The world of the book scout is a changing landscape. The very technology that seemingly threatens to submerge it has recently switched polarity and infused it with an unexpected resurgence. The renaissance may be short lived, as the overall trend has shown book scouting to have gone from a popular pastime to an obscure practice. What was once a busy profession abounding with hordes of enthusiasts, has turned into an archaic vocation kept alive by a handful of skilled connoisseurs. Recently however, they have been joined by an influx of pickers armed with digital scanners, smart phones and online book selling savvy.
An old school book scout would scour classified ads for estate sales, garage sales, library sales and yard sales, paying particular attention to how they each were worded. He, or she was wary of ads using the word “treasures” which translated to “junk” and kept a sharp eye out for buzz phrases like “English grad student moving” or “Philosophy professor passed away” which could have spelled pay dirt. Armed with a vast knowledge of books from a lifetime of reading and a finely tuned intuition for locating quality print, they set out for these sales. The goal: to unearth gems among the rubble, to buy them cheap and then sell them for profit.
One such man is none other than author Larry McMurtry, who explains having embarked on a career as a novelist in order to support his book buying habit. He is the central figure in the upcoming indie film by Studio Seven7 Films called Books: A Documentary. The film by Sara Ossana and myself tells the story of the three hundred thousand plus, of Larry McMurtry’s antiquated acquisitions that were auctioned off in August of 2012. The event, which lasted just two days, was aptly named The Last Book Sale. This historic occasion marks the culmination of forty years of Larry’s work as a book scout, and two thirds of what was amassed, being released back out into the world.
The auction no doubt drew book scouts cut from the same cloth as the proprietor of the four Booked Up storefronts in Archer City, Texas. However, there was also a new breed of book buyer lurking about among the paperbacks and first editions. The 21st century literary curator still combs through the classifieds for listings of book sales, but they rely more on technical gadgetry than upon applicable knowledge to cull profits from the piles of pages. They use a handheld electronic scanner to weed through many volumes in one day, looking for titles that can be sold for profit. Their scanner runs a book’s UPC code across a snapshot of the Amazon catalog. The software then calculates the book’s worth. Books with a high value are bought if a low price can be arranged and then re-sold online. Many rare books are pre-UPC, where scanning a code is not an option. In this case, they then pull out a smart-phone, loaded with latest apps and booked marked websites, and with a few clicks, now has all the information needed.
Similar to the world of baseball, an old-school scout would simply have taken the findings, cross referenced with years of gut instinct and stuffed notebooks, to bookstores or private collectors they had built relationships with over the years. The new school scout harnesses the power of the internet, which although impersonal, has not necessarily cheapened the trade. Online book reselling is highly competitive because there is money to be made. This current model is a recent improvement on what was being done just a few years ago. Before electronic scanners, new school book scouts had to use their cell phones to call friends or partners who were waiting at computers to look up titles that may have been valuable. This resurgence in the popularity of old books is a refreshing development. Perhaps the digital world will not yet fully render the analog world of information obsolete.
However, this begs the question: what improvements on the current strategy might the book scout of tomorrow employ? Perhaps tomorrow’s book scout will find a title, scan it and take a picture of it all at once. They could then post it online, find a buyer and collect the money digitally before ever paying for it and leaving the store. Perhaps when teleportation is an everyday practice the process will go one step further and the scout will beam the book over to the buyer right then and there. Sounds like a plot to a futuristic novel…