Sep 302012
 September 30, 2012  Posted by at 11:48 am  Add comments

The Precarious Balance: Scarcity and Demand for First Edition Picturebooks

First Edition Curious GeorgeAs most experienced book collectors and booksellers know, the scarcity of a book has a major impact on its value in the market. Scarcity in and of itself does not drive value, but instead value results from a combination of scarcity and demand. For books, the economics supply-versus-demand relationship is synonomous with book’s scarcity-versus-collectibility. Scarcity represents the supply of the first edition book, while collectibility represents the demand. The value of a book is determined by the relationship between scarcity and collectibility.

There are two different aspects of scarcity to be considered:

  1. The existence of all first edition copies, inclusive of private & public collections; and
  2. Only consider those first edition copies which are on the market.

While the latter is of the utmost concern to the book collector and the bookseller when pricing a book within the current market, the former must be considered, if only slightly, when making a collectible book purchase with investment concerns. Since most librarians currently do not know how to correctly identify first editions of contemporary American picturebooks, it is problematic to query libraries/institutions using Worldcat to understand the population statistics for such books. Still, keep this in mind as the hobby matures. Eventually, libraries will house first edition collections of Caldecott Medal books, Seuss books, and the like, so querying Worldcat while not be as futile.

When valuing the 23,000 books for Children’s Picturebook Price Guide, I used a 10-to-1 scale in the database to rate a book’s scarcity, with 10 being the most scarce, and 1 being the most common. The following table provides the definition for each of the scarcity ratings for books in the Top 100:

Scarcity Rating Editorial Description For First Edition American Picturebooks
10 A first edition copy is not usually on the market – surfaces less frequently than once per year. Demand for first edition copies far exceeds supply, therefore prospective buyers cannot be very selective about price or condition. Very few comparables so booksellers have leverage to set price.
9 A first edition copy is not usually on the market – surfaces once or twice per year. Demand for first edition copies far exceeds supply, therefore prospective buyers cannot be very selective about price, and only somewhat regarding condition. Just a few comparables, so booksellers have leverage to set price.
8 A few first edition copies are usually on the market. Prospective buyers can be selective about price and condition, even though demand for first editions exceeds supply. Still a “seller’s market”, however comparables are readily available, so booksellers have to be price/condition competitive.
7 Several first edition copies are usually on the market. Comparables are readily available, so booksellers are price/condition competitive. Nearly a healthy marketplace. Demand exceeds supply, therefore more prospective buyers than booksellers. Booksellers still have more market leverage than book buyers.
6 First edition copies are uncommon, although there are many copies usually on the market. Booksellers are price/condition competitive. A healthy marketplace, with a good balance of buyers and booksellers: an equilibrium between copies being bought by collectors (and taken off the market) and ‘new’ first editions being offered.
Note: This scarcity rating table is specific to first edition American picturebooks. Readers might apply this or a similar scarcity rating method to other genres. I don’t know other genres sufficiently to know whether this method applies, or not, therefore apply delicately, and at your own risk.

The Scarcity ratings I give to books is not based upon the results of a rudimentary book search of the current market place. Rather the Scarcity rating is based upon my twenty years of collecting experience:

  • Looking for books for years in all sorts of nook and crannies in book stores across the country
  • Searching through catalog upon catalog from numerous childrens book specialists
  • Oodles and gobs of daily, weekly, and monthly internet searches
  • Searching through auction upon auction of reputable auction house book sales.

We are early in the evolution of the picturebook collecting hobby, so the general public, the general bookseller, and the general book collector do not yet know of the substantial value of first edition American picturebooks. The substantial value is not generally accepted public knowledge. This helps to explain the relative dearth of first editions on the market. And this also explains why first edition Dr. Seuss books ARE available in relatively good numbers – general booksellers and general book collectors KNOW they have value, therefore have radar on for  ‘first edition Dr. Seuss’ when they are scouting for books.

As the hobby matures and more people become aware, forgotten things in attics will be remembered and found, surfacing first editions to the market. This dynamic will continue for years and years to come. Book collectors will enter the hobby; libraries and institutions will build collections; booksellers will become aware, and first edition picturebooks will be traded. In twenty years, we will have an improved  perspective on what is scarce and what is not. Until then, well …