See, here’s the thing of it: the pricing of books depends heavily on the law of supply and demand. Ideally, a Book Fair book should be something that nobody has and everyone wants. Given a choice between the two, however, a book nobody has is the more reliable.
Let’s take, for example, a forgotten novel of the 1920s: King Kong Meets Hello Kitty. Published in 1923, it sold about eight hundred copies and disappeared from the public view. Its author, Jesta Minnit, was so disappointed by this response that he went into selling used cars and never wrote anything again, except for a few jingles used on radio commercials for his car lot. This is a book almost nobody has. But since nobody wants it, it is a two dollar book.
Ah, but in 2017, some movie studio makes a blockbuster motion picture out of the novel. Having spent a hundred million making the picture, the producers see it make a billion dollars worldwide in the first three months of release. And now EVERYBODY wants the original novel. Since there are only about three hundred known copies left (because some copies were tossed into World War II scrap drives, and some were lost to mice, or used to prop windows open in the rainy season) the price of each copy shoots up about sixteen thousand percent.
This price will, however, drop, since the movie’s producers will rush a paperback edition into print in an attempt to make even more money off their blockbuster. Those people who want to read the book but don’t insist on the first edition will be happy with that, knocking a few bucks off the resale price of a good copy of the original in dust jacket. But you still probably have about a three thousand dollar book.
But next, let us imagine that Jesta Minnit’s granddaughter is going through the attic, and finds that her grandfather printed this cheap little paper volume of his used car jingles in 1948. Because her family got only a couple thousand dollars from the sale of the movie rights to Grandpa’s book, she starts to sell these little paperbacks online. Since almost nobody else has this for sale, she can ask a reasonably outrageous price, because fans would like a copy. However, this will probably never be turned into a motion picture, so it doesn’t carry quite the weight of the original book. But at least in her first sales, she ought to be able to come up with a thousand dollar pricetag and get a number of orders.
With all the attention paid this forgotten novel, some English major out writes a dissertation on the inner meaning of King Kong Meets Hello Kitty as seen by readers in the twentieth century and moviegoers in the twenty-first. It will be published in hardcover by the University of Southern Iowa Press, and promoted for sale in the academic community.
We have discussed this before. This kind of book is NOT wanted by everybody: it’s heavy on long words and footnotes and includes only a few stills from the movie. So is this another two dollar book? Oh, no. You see, not many copies were printed in the first place, since most university presses can’t afford massive printings of a scholarly title. But those people who are studying the sociological trends in modern movie production and reception NEED to buy this book. Their research will lack credibility if they haven’t read it. In fact, the ten thousand or so English majors working on THEIR dissertations all need this book, and only about four thousand copies were printed. So the publisher can get away with charging two hundred bucks apiece (and it doesn’t even HAVE a dust jacket.) A used book dealer, getting hold of a discarded review copy, may charge eighty dollars, in hopes that an English major will wander through the shop.
That’s how supply and demand make prices go up, pumpkin spice chutney: the key is whether there are fewer copies out there than there are people who want to buy it. Michael Crichton is still a much-collected author. His Jurassic Park, perhaps his best known book today, was a best seller: millions of copies were sold. An unsigned copy of the first edition, in almost perfect condition, seems to be running around $150. The paperback edition of his script for Westworld, which most people threw away when that summer was over, runs around $300 for a first printing (and there don’t seem to be any signed copies for sale out there.)
Of course, how long that will last depends on how long Westworld is a draw in its latest incarnation (if that’s the right word for a robot drama) and how many people think, “I used to have a copy of that: what did I do with it?” and start putting theirs out for sale. It’s a tricky business, this book selling, but no less predictable, I guess, than selling used cars.
(Oh, Jesta Minnit. If you didn’t guess, I, er, made up that example we were talking about. Don’t go looking for it in your attic and don’t try to sell me a copy. I’ll expect royalties for helping with the advertising.)