A Bookseller’s Video Game Lament

A Bookseller’s Video Game Lament

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.


  • Great article. There might not be much hope for shopfront bookselling in Sykrim, but surely there is an opening for an Amazon-type model?

  • A house is worth 5000 coins and a book can sell for 50 coins? I’d say that’s pretty decent. Cmon, try and sell 216 books here and buy a house with what you make 😛

    • This is exactly what I thought, and then I started thinking about the blacksmiths, trainers, mages etc.

      The amount of money they would make is much greater in comparison to the booksellers, yet (although I haven’t played Skyrim yet) they are (I assume, if Skyrim is like other Elder scrolls games) often wearing cheap burlap or tatty cotton clothes; instead of dripping in jewellery and other miscellaneous R&B-star bling.

      Broken Economy! I expect however it’s more to do with incredibly cheap house prices, rather than a grossly inflated CPI; Innkeepers (they would surely be richest of all!) sell food and accommodation that seems roughly comparable in value to other goods, such as weapons and armour.

      I can’t help and feel slightly ashamed about talking about Economics AND games, this shit would rarely fly IRL. Thank god for Kotaku and its community.

    • I think the point that he is making is that the value of a 1000 year old book written by a famous philosopher of the time, for which only 1 copy exists which is sealed inside a watertight box somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific ocean would be worth a hell of a lot more than your house.
      In fact it would probably be worth more than all your worldly goods combined.

      • Were there any thousand year old books dredged from a watertight container from the bottom of the ocean though? 😛 I know some books didn’t have many copies but were there actually any books (outside of quest items) that were a one-off? I swear damn near every book I encountered in Skyrim had as many copies floating around as Twilight does in real life.

  • Totally agree, I am sure in Morrowind they treated books a bit better. I was also a big fan of all the book stores you could find around the place, I would always make sure I browsed through (and get my +1 attributes).
    Bethesda should be adding more shop types to the game, not removing them – they add more colour to the world.

  • Lets think about the logistics of this in the Skyrim universe;

    From my perspective:

    The fact that the world of Skyrim is full to the brim of thieves, dark warlords, and other evil-doers, and at this particular point, dragons, im sure i personally would pay a shit-load more gold for a weapon… I doubt i’m going to beat the absolute crap out of a dragon with a book.

    From the dragons perspective:
    Guy + Sword= Bad-Ass; be weary.
    Guy + book= Lunch.

    And there you have it in simple math. dont bother carrying the one if you’re holding a book… you’re still lunch.

    • This is discounting the value of Knowledge and skills in the Skyrim world; skill books for example could be the difference between someone having no talent and no life, and a monetarisable (word? is now!) ability to cast small spells, or perform some other task. Enough to base survival or even a business on: for example lock manipulation, law and order, household services.

      I know not every book is a skill book, that these are quite rare, I always figured that most books contain something useful. If my character does not get a skill-point from a book, it might be because the information is too rudimentary, too impenetrable, or my character cannot apply the knowledge in a useful way (because my character is short-sighted, unintelligent, or is not interested in the field the information could be useful to).

      If I start to think of the sociology of the Elder Scrolls universe (I did this to Morrowind too), eventually I start to wonder why they are living in a world where disease, starvation, manual labour and uneducated masses still exist.

      Books-> Education -> Magic -> Greatly boosted productivity, welfare, GDP -> Greater societal knowledge -> More Education ->… and cycle continues. Yes, there is “Human” greed, violence and war to retard economic prosperity, but the real world has that too, and the human population, knowledge bank, and global economic output continues to grow.

      If you look too deeply into any fictional fantasy, you quickly see the bounds of the creators imagination, or budget of time and money… Will never stop me though!

      • I don’t think you can discount the imagination of a fantasy author based on their grasp of economic philosophy – especially when your own seems fundamentally bound by modern free market economics. This game is set in the equivalent of the dark ages. Remember? That 600 yr long period of European history where there was no economic development cycle like the one you transcribe as a universal constant? Strong takes from weak – people get by on a daily basis. Even today there are plenty of examples where this barbarism still exists.

        • But that’s not actually true. In all of the Elder Scrolls games, for example, there are active Mage’s Guild’s whose sole purpose is the study of academia and the mastery of magic. In all of those games, you can talk to mages who tell you that they are researching new spells.

          Also, the lands of Tamriel was relatively peaceful, both before and after (with small exception) the Oblivion crisis. There were bandits and monsters, sure, but most creatures were quite rare, and never really impacted on the lives of regular citizens. Hell, even travelers, so long as they stuck to the Imperial Highway!

  • It’s gameplay reasoning. Books may be fun to read and may be rare and valuable due to scarcity, but they’re there to give you a skill-point, not to become the basis of the economy.

    Weapons et. al. are heavy and have a distinct gameplay use, making the qualities of trade more obvious so that you have a system that you can’t really abuse but also shows reward for the acquisition and loss of these items.

  • I don’t remember seeing too many public schools in Skyrim, perhaps the literary level of it’s citizens has something to do with the value of books in general. Try selling a book to someone who can’t read…

  • Walk around Skyrim for a bit and actually use your imagination for a second. Imagine you lived there. You have a little gold and some tattered leather britches… are you going to buy something to protect yourself and your family from the GIGANTIC spiders, ANGRY dragons, and PERSISTENT mudcrabs? Or are you going to buy yourself a copy of A Less Rude Song?

    A small supply doesn’t mean that there has to be a large demand. Especially when you’re children are running from mudcrabs…

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