Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What is Rare? What is Uncommon?

In viewing online listings, I see these two words quite a bit in descriptions of books. Usually, I see such words in the middle of 20+ others listings for the same book. What are they thinking?

There are actually more or less standard definitions of rare and uncommon in the book trade. ABC FOR BOOK COLLECTORS by John Carter & Nicolas Barker (now available in its 8th ed. as a downloadable file) lists several kinds of scarcity, and I encourage you to look them all over. They make a great deal of sense, but don't go as far as I feel we need to into other levels of scarcity.

However, for our purposes, there are 4 levels: Rare, Scarce, Uncommon, and common, and I am primarily referring to books post 1850.

Let's deal with the biggie first.

A lot of booksellers seem to call a book "rare" if they have not seen it before, or often. This is far too limited a view, esp. if the book is going to be listed online with other copies, or more knowledgeable viewers will be seeing the description. Rare should be an item no one sees very often, and ABC FOR BOOK COLLECTORS discusses why that might be better than I. But a book is not rare is there are several copies for sale at any given time - all the time. A rare book is one you see every couple or more years. It may hang around a bit if few are interested in it, it is obscure, or if the bookseller is asking too dear a price, but it still is rare.

Scarce books are those that show up in the marketplace regularly, but never in quantity, i.e. less than 5, across ALL the book venues. Once more than a handful are on the market, it seems to me that supply is starting to match or surpass demand - at least at the prices offered. I often do not call a book scarce unless I have a better understanding of its availability as well - like checking to see if the book is still in print, or how many have been sold in the last few years.

Uncommon books are those that can be easily found, but in small quantities, less than 10 total copies, rarely more than that. These are books that were probably not printed in any great quantity, but that have a soft enough market that copies are usually available. Sometimes they are cheap, sometimes expensive, but if you want one you can find it. I view uncommon books are those whose supply has best matched demand.

Common books are those that you can always get, generally for a lower price, and in decent condition. These can range in quantity from 15 to 300. They make up about 90% of the market. To give you an idea or proportion, if ABE has 110 million books, then 99 million of them are the more common sort.

Even though expensive, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in first edition, first state, is a scarce to uncommon book depending on binding and condition. I don't think think of it as rare. It is at auction regularly. I can think of a dozen other books, less well known, far cheaper, and far more rare. Most booksellers with time in the business and a decent memory could make their own list.

The best advice beyond the above is to look closer at the book. Don't get in a rush to call something rare or scarce just because you haven't seen it before. Do your homework. Look to see how many copies are online, and see if you can figure out how long they have been there. Look at the records of booksellers, and see if they are calling it rare, and why. When in doubt, don't call it rare unless you have a very good reason for doing so. If people are interested, they will find the book, and buy it, without adding vague or excited adjectives to its description.



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