The Real Poop
You probably think most rare book dealers are bona fide bookworms. And you'd be right. These people are ravenous when it comes to books. They swarm like an invasive species when an uber-rare book surfaces.
But...they don't really eat books. They wouldn't turn much of a profit if they ate their own books. Just thought we'd make that clear before moving on.
We should also note that there are no guarantees, salary-wise, in this line of work. It's difficult to find any hard data whatsoever, but when lumped in broadly with specialty purchasing agents (a rare book dealer will realize more profit from buying low than selling high), the average is $40,720 per year (source).
So is that what you can expect to make? Well, probably not. It's possible to do very, very well as a bookseller, but the market is currently composed of a few mammoth book dealers who do the lion's share of business...and a whole bunch of small-time dealers who struggle to get by (source).
If you want to be on top of the heap in the rare book world, you need to know the biz from front to back, cover to cover. It starts with a solid knowledge of literature—and not just the famous stuff.
Sure you know all about the early printings of Moby-Dick, and even have an in-pretty-good-shape early edition of Pride and Prejudice, but what do you know about the poets on the front lines in World War I? Or what about the rise of the gothic novel in mid- to late-18th century Europe, or the Latin American Boom writers of the mid-20th?
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. (Lots of their books are dictated, for example—missing limbs are pretty common among alligator-wrestling authors.)
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 market prices that flip and flap around like book pages on a windy day.
Of course, these days, this research is done on web pages and not paper pages. You'll need to diligently scroll through sites like Biblio and the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America 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 about having some math sense too. (Was that a collective groan we just heard from you more English-y, less math-y types out there?)
Rare book dealers have to be good at math in more ways than one. To get the most money out of your books, you must be able to analyze trends in the market so 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 copy from someone else. If you go around giving everything away because you think it's nice for collectors to have the books they like, you might actually have to start eating your books to keep from starving.
Dealers also need old-school haggling skills. This business isn't like a regular retail store, where the price on the tag is what you pay. 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 the awesomeness of any particular book. Salesman charm might not be necessary for smaller sales, but when you're making deals for the oldest and rarest, some sales savvy can pay dividends.
Of course, if you go about 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 big, 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'd better not find the same copy in Barnes and Noble the next day. Slimy book dealers have to deal with the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, and they're the most sinister of all the sinister bookworms.
Any reputable American rare book dealer would do well to be a part of their 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.
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 lint, nobody's going to be giving you your walking papers. However, your business will swiftly go down the drain if you aren't out there working for it as hard as you can.
These days, the rare books biz is at an interesting crossroads. So many people are reading books on e-readers that printed books are plummeting in sales. Some argue that this spells doom for rare book dealers, but many dealers think the opposite is true. The reduction in printed books actually adds a bit more mystique to the rarest of the rare. And mo' mystique equals 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 for a career. Just watch out for those rare book paper cuts—who knows where those pages have been?