What We Talk About When We Talk About Pricing (Books)

We’ve noticed that folks may be wondering how we price our used books. So here’s a rough and dirty guide to what consumes a lot of our time at Bleak House Books.

First, it is important to remember that prices for commodities are almost always arbitrary. That’s true for cars, vegetables, houses and even books (new or used). There is no all powerful pricing authority that dictates what one can charge for say a 2010 orange Honda Civic or a 1949 first edition of George Orwell’s 1984, and even if there was the prices set by such an outfit would themselves be arbitrary.

The general rule of thumb is that one charges what the market will bear, and used book shops like ours are no exception.

There are important caveats to that rule, however. The most important being that the prices we assign to our used books are ones we think are fair and reasonable given the current marketplace.

That means that when we price a used book we almost always look to see what a book of the same edition is fetching on the open market. Our go-to source for that is Abebooks.com, which is a robust, respected online marketplace for used books made up entirely of independent sellers from all over the world. We won’t do that for a 2012 mass market paperback edition of The Hobbit, for which we are well equipped to price without reference to the market. But we estimate that around 70 to 80 percent of the books we sell are priced using the above method.

But looking at similar books on the open market is just the beginning. Not every book one sees listed online provides an appropriate price comparison to the book we are trying to price. When someone runs a search on Abebooks.com for a certain book the search engine will always bring up the least expensive listings of the book first. These listings usually do not have actual images of the books featured in them or descriptions of the book’s actual condition. Some might be ex-library copies or have heavy annotations in the text box. But there’s no way of knowing. Hence the attractive price tag.

What happens next is probably the most time consuming but also the most important part of the pricing process – finding the online book listing, or listings, we believe provide the best guide for what we should charge for our copy. It helps if these listings have images of the books taken by the seller but that’s not always necessary. Having a true, individualized account — not some copy-and-paste version one sees with the cheaper listings — of the book’s condition is just as good, and usually more important than having an actual image. Of course this means we need to have a handle on the condition of the book we want to price and sell which we always do, as reflected on our own online listings. It then becomes a game of match where we pick the book listing or listings which inspire our confidence and also come closest to being a mirror image of our book.

After that the last step is to take into account the book’s unique features, if any. A book that’s signed by its author or whose cover is drawn by a famous artist might have its price adjusted to reflect that. Books we’ve bought and had shipped here from, say, the U.S., might require a higher price tag to take into account our added costs, or sometimes we simply eat those costs as the price of doing business as a used book store in Hong Kong. The point is that there are a host of outside influences we take into account when pricing a book even after we have a rough idea of what it might go for online.

Our hope at the end of this whole process is to arrive at a price that will inspire confidence and trust in Bleak House Books as an independent seller of second-hand books. And if folks ever feel like we are not living up to that promise please do tell us. We are usually open to comments and critiques – it will depend on the day of the week and what mood folks here are in. But hey at least you got your two-cents in!

The Squeeze

George Orwell once described the independent bookstore business as “a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” [If you read the rest of what he wrote about working in a bookshop (Bookshop Memories 1936) you’ll find that that was about anything good he had to say about the experience; in fact his disliked the work so much that he said it caused him to “los[e] [his] love of books”.]

He was right in part. If by vulgarized he meant commercialized then yes there is a limit to how much an independent bookstore can be beholden to the corporate behemoths that have come to dominate much of the publishing and book retail industries. Indie bookstores are best when they strike off on their own path and become a part of the community in which they operate rather than becoming another faceless chain retail entity. But as we all know too well indie bookshops have fallen victim to “the squeeze” in other ways; by simply dying off and never coming back. Hong Kong is no exception.

Our hope here at Bleak House Books is to buck that trend and to show folks that an indie bookstore can eke out an existence even as “the squeeze” is still with us; indeed, infinitely more so than that which existed in Orwell’s time.

So here’s to used books, new friends and humble beginnings!

— Albert Wan