Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Brian Cassidy runs a rare and antiquarian bookshop in Monterey, California. He will be familiar to readers of RealityStudio for his input on Early Photos and Collages by Burroughs, a Rare Burroughs Letter, and other articles in the Bibliographic Bunker.
These interviews on the economics of the rare book market stem from a recent blog of yours in which you mentioned that you have seen a rise in customers selling books recently. Do you believe this is directly related to the down economic market?
I think it is. Over the past two months, I’ve been offered about twice as much material as I normally do. Ironically, the more I’m offered, the pickier I generally have to be about what I’ll buy.
In a down market do you find that serious collectors sell their holdings, buy aggressively, or hold tight? Can a generalization be made on this or is it a case by case issue?
It’s hard to generalize. I do know that one client of mine is liquidating some of his collection to raise capital for a large upcoming purchase. His reasons for doing so, however, I don’t know. All things being equal, the book market is like any other. The down time is the time to hold and buy, not sell.
How about booksellers? Do they greatly increase their general stock in a down market or a strong market?
Well, you have to increase stock no matter what the market. A dealer lives or dies by his new acquisitions. But to give you an idea of how the market is affecting book price… I and another dealer recently bought a very nice collection of autographed material from a Nobel-Prize-winning author. My colleague and I went back and forth on what we should pay for the collection. We had a high and low range of possible offers, and we debated what to present to the seller in order to feel confident he would agree to an acquisition. On the one hand, we very much wanted the collection. On the other, the current market left us wary of paying too much and finding ourselves deep into material we’d have trouble moving. We settled on an offer (which was accepted) at the lower end of our range, but I can tell you a year or two ago we probably would have initially offered at least 20% more.
In my experience, I have found that more books are available in a strong economic market. The dot-com boom of 1998-2000 was incredible for me as a Burroughs collector. So much was available. Is this a false memory on my part? Is this remembered in the industry as a special time for Beat material?
Well, I think there are three things contributing to this impression. First, it wasn’t so much that the internet brought so many more books onto the market (although it did), as it just made them infinitely easier to find. Second, those early years of the internet provided some great buys as dealers had less access to pricing information than they do now. Couple all that with the fact that The Beats were really starting to emerge into their own critically during those years and I can see how it might have felt like a special time. The steals may be harder to find today, but there’s still a ton of good material out there. Indeed, I still think there are great opportunities.
How does the rare bookselling industry do in a recession? There is an argument that the used book business is recession-proof. But what about the rare book business? For instance, do more people buy rare books as a hedge against inflation? Do you see an increase in purchases of blue ribbon collectibles like Ulysses or The Sun Also Rises, i.e. books for which there will always be a demand and market?
Books have traditionally been considered recession-proof because a buyer could get more “bang for their buck” so to speak. In other words, they could spend $20 on a new book which would take many hours to read, or go to a movie which only lasted a couple. Plus, a book is a durable good that retains some value and is more lasting. So when one is watching the budget these can be more attractive qualities. That said sales seem softer to me for more common books than they did the same time last year.
As for rare books, the top of the market remains strong. The best books continue to sell well. But everyone I know is proceeding with caution.
Can rare books truly be considered an alternative asset to the stock market in a portfolio like art? Can Beat highspots like Howl, Naked Lunch or On the Road?
Yes and no. But mostly no. For the simple reason that books are not liquid like other assets. If you want to turn your books into cash, you basically have to either pay 20% or so to an auction and get (uncertain) auction values, or sell to a dealer and get wholesale. This means that your original purchase has to appreciate at least 50-100% before you can earn your original investment back. This is not true of more easily traded assets like stocks which can be liquidated more cheaply and more quickly.
Further complicating the equation are the fickle tastes of the marketplace. This year’s Joyce can be next year’s Galsworthy. In other words, the very foundations of judging value can change. This is less true in other assets, where methods of determining price (P/E ratios, for example) are much more established and transparent.
That said, I often look at auction results and think to myself “In ten years, that’s going to look like a great buy.”
What is the health and future of the William Burroughs market?
To me, Burroughs seems more and more relevant and prescient with each passing year. For better or worse, our world increasingly resembles Burroughs’. This means that readers and other artists and writers will continue to turn to him for inspiration and perspective. All of which bodes well for the Burroughs market.