"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."
I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.
Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"
As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.
The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.
A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online, constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.
Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.
To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)