Long time readers know I've been thinking about expanding my business from authoring and publishing into bookselling, with a sideline in reprints. Last night, I attended my first book auction, put on by New England Book Auctions at the Hotel Northampton in Northampton, MA. When I searched about the web this morning trying to find the next closest place with regular scheduled book auctions, I came up empty. Wouldn't it be funny if the most convivial book auction in the country turned out to be in the town I lived in for the last ten years, and about a half hour from my current residence!
My main interest in attending was to start the learning process of buying books for resale. The luck of the draw brought me to an uncatalogued list auction, where the books were laid out on four rows of folding tables in 300 lots, for inspection in the hours before the auction opened at 6:30 PM. The list descriptions of the books were very brief and not particularly informative, like "Nine Michigan", "1644 Hebrew" or "3 Law." Of course, I guess that's the meaning of uncatalogued. The atmosphere was very nice, the forty or so buyers in attendance appeared to be book professionals.
There were eight or nine people involved in working the auction, including some who I'd guess were family or friends of family of the auctioneer. I think two women were employed in taking down the winning bids, and another in cashing buyers out when they left. Two men worked as back-table support, bringing lots up to the table to the immediate right of the auctioneer, and three more women and a man (some might have been teenagers) worked in a continual line, holding up the lot or some part thereof to be bid on and delivering it to the buyer after the winning bid.
In order to bid, I had to register beforehand, and not having brought my reseller ID, I would have been stuck paying MA sales tax if I bought anything. There's a 10% premium on all bids, which I assume pays the expenses of the auction and hopefully makes it worth their while to put it on. I'd estimate the handle for the evening around $20,000, so the take for New England Book Auctions would have been $2,000, minus the cost of the ballroom and the expenses for all the auction employees. I'm sure they have plenty of overhead to cover back at the shop as well. Bids were opened at $10, unless there was a pre-auction bid on the part of somebody working for the auction house, and in several instances, I think the auctioneer was bidding on his own behalf.
If bidding on a lot of books or a single item reached $200, the bid increments were changed to $25. If bidding got to $500 (only happened once) the increment went to $50. The whole auction took less than two and a half hours for 300 lots, call it 130 minutes, so the average selling time for a lot was less than 30 seconds. The final price had little to do with the amount of time it took to sell an item, in fact, a joke was likely to slow things down more than aggressive bidding. Some buyers would keep a bid running by nodding "yes" or some other body language, others just hold their number up as long as they're willing to keep bidding the increment.
There were plenty of books from the 1700's and 1800's for sale, and a few from the 1600's. If I'd just wanted a book for the office to impress visitors with a "Here's a three hundred and something year old book I picked up at an auction..." I could have bought one for just over $100. And impressing visitors is probably all it would have been good for since I don't know anything about antiquarian books.
The obvious message that came through from this auction was that the buyers all knew what they were willing to pay for a lot, had written in down on their sheet, and shook their heads "No" if the bidding exceeded that number. Some of the buyers were obviously specialists in some area or another and wouldn't bid on the majority of lots, a few had broad enough operations or knowledge that they were always happy to throw in an opening bid of $10. Sometimes the opening bid picked up a lot if nobody else had seen the value in the books or been interested enough to check it out in the pre-auction inspection.
I never placed a bid, though I worried a little towards the end that if I did want to bid, the auctioneer might not notice me as I'd sunk into the wallpaper category. Since I don't know much about the middle range of the bookselling business, the only lots I was really interested in were gifts for friends, and the bids got out of my range too quickly. That said, I didn't feel that anybody really overpaid for anything, which is ideally how auctions work when professionals are involved and both sides get what they need. Only a single lot failed to draw an opening bid of $10, and the auctioneer quickly lumped it in with the next lot as a bonus.
As a publisher, it re-raised the idea in my mind of one day attending an intellectual rights auction or an auction that included the possibility of buying a defunct publisher's assets. It's not just a business opportunity, I'm somebody who's offended by waste, and to let a going business fail because owner runs out of steam or the heirs don't know what to do with it is just sad. I feel the same way about out-of-print books that still have an audience, which is a great match for print on demand technology. If anybody knows of a venue where intellectual property rights in books or publisher lists are auctioned off, please drop me a line.