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Selling Fine Press Books

by Bald Man 

Posted: 21 June 2013
Word Count: 2022
Summary: This is my text for a Squigoo 'lens' on my retirement business, which is the buying and selling of, mainly, fine press books. I was locked out of the Squigoo site for plagiarism, but there isn't a word on here that has been copied from elsewhere; I suspect it is about my use of book images, taken (with permission)from the printer's sites. However, in the meantime, I would welcome the usual IC scrutiny. There is a lot of 'telling' in this, I'm afraid.

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I have been a bookseller for 20 years now. But ten years ago I went to a book fair that specialised in fine press books. And it was love at first sight. These beautiful creatures gradually pushed aside their greyer companions and began to take over my bookshelves.

This is the story of how I came to specialise in selling fine press books. I hope to share my passion for them with you.

Read on.

Books, Books, Books

An early life ambition was to run a second-hand bookshop. But even thirty years ago I realised that second-hand bookshops were struggling to survive.
Today, in a harsh economic climate, and with online shopping the norm for many people, running an independent bookshop - whether it be for new and/or second-hand books - is a very big risk.

But I wanted to sell books. So in the early 1990s I began to buy and sell second-hand books with a particular emphasis on nature, at book fairs and online.

However, I soon ran into problems trading from home. Big problems.

My house became overtaken with books. I soon had over 1000 overflowing from boxes; boxes stacked in every corner. Loading and unloading boxes to take to book fairs became a nightmare - hours of preparatory work, sitting around at the fair all day, often for little financial return - sometimes the sales did not match the space rental fee. If I received an online order, I often had to hunt through scores of boxes to find the book, pack it, post it - all for just a pound or two profit.

Things had to change.

They did. I began to specialise in limited edition books. I still sell a range of other books, particularly those signed by the authors, and art/design related, but fine press books are my passion. But it is a business too - I enjoy their company and am sorry to see them go - but they pay my bills when they do.

Fine Press Books

Fine Press (or 'Private Press') books are printed in limited numbers, sometimes just as few as 12, but more typically around 200-300 copies. Often, within this limited print run, there will be a number of 'special' editions produced - with fine bindings, often in quarter, half or full leather.

They are published by small, independent private press businesses, typically only one or two people, often working from their homes. The books are usually commissioned by the printers, based on their instincts of what will sell (or, idiosyncratically, just what they like to read), printed by hand, then carefully and individually bound together using high quality materials, for example, marbled and hand-made papers, leather, decorated cloth covered boards.

The illustrations are often especially produced or gathered for the book and an artist will usually sign the colophon page, along with the author, and sometimes the printer. The book may come with a matching slipcase, and the 'special' editions often come with a portfolio of signed prints.

I like the courage and independence of these printers. They never know if a book will sell, so it takes guts to do what they do. Most are interesting characters too, with a story to tell. And after a few pints, or glasses of wine, they will tell it.

Fine Press books commemorating the life and work of well-known artists are particularly popular, but you will find limited edition books in a wide range of subjects, with a predominance towards arts and humanities subjects. My own particular favourites are books illustrated with wood engravings.

The books can be expensive. But many of them are highly collectable, as once the print run has been sold, there is no second or subsequent printing. In an age of mass production they stand out from the crowd.

There is a growing niche market for these books. The people who buy them love books - as I do.
They love handling them, are drawn to the illustrations, and admire quality of the typography and binding. They will often pay a high price to collect a book that is long out of print.

The longer the book is out of print, the more attractive the binding, the more interesting the contents, then, generally, the higher the price it commands on the second-hand market.

Handling, Storage and Postage

Careful handling and storage of limited edition books is essential. The customers for these books are, rightly, concerned to get a book in the best possible condition.

The quickest way to anger and lose customers is by giving misleading information about their condition, and/or skimping on the packing protection when you mail it out.

STORAGE: The enemy of these books is the sun. A row of books on a book shelf exposed to the full glare of the sun will quickly bleach. I have curtains that I can draw across my book shelves (see picture), which protects them from the sun, and to a certain extent from dust. I also try and protect books with acetate covers, as this gives them some protection from handling and rubbing against other books on shelves. One of the reasons I rarely go to book fairs to sell my books these days, is to ensure I can sell them in the best possible condition, straight from my shelves.

Books (any book) should NEVER be stored in damp conditions, such as in a garage, otherwise the pages and boards will buckle and bow if subjected to damp for any length of time.

Try and avoid storing them in boxes. I keep all mine on shelves. If they are stored in boxes, you will have to hunt through them each time to find the item you want, which risks bumping and scraping the others around it.

POSTAGE: The books need to carefully packed in different layers of paper, bubble-wrap, and preferably contained and posted in a cardboard box. Customers, receiving a book in a damaged state through poor packing, will, again rightly, demand their money back and damage your reputation. You will also need to ensure, wherever possible, that the package is tracked on its journey to the customer. These are expensive items and need safeguarding in transit. Customers are usually willing to pay extra to ensure the safe arrival of their expensive book.

Where to source Fine Press Books

There are four main ways to acquire fine press books.

First, you can buy them new from the printer. A recognised book dealer will usually pay a trade price for the books, but the printer will usually expect the dealer to buy more than one copy, unless it is a 'special' edition. You are advised to join a professional booksellers association, such as the PBFA, and to keep in regular contact with the printers. This will give you credibility and build trust between you and the printer. Pay your bill from the printer promptly and you make a friend for life.

Once you have bought the books you can decide either to wait until the book is out of print before offering it to sale, or including it as a new item in your catalogue.

You might ask though, why buy a new fine press book from a dealer, when you could buy it new from the printer? The reason is that your customer may not have heard of the printer, but does know you - they may have bought books from you in the past, and discover the book on your site or on your online site at a book fair where you are exhibiting. If you do decide to sell it new, I would advise you to sell it at the printer's recommended selling price, rather than an inflated one of your own. Why? Because if your customer subsequently learns that the book could have been bought for a cheaper price direct from the printer, you will be in their bad books! (see section on 'Pricing').

If you decide to wait until the book is out of print, then this is a long game and the dealer may have to wait years for this to happen. I have some fine press books I bought ten years ago that are still on sale direct from the printer, so there is no guarantee of selling these books at a profit. But this is where the bookseller skill comes in - judging which books are likely to go out of print quickly, and buying enough of them. I am still learning.

Second, you can buy fine press books from other book dealers. A book seller who specialises in selling them will have a good idea about their selling value, so you may find there is little profit margin for you if you wanted to re-sell the book in the short term. But other more general book dealers can offer bargains if you hunt around for them. Book fairs can still be good places to find fine press books. And the bigger the fair sometimes the bigger the bargain, because of the fierce competition in the sales hall. At the larger fairs you often have100+ dealers all competing for business.

Third, you can find these books at the better auction houses. You would need to search auction house online and printed catalogues, and get to know the auction house book specialists to build a working relationship with them. If they know you are interested, they can let you know when these books are put into sales. You can find these books too, on general online auctions, such as Ebay.

Fourth, you can buy them from individual book collectors. Many of my best acquisitions have been made this way. I have a note on my website to the effect that I am always interested in buying these books - and will pay a fair price for them. This is important, as the owners of these books know their value. They understand that a book dealer must make a profit on them - but will want to be offered a price in line with their worth. Negotiating a price can be tricky sometimes, but the combination of experience of the book dealer - and pragmatism of the seller - can usually see a deal made to the satisfaction of both parties.


It is tempting to put a high price on a out-of-print limited edition book. If someone wants it badly enough they will usually pay the price you ask.
But this can rebound on you. Sometimes it is better to put a lower-end price on the item, as this can lead to repeat business. The customer will know you are asking a fair, rather than exorbitant, price and is likely to return to you to buy other books. This is how I have built my customer base. The expression, 'Smaller profits, quicker returns' applies equally to bookselling as it does to other businesses.

I have seen very silly prices on the Internet asked for books. What can happen is that an inexperienced book dealer, finding few, if any, of the book in question for sale online, will assume it is scarce and put a very high price on it. Other inexperienced dealers, with the same book for sale, will then follow suit, using the overpriced book as their benchmark. Soon you will have a choice of the book for sale, but all at overblown prices. It is important to remember that books for sale online are UNSOLD - and there may be a good reason for that. Uncommon books offered for sensible prices are quickly sold.

Recently, I wanted to put a book for sale on the Internet. I found that the cheapest copy of five was 250, all in a similar condition to mine. However, my gut instinct was that this was over-priced for this particular book. I began to research online the past selling price of the book at auctions and found that it was in the region of 100. This is the price I asked for it - and one that would still make me a good profit when sold. Which book would you buy?

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Comments by other Members

Catkin at 01:01 on 22 June 2013  Report this post
Very interesting, Colin, and I think others have picked up the typos. I didn't see any others, and I can't think of any way you could improve this.

Bald Man at 07:35 on 22 June 2013  Report this post
Thanks for reading, Catkin, and for the feedback. I think I've zapped the typos now, but if anyone does spot them, please let me know.


scottwil at 08:50 on 22 June 2013  Report this post
Hi Colin,
I enjoyed reading this. It's very interesting and your love for what you do comes through. It's pitched well, I think, with plenty of useful information without bogging down in technicality and detail. A very nice piece with the perfect tone of voice.

Someone may have already picked up on this but I spotted a missing word here: If they stored in boxes, you will have to...


Bald Man at 10:55 on 22 June 2013  Report this post
I think I've zapped the typos now...

Pass the salt, please.

Thanks Scott - for reading, your generous feedback, and for spotting the missing word.


Bunbry at 13:09 on 01 August 2013  Report this post
Colin, I'm not sure what prompted me to read this, but I have to say it is one on the most enjoyable reads I've had on WW. It is rare for me to say i didn't want it to end, but that's the truth.

I've even been on ebay to see if I could spot any to see what they look like. I just saw the one 'Dracula' - but what a fascinating world. Good luck with the business


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