Friday, October 21, 2011

Breaking books

We get questions almost every day about values (and please note that this blog is not the place for questions about value of specific items!). Today I got two questions related to the same topic: viz. whether a book with prints in it was more valuable as a whole or with the plates taken out and sold individually.

I thought I would address this issue in this blog, partly because the economics of it are somewhat interesting, but also because it is part of a larger topic which I find very interesting: breaking books. I have thought much about this general topic and do plan to write a blog on my thoughts at some time (I have a general inclination against breaking books, though I am not against it in all cases), but today I'll just consider the economics of the situation.

The value of a book (and I include portfolios in the category for this discussion) does have a lot to do with the value of its prints. Any book with valuable prints is going to be valuable itself. Obviously if the prints can be sold for a lot individually, there is a value for the book itself to anyone who might take it apart to sell the prints.

This is often called the "break up" value of the book, and basically it is a factor of the value of each print multiplied by how many prints there are. Now this is predicated on the notion that the prints would be sold for a profit, so obviously the factor used is less than one (so a book with 10 prints worth $100 each is worth less than $1,000 in break up value).

This isn't just that whoever is breaking the book for the prints has to make a profit on each print, but there is the question of the costs of selling the prints. In most books there is a range of how desirable the various prints are, which means that the prints are often priced a different points, but also that some prints are easy to sell (even at a higher price) and some very difficult to sell (even at a lower price).

However an individual figures this all out, this determines the "break up" value of a book. This is often the value at which a book will minimally sell at auction, for there usually are at least some buyers who would be interested in a plate book for its potential as a "breaker."

There are naturally other factors involved in the value of a book besides its plates. These can include scarcity, collectibility , quality of binding, and many other things. While the "break up" value of a book is often the minimal amount it will sell for, a book will often sell for more than that. For instance, the recent sale of a complete first edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America for about $11.5 million is fairly clearly well above any "break up" value.

Still, in many cases, there is a lot more money to be made by selling all the prints individually than from the sale of a book as a whole. So, how should I respond to the people asking whether they should sell their book as a whole or break it and sell the prints? The answer is not that clear even just on a financial basis, ignoring the other questions such as whether it is ok ever to break a complete book.

There are many costs involved in selling prints. A book can usually be sold just as is, but a print often needs to be "prepared" before selling (such as matting it or framing it). And it generally takes more effort to find buyers for multiple items than for one item. A book is a single sale; it can be put on ebay or put at a regular auction or sold to a dealer and the money received right away.

Selling a lot of prints takes much more time. If you put them all up for sale at once, say at an auction, they can saturate the market and thus drive their value down. Of if you put them out for sale at a gallery or flea market or whatever, some are likely to sell fairly quickly, but others can take a lot of time. This means that it takes more effort and the money comes in over a longer period of time. $10 today vs. $50 in two years is not such a clear cut choice.

And some of the prints might not even sell at all. The Alexander Wilson bird prints are mostly very attractive, but it isn't easy to sell the vulture print with the dead sheep in it! Or atlases, where the maps of American can sell quickly, but one might be looking for a buyer for the map of the lower Rhine for a long time.

I guess if you like the idea of setting up a gallery or going to flea markets to sell the prints, then it can make more sense, but it more often makes financial sense for a non-professional to sell a book complete (not to mention all the non-financial reasons to keep books together!).


  1. Interesting blog Chris. It is a long and varied discussion the old breaking books debate. I look forward to your blog on the 'non economic' side of the debate. We have been asked this question times many also. My instant reaction is on one hand it is sacrilege to break a well bound beautiful expensive book. So the book then stays on a shelf and seldom gets looked at perhaps. Which is the more sacrilegious a book on a shelf or most of the prints taken out and displayed for many people to appreciate? Economically, by and large, I think as a print dealer and you are in it for the long term in most cases there are more advantages in breaking. Do you need and Lower Rhine Maps by the way....? We seem to have a glut...

  2. Thank you for the analysis. Very helpful as I am struggling with the question myself currently. Would like to sell the book as a whole but still need to figure out a fair price...