Rare book prices skyrocket thanks to the Internet

The rise of online catalogs and aggregators of booksellers' stock meant more collectors are aware when a rare find came on the market.
The rise of online catalogs and aggregators of booksellers’ stock meant more collectors are aware when a rare find comes on the market.

Prices of the rarest books are rising as the Internet drives the trade off dusty shelves and into the digital age, a leading expert said this weekend.

Matthew Haley, head of the books, manuscripts and photographs department at auction house Bonhams in London, said the rise of online catalogs and aggregators of booksellers’ stock meant more collectors are aware when a rare find comes on the market.

“More people can find it, and there is only one of them around,” he told an audience at the Hay Festival, adding this was pushing prices of the rare and the one-off higher.

At the same time, demand was growing for what he termed “quirkiana:” books on specialist, niche topics.

“We see that the mid-rank is really the struggling area of the market, which in our terms would be books between £100 and £1,000,” Haley said.

Into this category he put books that, while rare, were not unique, and modern first editions, as potential purchasers can scour the web for other examples more easily than in the past.

With prices rising at the top and bottom of the market but easing in the middle, the overall value of the market was holding at up to $600 million a year, he said.

Haley said the outlook for second-hand bookshops, which he said were closing “at a tremendous rate,” was not good.

“I fear that we are going to see the end of the serendipity of browsing through a bookshop and finding a book you didn’t know you wanted,” he said.

He said some in the industry forecast digital books would outsell printed books in Britain in 2015. Yet the shift to digital publishing only made physical books more alluring to many people.

“There is no substitute for handling a book,” he said, adding many people still treasured the feel of crisp paper or the smell of an old volume.


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