couple of other book scouts are aware of those titles and know that if you can find an inexpensive copy, you can make a little money on the deal.

Sue Grafton, "A" is for AlibiWhy only a little money? That’s because of the economics of the situation. It’s far too complicated to get into deeply, but the rule of thumb is that if you buy a book for X, you have to sell it for 2X in order to make a living and keep the lights on in your store. So if I’m a book scout, I have to buy books very, very cheaply. If someone needs a reading copy of A is for Alibi, they’re capable of getting it via the internet for, say, $5 plus-or-minus postage. If a bookstore manager can phone her client and say, “I have a copy I’ll sell you for $4,” the client has saved a little money and has had a convenient transaction, so they’re likely to be back to that bookstore. But for the manager to sell it for $4, she has to have paid $2 or less for it — and that means that I have to have paid $1 to sell it to her for $2.

Rim of the Pit, Hake TalbotSometimes the manager will do you a favour. If you’re a good customer or just a nice person, and you really want a copy of Rim of the Pit, the manager may buy a copy from a book scout or another bookstore for $8 and sell it to you for — $8. That’s because truly what it’s all about is getting good books to good people, and occasionally you have to just break even. This is especially, these days, if the manager knows you can go to the Internet and pay $12 and have one within 48 hours, or whatever.

If you think about it, you’re never going to retire on the proceeds of being a book scout. In fact, many people who do it lose money on it but dabble in it anyway, just because they like to feel as if they’re part of the book business. It’s fun, it improves your eye, and it gives you a reason to go to a lot of different bookstores and feed your own addiction.

So to make a long story short — too late, as usual! — that’s why I was at the door of the local thrift shop this morning as it opened, for a “50 percent off” sale. It’s because I’ve been a book scout and I’ve bought from book scouts and I’ve encouraged people to become book scouts. The words “50 percent off” are to me like the starting gun is to an elderly race horse in the paddock; I toss my head and trot like a yearling to the gate as I’ve done a thousand times before.

One Coffee With, Margaret MaronThe best way to start is by having a chat with your favourite independent bookseller who sells used / vintage / antiquarian books, and ask that person what they think are books that are easy to find that they could sell, but haven’t got the time to go and get. That could be — perhaps something like Hardy Boys books, or all the Miss Seeton mysteries, or that one paperback of Margaret Maron that nobody could ever find.  (In fact One Coffee With used to earn me a quick five bucks whenever I found one — the market was inexhaustible. The book depicted is the first edition of her first book and sells for $20 today.) You make a list and you start hitting garage sales and charity shops and used bookstores — it’s occasionally possible to buy from one bookstore and sell to another, although the profit margins are slim.

But the more knowledge you bring, the better you’ll do. What I thought might interest people is an occasional series about what an experienced book scout buys — not for immediate sale, but because decades in the book business have taught me my mantra:

“Someone’s going to want that some day.”

And so this is what I bought this morning, and why.

Pendleton, Executioner #1War Against the Mafia, The Executioner #1, by Don Pendleton. First edition Pinnacle, 1969; mine is the 18th printing from 1978 and features a new introduction by the author. This originally sold for $1.50 — I think I paid about that in Canadian dollars this morning and would expect to get $3 for it or even more. A nice crisp copy.

I also picked up the following entries in that series, but from the Gold Eagle imprint (a sub-sub-subsidiary of Harlequin):

  • #58 Ambush on Blood River
  • #62 Day of Mourning
  • #65 Cambodia Clash

Don Pendleton, The Executioner #56, Ambush on Blood RiverThese were in beautiful condition so I decided to pick them up for the same $1.50, thinking I’ll get $2 or more for them. I won’t get to double my money for these higher numbers, probably, but I buy these whenever I see them in excellent condition, and I may get a benefit someday through having a box of them available, or through having just the one specific number that someone wants.

Who wants these? Well, middle-aged guys who are undemanding in their literary tastes but who like to read a lot. One crucial factor in my decision to pick these up was that they have a number on them. There’s something about numbered series of books … when you see someone come into your bookstore with a little handwritten notebook or bundle or lists, you may be about to meet someone who will pay extra for #58 if they don’t have it and you have it right at hand, and they will be happy to do so and recommend you to their fellow collectors.

Lee Goldberg, The Waking Nightmare, Diagnosis MurderThe Waking Nightmare, by Lee Goldberg: #4 in the Diagnosis: Murder series based on the 1990s TV show. This is a first edition (no hardcover) from Signet from 2005 with a photo of a smiling Dick Van Dyke on the cover. The copy I bought is absolutely mint, essentially unread and unopened, and I paid about $2 for it and fully expect to get $4 someday.

Why did I buy it? A combination of reasons. One important reason is the perfect condition; I don’t think I’ve ever lost money on such a crisp book. Another is that it’s a “TV tie-in” novel that was strong enough to be published four years after the end of the series; people wanted this book in 2005 and that makes them a little more likely to want it later. There are all kinds of collectors and aficionados of tie-in novels, added to which there are people who collect things that have to do with Dick Van Dyke.

Another good reason is — Lee Goldberg is an intelligent writer and a very creative guy; he’s just about king of the tie-ins, but he also does excellent work as a show runner and executive producer. I suspect there are people who collect his work in and of itself, regardless of whether it’s a tie-in or not.

John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins, Belarski coverIf you have experience and knowledge, you can be a book scout who buys books without having a specific customer for them. I wouldn’t call myself a collector any more; I’ve traded so many books over the years that for the right price you can always have everything and anything in my holdings, especially the gems. These days I buy books where my experience tells me that, for whatever reason, someone’s going to be collecting it in the future (but it won’t be me LOL).  If you truly believe that you are holding a well-written book and that people will continue to read it into the future, then buy it (condition and finance permitting), because “Someone’s going to want that some day.”

John Dickson Carr, Papa La-basThe author’s best book is generally best, but there are two books that will always hold their value — the best (or best-known) book by a good author and the worst (or most obscure) book by a great author. The best, because someone will always want a copy of The Three Coffins; and the worst, because someone will always want to know if Papa La-Bas is as bad as everyone says it is, and it’s been out of print since 1997 AFAIK. I paid $1.50 for a reading copy of Papa La-Bas this morning (Carroll & Graf paperback, second edition from 1997, decent condition) and I’m sure at least one of my readers is thinking, “Gee, I’ve heard about that crappy book for a long time, I wonder if I can find a copy?” Well, ABEbooks.com has 64 for sale, but the cheapest one is an ex-library copy for $3.65 with free shipping within the US. Perhaps in five years someone will pay $5 for mine.

John Sandford, Winter PreyI was delighted to find one book I picked up this morning; I paid $6 for a first edition hardcover of John Sandford’s fifth Lucas Davenport novel, Winter Prey from 1993, in excellent condition, for $5. It’s a particularly-well written entry in this long series and it actually is a decent puzzle mystery as well as being a rather hard-boiled cop novel. This was the novel for me that signalled that Sandford was capable of moving into the first rank of modern thriller writers and he did not disappoint me.

As my friends know, I buy Sandford first editions whenever I see them. I have a little bookcase where I keep a single copy of each of his books; I don’t have a full set of firsts yet, but I should soon. To give you some idea of how good an investment I think this is, this is at least the third copy of Winter Prey I own; some volumes in the series I may have as many as ten copies. I don’t say everyone should rush out and buy up Sandford firsts — I think you should identify a modern author whose work you love and support, and buy every single decent copy of that person’s work that you can find. Because “Someone’s going to want that some day.”

C. J. Cherryh, The Pride of ChanurWhat else did I buy?  A couple of mint/unopened Hard Case Crime novels, including a great Lawrence Block title, A Walk Among the Tombstones — the recent movie tie-in edition with Liam Neeson on the cover. A nice crisp copy of a Zebra reprint of Charlotte Armstrong’s Dream of Fair Woman. A couple of first paperback editions of C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels from DAW — DAW books have lots of collectors, Cherryh is an excellent writer, and I suspect the Chanur books are going to be the basis of a great video adaptation some day. And I regretfully passed up an early Pocket paperback edition of Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lazy Lover because it had loose pages, and it’s not worth buying books with that level of problems.

John Dunning, Booked to DieThe first mystery in John Dunning’s “Cliff Janeway” series, 1992’s Booked To Die, is an excellent mystery — it was a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity awards and won a couple of others — and the only one, to my knowledge, to accurately understand and portray the world of the book scout. So if you’re looking to understand how this little niche industry works, go read the sad tale of “Bobby the book scout” and you’ll understand quite a bit more about this little byway of the book industry than I could tell you in a short time. I hope to continue this kind of post into the future, for the benefit of my bibliomaniacal readership. Sure, collecting is fun. But making money doing something you love that involves getting good books into the hands of readers — that’s worth doing!!





20 thoughts on ““Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 1

  1. I’ve never seen a paper back copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, so yes, someone’s going to want that some day!

    I’ll admit that I love the cover art on Ambush at Blood River. That looks like just the sort of book I used to read when I was a kid.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      That edition was the only one I ever found of TMOSEG and it cost me a relatively huge amount to own it for a little while and then sell it on — 30 years ago. I see today on ABE you can have one for $15 including shipping within the US. Well, now there are more editions so this one got cheaper …

  2. JJ says:

    This raises all manner of questions that here is perhaps not the place to ask…a post on this very topic has been brewing, so I might put something up at my place in due course (though, well, don’t hold your breath).

    I have, however, realised that I am not classic fictioning correctly — I don’t have a pet bookseller who knows me and keeps an eye out for stuff I’d like…so do I have to hand in my badge and gun, Sarge?

    • I know I feel the same way too! I wanna have a pet bookseller! Can’t see Barter Books really fulfilling that role though, though you can sell books to them for in store credit. Maybe in the UK we tend to do more ebaying of books?

      • JJ says:

        Hang on, if you don’t have a pet bookseller, where do all your Coffee & Crime titles hail from? I thought you were doing all manner of shady deals to secure none but the most vintage, but apparently not. Bit of illicit burglary on the side, is it?

      • haha looks like I’ve been caught red handed lol
        No, I do have a preferred ebay seller to use, who no one else seems to use all that much, but they don’t seek books out for me in the way Noah describes. I just look through their listings to find the best GAD books whenever I need a top up. The answer I want to know is where this seller gets all their books from, given the prices he charges i.e. very reasonable.

      • As for the price of some of the book bundles that you see on eBay – I talked to a book seller not long ago about how he seeks out his mystery books. He described to me what “the other guys” do, referring to eBay sellers, which he seemed to disdain. Apparently there is a phone app where you can take a photo/video of the binding of a book and the app will immediately tell you how much the book will sell for. Buyers will visit estate sales and quickly scan the books and pluck out the ones that will sell – needing no actual knowledge of the book itself. The books that will fetch the best price get sold individually, while the rest of them get bundled up into the ‘lots’ of books that I admit to frequently buying.

      • Gosh that shatters a few illusions! But hey us GAD fans do seem to profit from it.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Do neither of you have a small independent used bookseller in your town? Just a hole in the wall with someone surrounded by books, barely making a living but having a good time? Perhaps this is more a North American phenomenon … readers, am I living in the past? This is the way it used to be in the 90s, and still is for me in a couple of respects (although I have to drive three hours to get to Brown’s in Vancouver, who is my current pet bookseller … )

      • haha nope. In my case I have a few charity shops, plus Waterstones and Cogitos, both sellers of new books, though the latter is an independent one. My nearest proper used book seller is nearly 2 hours drive way and which I usually get to visit once a year. Consequently I mostly have to rely on online purchases.

      • JJ says:

        I live in London, where there’s possibly sufficient population density for such a place, but rents are ridiculous and so they never last; lots of secondhand bookshops, sure, but only a handful of amazing ones that trade in my era and specialism. Man, who’d’ve thought that living in the country might have some positives to it…?!?!

      • haha surely you have some decent charity shops in London and places like Skoob books? I do get some good finds from time to time. Getting a Lockridge novel for 99p was probably one of my best.
        But yes if you ever make it up North you need to go to Barter Books in Alnwick.

    • You and Kate just shattered my illusions that each village/hamlet/vale in the UK has at least three book shops that specialize is GAD fiction. The proprietor would lurk in the shadows between moldy stacks of books, and only a true local would be blessed with access to the back room, stocked with calf-skin bound copies of The Death of Jezebel.

      In the US, the independent bookseller has disappeared along with the record store – replaced by big chains that are now being replaced by the internet. I can only think of a few legitimate bookshops in my state and they’re quite a distance away.

      Amusingly, the best mystery-oriented bookshop I’ve seem in recent years was at an airport in North Carolina. The owner said that not many people bring books into the airport to sell, so he obtained most of his stock by visiting estate sales. He mentioned that he has people who will keep an eye out for certain authors (Christie, Sayers, and more modern authors that sell), and I suppose these are the ‘book scouts’ that Noah described.

  3. prettysinister says:

    “Perhaps this is more a North American phenomenon … readers, am I living in the past?”

    You are indeed, Noah! It must be a Canadian phenomenon, not a North American one. Because in Chicago there are practically no used bookstores at all anymore. And they are fast disappearing from the suburbs as well. Back in the 1980s this city had over 50 used bookstores spread out over all neighborhoods. It’s down to little more than a dozen, maybe less. In the entire city! Not just one neighborhood. Of the seven bookstores I regularly visited during any given month there are only three left.

    About 80% of the books I resold came from book sales. These are mostly library fundraising sales, but there are also some other not-for-profit organizations that raise funds by selling donated books like the Red Cross in Indiana, branches of the AAUW in various Illinois suburbs, the Planned Parenthood sale in Iowa with over 100,000 books that takes place on the state fairgrounds, some YMCAs and even universities. I used to frequent these book sales three times a month on the weekends when I was selling regularly (I do it now only by email request) and I hated those people with the scanners. Several of the more popular book sales in Illinois banned the use of scanners when there were immensely popular (between 2005-2010) from their sales because it was so intrusive. They would commandeer a table and not let anyone near them while doing all their catalog scanning. Other fundraisers charged people extra money if they wanted to show up with a scanner. When I do go to these sales nowadays I rarely see people with scanners now. I thought it was a fad, but I guess not.

    Noah, have you ever visited the mystery bookstore in Victoria, BC? It’s called Chronicles of Crime. They have a store but also sell online and via their website. I just got two extremely hard to find Anthony Gilbert books from them at very cheap prices — $12 each (Canadian dollars), practically a steal.

    I suggest everyone over on the other side of the pond take a field trip to Hay-on-Wye to experience that paradise of used bookstores. I’m hoping the town is still devoted to books as they were ten years ago. It’s like travelling through a portal into another dimension. Really amazing finds for lovers of detective and crime fiction.

  4. […] recent post by Noah on the topic of book-scouting came hard upon the back of an experience of mine that really brought home the frequent futility of […]

  5. […] few weeks ago I published part 1 of this … let’s call it a “how-to”, as in How to Become a Book Scout. As I […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s