I play Skyrim obsessively, like lots of people. I'm also a full-time antiquarian book dealer and during my glorious attempts to become a leather-clad death machine in The Elder Scrolls V, I'm always tempted to make some in-game coin on the side collecting and selling the hundreds of available antiquarian titles. Books such as Advances in Lock-picking or Dwemer Inquiries Vol. III offer both arcane and practical lore to thereader as well as deep context for the game's developed history, technology and culture.
But, I am bamboozled at every turn by what is essentially a completely unrealistic book market based on ridiculous assessments of value. While items such as staffs, swords, armour, and jewels fetch a premium price on the secondhand market (500-2000 gold usually), books, for some reason, no matter how scarce they are, top at a measly 100 coins. This is ridiculous. It is simply not possible to make a decent living as a bookseller in Skyrim, despite all my systematic and professional attempts.
My argument is based on two major points: rarity and demand. In our world, these are the factors that fundamentally determine a book's value. How scarce is it and how many people want it? It makes no sense to me at all how a merchant would only give me 50 coin for a title so rare there's only one copy of it in all of Tamriel. If I need to penetrate the bowels of the earth through some death-trapped dungeon and hack through legions of the walking dead to find that book, shouldn't it be worth a little more?
Take Fragment: On Artaeum, for example. It is required reading in a quest where you have to stop the influence of an unearthed, potentially cataclysmic magical Eye. You even have to fight a ticked-off rogue Altmer mage named The Called to get your hands on it (the rare edition, that is). You put your life on the line! Nevertheless, this book only fetches a paltry 45 gold on the secondhand market, despite its central role in saving the land. Well, it just doesn't add up does it?
Now, admittedly, booksellers are notorious spendthrifts when it comes to purchase price. And the game is very accurate in portraying its booksellers as grumbly overbearing cranks. The truth is, despite long afternoons lost in the lore of ages, it is very hard to make a real living as an antiquarian dealer. They're sour for a reason. Many folks who take the plunge into this apparent dream job find this out very quickly. Still, it is possible to make a go of it, as a truly rare item can fetch a glorious sum.
… Only 50 coin for a title so rare there's only one copy of it in all of Tamriel?
This simply isn't true in Skyrim. Even a world where books figure far more centrally than in ours, a land where messages are still sent though couriers on foot (there are no phones, no Internet) and essential knowledge still needs to be kept safe in big monastic castles against the ravages of time (not to mention the mould encouraging environments of old keeps and crypts) you often can't make more than 15-30 or so gold per title.
Considering that a decent house in the game costs 5000 gold, not to mention the 1500 you have to drop outfitting it, you would have to buy and sell 216 titles, scattered willy-nilly all across the land, and fight numerous Dragur, Icewraiths, and Saber Cats to get them, and most certainly die a broken and hungry bookseller. Maybe that's why there are so few full-time people in the game trying. There are numerous grocers and blacksmiths, but only a handful of booksellers, despite a glut of material and occult demand. Still, their shops have so little inventory that I can't see how they possibly could be making a living without selling something illegal on the side.
I feel that this is an unacceptable blind spot that needs to be addressed. When so much thought goes into the minutiae of a sword's magical abilities, a Tolkienesque Middle Ages fantasy where mysterious knowledge is required to survive needs a much more functional antiquarian book market. And I'm not even going into the fact that there seems to be only one printing press in all of Tamriel producing these things. These problems aren't a deal-breaker, however, because I've easily clock 100 plus hours into this game and don't seem to be stopping. But, just like in the real world, I would like the poor bookseller to get their due.
Jason Dickson is a member of Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. He is also very addicted to video games. You can find him at Jason Dickson Antiquarian Books.