Home > Oak Knoll Books > The Oak Knoll Repricing Saga

The Oak Knoll Repricing Saga

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Internet has had a dramatic effect on the prices and availability of antiquarian books. This is great news for the consumer but has required some serious thinking by all of us “old-timers” in the business (I started selling books about books in 1976).

What happens when you consistently sell David Randall’s Dukedom Large Enough for $45 for a number of years (fine in dust jacket) but then go on-line today and find it being sold for $18 by other booksellers?

Bob Fleck

This scenario was starting to happen often enough that I decided to sit down one night (November 2009) next to a shelf of my books and analyze how my prices compared to those of other dealers. This process was accompanied by a bottle of wine, of course, to ease my work. I took each book off the shelf and compared it to the search result for that book using Vialibri.net (the best of the out-of-print search engines, in my opinion). I made sure I was comparing “apples to apples” by eliminating POD (print on demand) copies and making sure that the edition and condition were as close as possible. My test case showed that my copy was infrequently the lowest priced copy on the web, more often higher in price than a comparable copy, and sometimes was lost in a vast number of $1 to $5 copies of the same book.

I have always made a point of making sure that I price my books fairly, as long-time customer relationships are very important to me. I want my customers to know that when they see a book that I list, they can feel confident that a search for that book in the inventory of other dealers will show that Oak Knoll knows their business and understands the principles of supply and demand. Because this is my specialty, throughout the years I have seen more copies of books about books than any other dealer, making me, in a way, the arbitrator of the prices. I know what books sell well consistently and what books don’t, and I have priced material accordingly.

However, my analysis showed me that I needed to lower my prices for the majority of our books. But what would my customers think? How would they react to seeing books that they had purchased from me over the last year or so listed at a lower (sometimes significantly) price? Would they understand the dynamics of the new Internet market?

My first plan was to have a series of sales of material in the $75 to $100 range. I started posting sales on the Internet that offered a 60% discount on the group of books chosen. The sales did well, as everyone likes a sale. However, when I really looked at what was selling and what wasn’t, I found that the arbitrary discount being offered was much too much in some cases, much too little in some cases, and about right in a few cases. Back to my shelves I went (with another bottle of wine), and I spent a few days doing a thorough analysis of the books. As much as I dreaded the conclusion, it was obvious that I had to do a complete physical inventory and price analysis OF EVERY SINGLE BOOK IN MY INVENTORY (then currently about 24,000). It was an ugly thought, as it would take a huge amount of time to complete the process.

Oak Knoll Books

Oak Knoll Books

We can now fast-forward 13 months to today, when the task is done! Every one of the books has been taken off the shelf, looked up using Vialibri.net, and had the price adjusted or re-affirmed. A side effect of this process of examining each book in the physical inventory was the dozens of interesting books we discovered that had become lost over the years. We also used the opportunity to make sure we took an image of the book for the website, as images give the customer additional confidence in the quality of the book.

What was the result?

14% went to $5. This section is the fastest selling section of the re-priced books

58% decreased in retail price with the average price decreasing by 51%

25% stayed the same

3% increased in retail price

We now have about 22,000 books for sale as many of the re-priced books have already sold. I’m confident that I can now announce to the world that shopping at Oak Knoll Books can be done with confidence in our darn good competitive prices.

Now go to our web site and see what I mean!


Best wishes

Bob Fleck

Ps I have not had one person email me about all the prices changes. I think the consumer understands the massive change in book-selling caused by the Internet.

  1. February 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Dear Bob,

    I appreciate what you did and understand why you did it, but I am sure, that the books you repriced now, will be underpriced very soon by, I really hardly doubt to say it, by our colleagues.

    The problem are the dynamics of the web,every given price will be tore down by somebody. The only thing we can do is to keep our guts and hold on to our prices as the cheap books of the non-professionals competitors will be sold and our book will wait for the next order, well described and with an added pic.

    Best we can do with really good books: catalogue them in printed catalogues and lists or exhibit them on fairs but don’t throw them into the web !

    The new order is: beware of the web, offer your books anywhere but not in the web, as your descriptions, even your pics will be copied and your prices will be torn down.

    Good times for people buying books, not only collectors but dealers, too. Let’s buy loads of books, they won’t be offered as originals in the future and PODs aren’t sexy !

    Good luck,

    Christoph (Heinrich Heine Antiquariat, Duesseldorf, Germany)

    • Bob
      February 16, 2011 at 8:47 am

      Dear Christoph
      Good comments all although I still think the web can be used to advantage.

      The one thing I didn’t mention was the number of books that I bought from the web while working on my repricing. If I thought I had a rare book and I found one (or two or sometimes three) copies on-line, I would buy the other copies and re-price them at a higher level.


  2. Gene Alloway
    February 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

    As one who also owns bookshop, albeit smaller, we noticed a bit of acceleration to price decay over the last year, in part I suspect because of the economy. I do think that many people who used to sell to booksellers are now listing their own books online, and a number have moved to doing this on a more business-like basis.

    Dan Gregory had an excellent talk at the 2008 ILAB conference (and available at the Between the Covers website) on the impact of technology on the future of booksellers, with pricing as an issue. I think he is largely correct in his assessments, notably that many booksellers let the internet sites sell for them, instead of driving sales to themselves.

    Driving sales (as Oak Knoll has with its repricing) to ourselves has helped us greatly in a year when the sales from the big sites declined and the economy weakened. We’ve had 2 years of increasing shop sales, and the same for our own website, which has become our #2 online selling venue.

    And there is more we can do – even if those things are daunting, as Mr. Fleck noted when he started his repricing. I think such effort to actually sell books for yourself is one of the hallmarks of a bookseller, rather than just a book supplier.

  3. February 16, 2011 at 7:57 am

    I read your thoughtful blog on this project and am curious as to over what span of years the original prices had been created.
    Basically I am curious to know how many of those books were priced during the INTERNET Year’s increased transparency. How many prices were set pre- INTERNET? 35 years of inventory is a long time.
    Knowing the high quality of your material I would be surprised if many of them had originally been priced in the last 8 years or so.
    It is my impression that price deterioration of better material is slowing. If I had to put a price level on that I would say $500 and up are stabilizing and $10,000 and up may be gaining overall.

    Sincerely yours,
    Poor Man’s Books

    • Bob
      February 16, 2011 at 9:04 am

      I think one of my problems over the last number of years was my reluctance to reduce the retail price of a book that I had sold over and over again at the higher price. Thus I might have gotten in the book over during the last few years but based the retail price on my prior price history rather than the new reality.

      I’m no longer doing that as every time I get a book in, I look it up.

      Better books are holding prices or increasing. Per my other recent post, I’m also buying copies of books that I think are under-priced when doing my vialibri search

  4. February 16, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Our assessment is very close in terms of the role of the internet in pricing. We also prefer Vialibri.com and also note when the same book is offered by the same dealer on several sites. Although sales in our open store have increased significantly in the past year, we recognize many of our uncommon items will never sell.

    We agree with Bob Fleck’s assessment that in reviewing inventory a small percentage should actually receive a price increase (many of our ABAA booksellers are right on in their prices; others prefer catalog prices of the distant past). While we have never had a formal discount sale either online or in the store, we always take a request for a lower price seriously (with us it is a matter of continued survival rather than insisting that we are the ultimate expert at the ultimate selling price.)

    There is one bookseller who often spends several thousand at a visit and then puts some nice general items in a stack and asks if I can do better on those–rest assured at that point the 20% is dropped on the remaining items. It is my experience that with those booksellers I know best we can often find a mediating price (not a drastic one) but one that makes sense.

    Richard Murian
    Alcuin Books

  5. Scott Fennessey
    February 16, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    I think the progressing demise of open shops has added to price pressure, because it has indeed turned book_sellers_ into book suppliers, as Gene points out. Without a shop, especially if one does not have the stock for fairs, you have little to no pricing power.

    I still have a shop, and so have some pricing power. I’ve been buying books from the net for several years in areas where I can push the price due to local demand (in Charlottesville that means Jefferson, Virginiana and Civil War). I’m careful and only buy them as needed, rather than buying up several at a shot, but In a matter of months I’ve doubled or tripled the price on nice copies of some books. I sell them out of the shop. Then I hold off and wait for some more to show up and drive the price back down.

    Relationships with smaller internet sellers can also help. They’d rather not catalog books under $5, and are delighted when I come in and start stacking things up.

    It’s easy for a shop to buy even in non-specialist areas. How many booksellers have groaned when seeing their Abrams art books online for $10? In a shop you can sell it for $40–so that’s where I price it–and make a note to buy one off the net when it sells.

    Shops provide demand for books. Without them, well….

    Scott Fennessey
    Blue Whale Books

  6. Gregory Murphy
    February 17, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    You know, I bought A Dukedom Large Enough from you! Now I’m afraid to look and see what I paid for it. But whatever I paid for it, I did enjoy reading it, so I’m not going to waste time regretting it.

    Prices are one thing, but I also appreciate the fact that you sometimes put evaluative comments in your book descriptions. I never would have picked up the biography of Rosenbach without your comment about how important that book was. And you were right. Of course, this technique can be over-used, if every book becomes fascinating and beautiful. But a good bookseller can steer customers in the right direction, either in person or over the web, and a poor bookseller and stranger can’t.

    • February 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm

      As a collector, rather than a dealer, the decrease in book prices over the last decade has been a boon. Many important works are now part of my collection that would have been out of reach previously. But just as physical bookstores vary significantly in quality, so do online evaluations. As Gregory mentions, have a well-written description can really help a customer have confidence in their purchase. This is especially true for books in the under $100 price range. When I’m looking at fifty options, all claiming to be in very good condition, I’m more than happy to pay a few dollars more to buy a copy that has been well-described.

  7. February 18, 2011 at 11:13 am

    As a tech guy that stumbled into bookselling I could have that task accomplished for you in less than a couple days! If people are still relying on anything “manual” these days you’re getting left behind.

    • Laura Williams
      February 18, 2011 at 11:21 am

      In this case, it couldn’t be done automatically, as it was important to compare the condition of our book with the condition of other books on the web to come up with a fair price. Also, we made a point to physically locate and examine each book so that we accomplished a physical inventory of our books at the same time. This was great, as we found dozens of books in the process that we didn’t know we had!

  8. Michael Daum
    February 21, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Your common sense solution is right on the money. I’ve been relatively inactive for the past few years due to health issues and my stock sat on shelves steadily decreasing in value. While I initially resisted selling books for half or more of their historical value, I’ve finally fallen in line and it’s been enormously helpful.
    Thanks for your thoughtful assessment!

  9. Steve Singer
    February 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    One thing not mentioned in your essay on repricing or in the discussion so far is the use of Amazon sales rankings. Even with years in the trade, a person can’t have a terribly good feel for how quickly out-of-field books should sell. The Amazon ranking functions as a rough logarithmic proxy. Within the past few months, I discovered a web site that discussed how to translate those rankings into expected sales frequency, but so far can’t find it again. John Gach’s rule of thumb was that a third of everything he listed could be expected to sell within a year, half within two years, and two-thirds within four years. For the rest of us, those numbers are “best case.” However the Amazon ranking does provide a guide, flawed as it might be. If anyone knows of something that works better, I’d love to hear it.

  10. March 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    This is interesting. Your article and the comments above suggest that in the future the majority of books will go down in value, and that’s without factoring in the huge quantity of books soon to flood the market thanks to library closures. As ebooks gain traction more and more paper books in private hands will also be released into the market. This is the most significant decade for books since the 1450s – and a hugely important decade for dealers and collectors as well. We here in England have started an organisation to promote and preserve paper books called the Campaign for Real Books – have a look here. http://www.campaignforrealbooks.net Keep up the good work, Jeremy

  11. Duns Graecus
    March 30, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    I appreciated the interesting and informative posting on the internet and book prices, and thought I would share some of my own views. As context: I am a lifelong buyer, particularly of scholarly, used, and specialist books in the lower to middle price ranges – I can’t afford collectables, and at any rate, my library is a working one. In other words, I’m probably fairly typical of the sort of buyer who uses sites like this one.

    My experience suggests that the internet has had a double effect on book prices. On the one hand, it is true that prices in general seem to be coming down – though it shouldn’t be forgotten that inflation generally is very low, which may play a role. On the other hand, it seems as if the internet has in many cases put a “floor” under prices for a given item. Very often, the prices of a not-too-uncommon book will be remarkably similar, as if the vendors had all looked at each other’s prices and decided NOT to undercut each other below a certain point.

    A welcome phenomenon I perceive is a lowering of the prices for what might be called “low-demand obligatory specialist books.” These are books which are of fundamental importance to a given narrow specialty: few people in general want them, but if you are a student or scholar in the field you MUST have them. Publishers of new editions of such books have been notorious for pricing them astronomically on the principle “when you’ve got them by the [harumphs], squeeze,” and it’s been clear that many book sellers have followed the same principle for used books of this sort, leaving the starving students who want them with their noses pressed longingly to the window. I’ve noticed that many such used books seem to have come down significantly in price, which I assume is the effect of them now being available through relatively numerous internet sources.

    Finally, a word about a tangentially related issue, the increasing prevalence of on line and print on demand (POD) editions. On line editions are a mixed blessing: yes it’s wonderful to be able to have copies of something like an eighteenth century book on the folklore of an English county for free, and such things are usually in readable form. On the other hand, the on line editions of some sorts of such books are of such poor quality that they are of limited or even no value. The text, particularly for non-Roman fonts (Greek, Hebrew…), is often difficult or impossible to read, and the photocopying (which I suspect is done in university libraries by undergraduates or worse) is often hilariously bad – thumbs, whole hands, light streaks or dark blotches, out of focus pages. . . To the extent that such on line books make their original copies less commonly acuired by libraries, they are a disaster for human knowledge.

    As for POD books, they are a plague upon the earth. Their quality, particularly for non-Roman fonts, is even worse than on line editions, and every user of on line book shops is familiar with the frustration of trying to weed out these horrors from search results, a task made more difficult by the fact that these POD publishers’ descriptions of their offerings are too often coy about what they really are. A few sellers are now indexing POD items so you can screen them out; this trend should be encouraged.

  12. Ralph
    April 4, 2011 at 11:26 am

    As collectors my wife and I we are sensitive to a combination of price, condition, and availability. The things we find Internet pricing most useful for are 1) assessing replacement value of equivalent copies books we own and 2) sorting out more common items to find the best combination of condition and price for purchase. Of course the less the seller says about a book, the less useful the pricing is. I’ve also noticed that sometimes when a photo of the book accompanies the description, we’ve had some “Oh Really?!” moments. These make us a bit cautious of buying on the web; but good descriptions can point us to particular dealers when we travel. On another point I would agree that regional demand is important in pricing, so the Internet can help collectors find material that’s important to them in places where it is not so important to the locals.

  13. Alastair
    April 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    The difficulty with pricing by looking for other copies on the internet is that all the prices you see are the copies that haven’t sold, often because they’re over-priced and have been sitting there for ages. There’s no record of the prices of books that sold, only those that didn’t sell. It always amazes me that many booksellers don’t reduce prices of books that haven’t sold, even after several years. I wish more booksellers would be as realistic as you seem to be. Look for instance at prices for ‘Transformation’ in the Tauchnitz edition. This is a relatively common book, particularly in the extra-illustrated reprint version in vellum, probably unlikely to sell for more than $50, yet look at the range of prices!

  14. July 5, 2011 at 7:30 am

    As relative newcomers to bookselling (although not to book collecting) Julia and I are irritated by some of the internet anomalies but willing to ‘go with the flow’ on common books, while holding out for prices on scarce ones (i.e. 3 or less items on each of the major sites). We also occasionally buy in drastically undervalued items. As my background is in Garden Centres, I focus strongly on ‘rate of stock turn’. Recently we sent 400 books unsold after 12 months to a specialist auction. Although we only netted about £1 each for the batch, we cleared shelf space, released a little cash and eliminated future handling costs on those books.

    To further clarify our position, we have no shop (been there, done that) but sell on-line and by bi-monthly catalogues. Our specialisation is Archaeology and related subjects and our average stock is about 10,000 items

  15. July 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Kudos to Alistair (April 22) who makes the most cogent comment of all.

  16. April 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    I try to keep my book prices current within a two year period, so I do a lot of repricing. (about 10000 children’s books, not mass market not series) The top end has always held or increased and there seems to be a floor on the bottom end. Prices of the middle range books fell drastically a few years ago but I do believe those new prices are leveling out. (I have just been looking at about 1000 this week). One important factor not mentioned here though is condition inflation. I adjust my estimate of comparable books based on what I know of the dealer or the listing. I suppose you at Oak Knoll adjust, too. I always hope buyers understand this!

  17. Rus Stolling
    September 16, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    If it gives you and any or all other booksellers any comfort:
    I do buy online. Yes I do compare prices. But I will always opt for a well described item over a lower priced one with a minimal or non-specific description. When buying on-line, a good description and trust in the bookseller is all a buyer has on which to make his buying decision. A well written description serves both buyer and seller well.

    When searching for a specific title, I’m looking not for a critique of the book or summary of the plot – I’m looking for a description of the physical item. Not an encyclopedic review, just a few words about condition.

    For me, as a buyer, it’s not always about the money.

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