Book stores are a dangerous place for me, as my wife knows all too well. My friends who have seen my overflowing home library know it, too. I have been in countless new and used bookstores across the country. I am a moth to the flame of a business sign that has the word "Books" on it (the word "Games" has a similar effect on me). My wife gave me a little pillow that says "Lord lead me not into temptation...especially bookstores" - She meant it as a joke...I think. Suffice to say, I consider myself a bit of a minor expert on book (and game) stores.
So let's look at one my favorite book stores. Half Price Books (www.hpb.com) is a chain of book stores based out of Dallas, TX that specializes in used and overstock books. They began in 1972 with a simple principle: great products at a great price. As their name implies, products are traditionally priced at half retail price or less. It's great going into a Half Price Book location, because you never know what treasures await. Even though they are a chain each location has a different selection since a lot of their stock comes from the local community. This gives them a unique draw over other book stores such as Barnes & Nobles. Every B&N is pretty much the same whereas every HPB location has something different to offer, and thus is worth stopping in to check out. I spend a lot of time and money in HPB locations throughout Houston and other parts of Texas.
Now that I've given a big rah-rah, quasi-commercial for HPB let me beat them down a little. There are three sections that get most of my attention when I visit a HPB location: History, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and Games. Traditionally, I've been able to find some good deals on used Games, especially RPGs. These deals have included both relatively new products and older, out-of-print items. Unfortunately, I've noticed a disturbing change in policy that happened sometime in the past few years. When I go into a HPB nowadays, more often than not, I find a lot of the games are marked above half cover price. Not only are they priced above half cover price, but often they have insanely high prices.
Apparently someone at HPB has decided that out-of-print RPGs and Board Games are now to be classified as collectibles and priced accordingly; i.e. the half price rule doesn't apply. Classifying them as collectibles isn't wrong, because often they are collectibles. However, collectibles are a tricky business. They usually require a fair amount of expertise on the part of the sellers. This expertise is even more important when you are in the business of buying collectibles for the purpose of reselling them and making a profit. You have to know what is truly rare versus just uncommon. You have to know what the general demand for the items are and have a reliable means to estimate market value. Items are only collectibles because the market has indicated that they are through prices that reflect excess demand for the items. The best determinate for prices are often auctions, because it is a very free market means to assess the value. In other words, you find out what people - "collectors" - are willing to pay for items.
HPB has decided to take a bass-ackwards approach to the economics of collectibles. Instead of basing their prices on true market values, they base them upon Amazon.com prices. People who are asking $50 for a 1st edition, 9th printing AD&D Player's Handbook (that has an actual market value of around $5-10) are now heavily influencing the prices at HPB. You can ask whatever price you want for a product, but you're only going to get what people are willing to ACTUALLY pay for it. Otherwise, I'd make a million bucks a year as a teacher (Come on, you know I'm worth it).
Now let us throw in another twist that is especially important to the business of collectibles: condition. Out-of-print games are just like comic books - the better the condition, or grade, the higher the price they can command. If you have a book with beat up corners, pages falling out, paint on the back cover, and it looks like somebodies cat peed on half the pages, then you aren't going to get anywhere near what a relatively pristine copy is worth. So those dealing with collectibles have to have some level of expertise in grading the items in question.
The problem for HPB is that they apparently have very little expertise in properly grading items they have bestowed the title of "collectible" upon. This is further compounded by an apparent total lack of understanding about how the pricing of collectibles works. The result is a situation that has several negative effects:
1. You take a simple business model - books at half price or less - that enticed customers to spend money and had them coming back to spend more, and you smash it. Why buy from HPB when I can find it cheaper on eBay? This factor has personally deadened my enthusiasm for visiting HPB. I used to have an incentive for dropping by my local HPB at least once a week (I don't have a problem...honestly), but now they're lucky if I go once a month.
2. HPB ends up with product that collects dust on their shelves. Storing up overpriced inventory doesn't pay the bills, so eventually this will effect their bottom line.
3. HPB ends up looking incompetent and greedy. Those who are looking to buy these "collectibles" see that HPB employees don't know how to grade products in general. Then they look at the prices and laugh, because they realize how overpriced the items are. This feeds issues #1 and #2 above.
Bottom line: HPB shouldn't try to be something it's not, because when they pretend to be in the "collectibles" business they end up hurting themselves. They need to leave the pretending to those buying and playing the games, and get back to what works: HALF PRICE BOOKS! It'll be a win-win for everyone.
The hardcover printing of the book.
This is the first in a series of posts covering the many treasures I found at GenCon this year. I'm going to begin with an item that probably wasn't on anyone's "hot" item list.
Hunters of Dragons: The Original Dungeons & Dragons Collecting Guide is a nice compilation of history, interviews, and product information focusing on Dungeons and Dragons. The author is Ciro Alessandro Sacco, an Italian, put this together I think largely due to the great popularity of "Classic" D&D in the European market. AD&D has always been much more popular in the U.S. historically. This edition of the book is a translation of the original Italian edition and has been published by Chronicle City, a British game publisher. There are a few minor issues with language translation in the work, but nothing that really detracts from its value.
The book begins with a brief history of Dungeons and Dragons. I have played D&D since the early '80s and the "Red Box" was my intro to the game (thanks, Dad!). However, I'm ashamed to say that my knowledge of the game's history was a bit spotty. This book provides a relatively brief yet thorough overview of the history of D&D and TSR.
Some BECMI edition modules
Next, the book dives into products, beginning with the core rules. It goes through every edition of the rules and provides information such as who designed it, when it was printed, variants, rarity of all variants (from Common to Very Rare), description, and trivia. Also, the book has pictures of covers for every product listed. In my opinion, the inclusion of the pics is one of the coolest aspects of the book. The pics put a "face" on all the items and they help make it a handy reference for collectors who may have never seen a "Moldvay" box set.
This process of cataloging is continued with separate chapters on adventure modules, accessories, boxed sets, hollow world, other products (such as calendars, magazines, pinball machines, etc.), Unreleased Products, and Judges Guild. The adventure modules and accessories chapters are broken down by rules editions. The fourth edition of the game has by far the most products under its belt. This edition is often referred to as BECMI (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal after the boxed sets of the same names) and was the most popular version of the rules. In fact, BECMI D&D is still widely played today, especially overseas.
A sampling of Judges Guild products.
The chapter on Judges Guild begins with a brief history of that company and the many innovations they introduced to the RPG hobby. These innovations included GM screens, overland modules, fully realized campaign worlds, etc. I had no idea of Judges Guild's impact on the hobby.
The book wraps up with three interviews. The first one is a fairly thorough interview with Gary Gygax that sheds a lot of light on the history of TSR. The next is one with Dave Arneson. Finally, Larry Elmore answers some questions about what it was like in the early years of TSR and the industry. I found all three of the interviews entertaining and informative, especially the one with Gygax.
The book doesn't try to do everything; it has a very specific goal and it achieves it. It doesn't list prices or provide a price guide - that's not the product's purpose. The product is designed to give you as complete a catalog as possible of what is out there for Original D&D. I never realized that some of these items even existed. If you have an interest in D&D or RPGs in general, then this book is worthwhile. If you are a collector of D&D/TSR items, then I would go so far as to say it is essential for your library.
You can find out more info or purchase a copy of the book here: http://www.huntersofdragons.com/
Avid gamer, historian, teacher, organizer of the MAG Con gaming convention, and owner of Ettin Games and Hobbies.