The Real Poop
Rare book dealers have to be ravenous bookworms. But…not literally. You won't turn much of a profit if you eat your own books.
If you want to be on top of the heap in the rare book world, you seriously have to know the biz from front to back. First, you totally need a solid knowledge of literature—and not just the famous stuff. Plenty of book dealers make their dough in very specific niches. If you decide to be the go-to guy for books written by one-legged alligator wrestlers, you’ve got to know everything there is to know about this rare sect of authors. (Although, we imagine missing limbs might be pretty common among alligator wrestlers.)
This might be obvious, but you also have to be an expert on what makes a book valuable. A lot of this depends on a top-to-bottom knowledge of publishing history, but it's also about keeping tabs on the market. There's no single pricing guide for this stuff, so you have to do research and keep up with the constantly flipping pages of the market.
Of course, these days, this research is done on web pages not paper pages. You'll need to diligently scroll through Biblio.com and the Antiquarian Booksellers of American site to keep up with the ebbs and flows of book prices. So—surprise, surprise—being a top-notch rare book dealer isn’t just about being well read, it's also about having some math sense too. (We think we just heard a collective groan from some of you English-y types out there.)
Rare book dealers have to be good at math in more ways than one. You have to be able to analyze trends in the market so that you can slap the right price tag on your book. (Don't actually stick price tags on your books; sticky residue is killer.) If you price your inventory too high, everybody's gonna say whatevs and go buy a cheaper one. If you go around giving everything away because you think it’s nice for collectors to have the books that they like, you might actually have to start eating your books to keep from starving.
Dealers also need old school haggling skills. It's not always like a regular retail store where everything costs exactly what it costs. In the world of rare books, there's room to negotiate. Like any good salesman, you have to be able to convince your customer of exactly why this book is so awesome. You have to help them feel good about spending buckets of cash on a stack of old paper bound in leather. Salesman charm might not be necessary for smaller sales, but when you’re going for the big boys, it can pay in dividends.
Of course, if you go at your business in that oily used car salesman kind of way, you'll be in trouble fast. The rare book-collecting world isn't that huge, and word travels fast. If you want to establish a solid reputation, you'll need to keep your record clean by offering people honest deals.
When you send a customer a book that's supposed to be rare, they better not find one in Barnes and Noble the next day or you'll be in deep water. Slimy book dealers have the Antiquarian Booksellers of American to deal with. Its crucial for any reputable American book dealer to be a part of this organization, and if they hear about you pulling a fast one on some unsuspecting customer, they'll give you the boot in no time flat. (We were going to say "they'll throw the book at you," but it just seemed too easy.)
Rare book dealers also have to be self-motivated. You’re your own boss. Nobody's going to force you to do anything. If you wake up one day and decide you just want to eat Cheetos and pick your belly button lent, nobody's going to be giving you your walking papers. However, your business will swiftly go down the tubes, it you aren’t out there working on it as hard as you can. Customers who have to wait a billion years for you to get back to them aren’t going to hit you up again.
These days the rare book dealing biz is at an interesting crossroads. So many people are reading books on their Kindles that printed books are seriously going out of style. Some argue that this spells doom for rare book dealers, but many dealers argue that the opposite is true. The fact that printed books are steadily becoming more rare only places more mystique around the rarest of the rare. And mystique = mo money, people.
If it’s your passion, and you’re willing to do the work to gain the know-how, rare book dealing can be a great choice of career. Just watch out for those rare book paper cuts—who knows where those pages have been?