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The Tyranny of Sets

· Fine Book Collecting,Book Sets,Book Series,Book Volumes,Storage Space

Sets of books for a seller are very problematic. They take up huge amounts of shelf space and they are extremely difficult to sell, especially over the internet where a sale includes complicated packaging and very expensive postage.

First of all, here is a two paragraph definition of a set from my musing “Sets, Series and Collections” from January 2020.

A set of books is a number of volumes that the publisher has produced that reflect a specific topic or theme. And generally, the intent is that the purchaser has the whole set. Partial sets of anything are by definition incomplete and have little value in the book market. Sitting downstairs is a set of Dickens works in 25 volumes. Problem is it is missing one volume. It will sit until I can find the missing one. Sets may be issued over time and thus each volume has a different publication date. Just this week I bought a set of 5 L. M. Montgomery’s Journals, each with a different year. Sets can be authors works, encyclopedias, types of literature such as science fiction, the History of Canada, and so on.

A series of books differs from a set in that the publisher, and likely the author(s) as well, don’t know what the series will consist of until it is finished. Good examples are the “Found Authors” musings that I have done previously such as Phil Rickman’s Merrily series and Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. I must tell you that just yesterday, I received Dressed for Death the third book in the series. As you may recall, I started with #5 and then I went back to the beginning – only 26 more to go! And, of course, there is the Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series.

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Selling a book from a series is easier than selling a whole set. This photograph of a series is a case in point. This photo shows a series of warfare books that Cassel in London did over a number of years. Last fall, a retired military man came to the shop and bought 3 out of this series. This is fine. But you won’t sell 3 books out of a set.

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This series of books Nations of the World was a series of country histories produced over a century ago. There are histories of England, France, Germany, etc. and we don’t have all of the series, but most. Each country history is by an expert historian of that country. Within the series are sets by country. As you can see in the photo, Germany is a set of 4 books. We would not sell individual volumes in the German set of 4, but we would sell the complete set of German histories out of the series.

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This series of books about different provinces/regions of Canada would be sold individually.
There is no particular value of the complete Canadian series.

Now we get to sets.

Sets need to be complete to sell, as noted. If a book out of the set is missing, you have a cripple. Like the Dickens set noted above. No one will buy that set with a volume missing. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people will not buy that set even if complete. An exception are 2-volume sets that are very common, which sell well.

Large sets of books were in vogue at the onset of the twentieth century. Sets by author, by history, by topic, etc. were all in fashion. To say nothing of the myriad of encyclopedias and dictionaries.

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Here is a set of books that we have by Victor Hugo. Today, there is a focus on high spots of literature. So, someone might want to acquire a nice copy of Notre-Dame, but not copies of all of Hugo’s works.

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Here is a nice early leather-bound set of books on Napoleon. Only 4 volumes, but you would need at least 4 reasonably sized volumes to cover the life of this larger than life individual. There is hope for this set!

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This set of 4 volumes Railway Wonders of the World was printed in the 1930s. It is spectacular, especially with regards to continental Europe where most of the trains, stations, infrastructure, were destroyed during World War II. This set has the world covered to that point in time. Someone should want this set!

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This 6-volume history of Canada was produced in the 1930s. It is of the highest quality in both the physical production of the books as well as the content. And this set belonged to a very prominent Nova Scotian. But who wants a general history that is 90 years out of date?

In our personal library, we have the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. There are 17 volumes taking some 4 feet of shelf space. A century, or even half a century, ago you had to have a copy of this “font of all knowledge” – my words. The last print version of this must have set was in 2010. Now we use Wikipedia.

As a bookseller, large sets of books have zero appeal. They take up way too much shelf space, they are often outdated, and they are prohibitively expensive to ship. A few people like to have “library furniture” that looks great to the eye and looks impressive, but they will buy this “by the yard” as cheaply as possible, from the closest source.

The 20+ sets of books from the early 1900s are dinosaurs. In December, I got a phone call from a man who lived in an upscale neighbourhood who had 2 sets of books that he wanted to sell. I agreed to have a look, but I told him that it would be unlikely that I would be interested in buying them. I stopped by his place and had a look. Two sets of books, each over 20 volumes, from the
early 1900’s, in nice condition but I had to tell him that I could not buy them. He asked “what should I do with them” and I could not give him a good answer.

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But you never know. In December, we got an order for a 4-volume set of books War at Sea that went to a purchaser in Maryland, a hotbed of naval activity and interest.

I think this is the max. I hope not. There is a lot of great reading and valuable information in
those sets.