Friday, January 30, 2009

It's Still Printed, Yeah? The Literary Stamp Blog

Most book collectors have "collected" other things. Now, these may or may not have been serious hobbies, or large collections, or even pursued for very long at all. A common collection other than comic book that book collectors seem to have a past with is stamps. I used to collect them, and even now toy with buying all the new issues of British stamps.

And now someone has gone and combined both stamps and books into a basic but lovely online display.

Thanks to J. Godsey over at Literary Stamps is a great site to view a good number of the many stamps with books, in one way or another, as their theme.

Now, a bunch of pictures of stamps would be fine, but Godsey has indexed them well, and provided links to each author or theme. You can see all the stamps with libraries as a theme, or Will Rogers. Bram Stoker is there, as well as George MacDonald Fraser (if you don't know who he is, welcome to his wikipedia entry). It is truly a useful reference, and a roadmap if one wants to start collecting in that topical area.

I was also very impressed at how sharp her images are, and their variety. Stamps from numerous countries are presented, and from a whole range of dates. Colors are sharp, and the increased size of the stamps makes them all the more attractive. It makes me wish they were posters.

Go give Godsey's work a look. You may waste a bit of time, but it will be a better waste of time than a lot of other alternatives. And if you have a cool literary stamp, send it to her. If she doesn't already have it, I bet she'll do a bang-up job showing it to the world.

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Award Season - The Best New Bookshops

In both the US and in the UK, there are annual awards for the best bookshops. In the US the award is called "bookseller of the year" and ran by Publisher's Weekly. The UK has two versions - the "independent bookshop of the year" organized by the Publishing News as part of their British Book Industry Awards. The US ones are a bit harder to find, but for both awards they give a good view into some of the more successful bookshops in the world, including some in business for over 100 years.

Its enjoyable to read about such shops, but there 's a lot to learn from them as well.

For starters, the two bookshops between the big pond could not have been more different on the surface. In the US, the 2008 win went to Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena CA. Started in 1894, Adam Clark Vroman came West for his wife's health and was also a photographer, who western views and Native American images influenced Ansel Adams. The shop has always been sizable, and is still the largest independent in California and has over 20 staff. There is a solid talk with their head buyer at the LA Weekly, though the article is 2 years old.

Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights is located in the resort town of Bath, famous since Roman times. Opened in 2006, Mr. B's won praise and customers immediately, with the vision and energy of its founders Nic and Juliette Bottomley. With 3 floors books of books and a surprisingly useful bathtub, Mr. B's seems to have a well thought out selection for a whole range of tastes. They even detailed their decision to start their shop at the Guardian. They have recently expanded to 6 staff.

In browsing the articles about these two bookshops and their own websites, their differences seem to fade away a bit. Both have very active book groups. Both have good ordering programs in place. Both have a healthy number of events, though Vroman's clearly has an edge here because of its size. Also, through email, newsletters, groups, and of course their web pages, both shops have solid lines of current communication up between themselves and their buyers. They support local external book and literacy events, and local authors. In short, they know the books well, know who they are and they know their customers. That, to me, is the fundamental understanding a bookshop has to have to survive.

I know we all often hear about independent bookshops closing and the problems they endure from sales to online competition. But shops like these can give us a window into how bookshops can and will continue. So click on the links, and go look at past winners as well. There's more than a little for any owner of a shop for used, rare or new books to learn from these folks.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Description Deschmiption - Tell Me Something I Don't Know

One of my pet peeves (and I have a zoo full of them) is the lack of content description about a book. A cataloger may go on and on about how the copy is pristine, NOT an ex-library copy, and smells like a mountain meadow, but often gives you little reason to actually read the book. Fiction or nonfiction, a little bit of content description goes a long way.

Let's take a look at an example : 40 Years in My Bookshop by a Mr. Walter T. Spencer.

I recently acquired the above work, and as I was checking prices online, I noticed a particularly disturbing phenomena. Out of some 29 copies listed on ABE, not a single one told me why I should read this book - let alone buy it. I found out that copies were "totally readable and enjoyable" despite foxing, and that it was a "bookseller memoir". The "My Bookshop" in the title kinda gave that away already, so that last bit was just repetitive. With some detail about the illustrations and one entry that relays in full an inscription, those are the highlights. That's all, in 29 descriptions from 29 sellers, including ABE, ABAA and LILA members.

Now, if a book is not very expensive, I can see why one wouldn't detail the content so much. But considering the amount of physical descriptions provided for the copies less than $20 USD, I would think a sentence or two about content could be had. And that information can of course be found right in the book, so the effort to acquire it would only mean a little reading.

I certainly understand why a buyer would pass over a book in rough shape, and that describing condition is important. But what makes someone want to buy the tome in the first place? Do people buy books because they are "totally readable" or because they are about something? And there are many bookseller memoirs out there - what makes this one different? Did the author sell used books or new? Was he in England or the US? Did he know anyone famous? Was the person who wrote the introduction, Thomas Moult, a person of any note? If a book is fiction, is it historical fiction? Where and when does it take place? IS it about a family, or one person? All these questions can be answered easily, and increase the chance of selling the book.

Why would a bookseller NOT do this? I can think of a few reasons, most of I don't think serve the buyer well. The first might be that the seller is a mega-lister and wants numbers on the web, not good descriptions, for a minimum of work. Another reason may be a view toward changing times - no one else is doing it, so why should I? A third reason may be arrogance - the seller knows what is in the book, and presumes the buyer will too. The last reason I can imagine is a seller imagines others will benefit from their effort. Why go to the trouble of a good description, when a buyer may just read that description and buy a copy that is a dollar cheaper? If you all can think of others, please post them in the comments and I will revise accordingly.

Of the four, I think only the mega-lister has anywhere close to a solid rationale. The other reasons are excuses for laziness. The mega-lister is not a bookseller - they are book jobbers for ABE, Amazon etc. Their purpose is to move quantity, not put a shine on anything. Their focus is price, and the briefest condition information as possible to avoid returns. I am not a fan myself, but it works. For any other reason, esp. if the book is more expensive (nearly half of the copies listed are over $25.00 USD) then a line or two making the book sound interesting increases the chance to turn a potential buyer into an actual one.

Might a buyer learn what a book is about from one description, and yet buy another copy? Yes. There is always that chance. However, I for one remember booksellers who consistently provide good descriptions, and I often find their terms are professional, as are their customer support and packaging. It shows the seller cares about the book they are selling and how they are selling it. If your solid content descriptions are not getting you sales, then perhaps it is a pricing issue, or one of condition. Look at the other copies. Update the description. Change the price if need be. But tell what the book is about.

As for 40 Years in My Bookshop, Mr. Spencer was a respectable London seller of used and rare books, a friend of the famous forger Thomas Wise, and had a wide range of clients, including the American Mr. Heinz of ketchup fame. Thomas Moult was a British journalist & writer, whose claim to fame was editor of a series called "Best Poems of he year" from 1922-1943.

Now, was that so hard?

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Book Trade Tickets - How Soon We Forget

Back in the proverbial day, shops selling books, most likely new books, had a way of saying "this book bought here" tastefully, without leaving magnetic strips on interior pages (man I hate that) or massively glued barcode labels on djs. That technology was called book trade labels (also called tickets or marks).

They are not only often lovely to see, but also are a useful portal to information about booksellers past.

As a number of resources tell us, book trade tickets (I like that term better - sounds more professional than just a label) began popping up in the 1700s. Jim Rainer's article at the Alcuin Society, notes that "book trade" is more accurate than bookseller because stationers, binders, printers, and more used them as well, though booksellers' marks are more prevalent.

They heyday seems to be from the mid 19th c. through the 1970s - some 125 years. I do not think it surprising that this was the time of the industrial revolution and great improvements in the press and in book distribution. Book tradesfolk were happy to advertise their wares across a wide area, and for more important firms their books traveled across oceans, following the growth of empires.

Visually, the small tickets, often no more than 1-2 inches by one half to 1 inch, cover the spectrum from plain to ornate. The single best site to view many of them is Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels by a Greg Kindall. The site is well designed, with several hundred on display. This site is cited in many blogs, but unfortunately doe snot seem to have been updated since June '07 (If I am wrong in this, please drop me a comment and I will update the post). My favorites tend to be the nontraditional shapes - like those by Boekhandel De Bijenkorf - or embossed - like one from J.K. Gill Co. A Google search will show a few other sites that post about them occasionally, but if you are a collector, you might want to think about making your own site in case the gallery goes away.

Additionally the tickets provide information for the researcher about the book trade. Name, address, logos, merchandise, and even type of shop can sometimes be found packed into that tiny piece of paper. At the beginning of the post I noted that this was primarily a new book phenomena. The tickets for used bookshops are even more interesting because they are less common. For whatever shop, the information is helpful to map out when and where book activity was going on, and to tie bookshops to books and to figures in the trade, just like publishers statements. I was introduced to Samuel Weiser bookshop in this way, when a collection of occult books came in, many with his ticket inside. It was plain to see they had moved several times in NYC, and the collector had stuck with them each time.

This tradition, like many, is not a necessary one. But it is a good one, and one I think that could stand a resurgence. How about putting the magnetic strip (if you must have one) under/inside your book ticket for your shop, instead of that ugly thick rectangular white thing that Borders and B&N stick on djs and inside books? The sticker will serve as an ongoing advertisement, and might even look good if the bookseller puts a bit of effort into it.

So next time you are in a thrift shop, and wearily look over a pile of books that probably need to be recycled into new books, open a few up. Take a look for a book trade ticket (or a bookplate) and maybe you'll find something that makes your book hunting a bit more interesting.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Letterpress Haven - The Briar Press

In our digital age when so much of what is printed simply spews out from large off-white plastic sided rectangle, it is fun to see how things used to be. The old metal presses have a grace and charm all their own, with the added benefit of users able to see all the moving parts.

Briar Press is a
place where you can see and learn a great about these wonderful machines, meet like minded folks, and maybe even find an old press for your very own - with the class to teach you how to use it.

Started in 1973 by Elizabeth Nevin, Briar Press grew out of her own interest and collection. With the added technical support supplied by her son, the site has grown to include a whole range of resources for all, from the mildly curious to the serious printer.

The part of the site that I first noticed was the Museum. It is a collection of images of many presses covering early hand-presses to proof presses to all other manner of print shop equipment. Over 200 presses are on display, and the images are quite well done.

The Cuts and Caps section is a collection or ornaments and initials, many from Nevin and old specimen books, but others from members of the site. The vast majority are free, but a number can be bought. Nevin also has a welcome section on how to take these digital images and create letterpress dies from them and included a list of companies that provide such service.

The Press Names section is an "international directory of private press names" and quite interesting. Each private press registered included info on the date of its founding, registration with Briar Press, the owner, address website, and profile (background and history). Some even include a small picture of their press or workshop. It was wonderful to see the number of presses registered, and the variety.

The Yellow Pages on the site are just what you'd think. A listing of business and services that would be of use to those interested in letterpress printing and private presses. With over 1000 entries, it is more complete than most. Just be aware that some of the older records may be a bit out of date. You may need to follow up with a google search.

The most useful pat of the site I think are the Discussions forums. Nevin has created quite a resource here, and the forums are both active and wide ranging. Some are quite technical, while others are good for the new visitor or new printer. One has to create a (free) account ot participate in discussions, but the content is available to the public.

Lastly, (and yes, I am talking about the sections out of their sequence) there is a Classified section. Personal ads are free, but I believe commercial ads do cost. The ads are not just buy and sell either - there are sections for workshops & events and for jobs & internships. While the more dedicated community of letterpress printers is small over 28,000 accounts have been created on the site, so the interest is far wider. Having the Classified also provides a way for the community to grow, and I think one of the best features of the entire site.

So go to the Briar Press. Bookmark it in your browser. Grab the computers of your friends and colleagues and book mark it for them too. You'll all learn something new and useful on every visit.

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Make Mine Irish - Four Courts Press

In a publishing environment where big names and large firms seem to dominate most US shops and a good many Brit establishments, it is a joy to come across a smaller publisher with a solid line of titles and high standards as well. Such firms are few and far between, and if you find one that fits your interests, then you are a lucky reader indeed.

Four Courts Press is one of those publishers for, and I envy Ireland all the more because of it.

Four Courts Press, from its own about page, was launched in 1970 by Michael Adams (still the publisher) and began to expand in 1992. From Theological works the firm has moved into Irish History from Celtic forward, Art, Literature and more. They have over 500 titles in print, and I copies of a small number of those.

I was first introduced to Four Courts when I was visiting the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Congress bring together scholars from around the globe as well as a good number of publishers and a few used & rare sellers as well. When I am there I usually seek out books on Medieval Spanish History or Book & Library history. Both of these subjects can be even pricier used if you miss them when they come out, so it is good to keep aware of what currently in publication. In any case, in a side room, I came across gentleman whose name escapes me now, who was just done packing up the booth, and all that was left were a few catalogues. I picked up a catalogue, thumbed through it as he was finishing up, and a title caught my eye: KING'S INNS AND THE BATTLE OF THE BOOKS, 1972 by Colum Kenny. I asked if he had any copies, and he said no, the one he brought sold but he would take my order if I wished. I did so wish, and the deal was struck.

2 weeks later or so I received the book from their US distributors. And a couple weeks later I received a copy directly from Dublin as well. As the book was not cheap I contacted them and told them I was happy to buy the second copy. They were kind enough (and right prompt in replying too - always a good sign) to give me a good price as I was a bookseller.

These events hooked me on Four Courts. The book itself is a very interesting read, and I encourage you to investigate it, though sadly it is out of print. Other factors struck me even than the content of the book. The quality of manufacture was high and, on taking more time with the catalog, the other works in the catalog were both unique and interesting. Many publishers seem to repetitively cover the same ground - just do a browse on how many biographies of JFK or Elizabeth I have been published by major US publishers in the last 25 years. Four Courts to be consistently good at taking a different angle on a subject, and in some detail.

To give you an idea of some of the variety:

Virtues of a Wicked Earl
The life and legend of William Sydney Clements, 3rd earl of Leitrim, 1806–78 A.P.W. Malcomson

Irish Governments and the Guardianship of Historical Records, 1922-72
Gerard O'Brien

The University of Ulster
Genesis and growth
Gerard O'Brien & Peter Roebuck, editors

2RN and the Origins of Irish Radio
Richard Pine

Building Irish Identity in America, 1870-1915
The Gaelic Revival
Úna Ní Bhroiméil

And so on. I am not a collector or even a heavy reader in Irish history, but so many of these titles seem so interesting to me. Granted, I live in the United States so books on Irish History pretty much are limited to Vikings, potato famines, travel, and drinking. But the variety of titles from one publisher still impresses me a great deal.

If you are interested in Irish history and/or culture, look at Four Courts Press . They are not the cheapest books, but they are some of the best. That is a good and needed thing.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Books Sold - The Best Pricing Tool

As I stated in another post, my guestimate is up to 90% of the books online are common. The pricing of these books is pretty straightforward - look at what other copies are selling for and then determine where you want to set your price on that spectrum. This most often done by looking at one of the other major used & rare bookselling sites or one of the two big multi-site search engines.

But the best information you can have is the latest actual selling price for a book. There are not many ways to get it, but it will be an essential tool in improving book sales and bettering the industry.

There are two downsides of using for-sale pricing information to set book prices. The first is that such a comparison leads to a rush to the lowest price. Now, the lowest possible price - a penny, a dollar - is not necessarily the price at which a book will sell steadily. Perhaps that price is 5 dollars, maybe less, maybe more. You need to see the data to determine that. The second is that for books with fewer listings, prices can be set too high. Sure, maybe there are only 3 copies of the book for sale. But if the last 4 sold for half of the current prices, that might tell you something. And if they sold over the space of a couple of years, that would tell you more.

Such sale data is hard to come by - and full tabulated data that will let you do good analysis is harder still to get. Currently only eBay and Alibris allow users to see what books have sold for - and both have a limited window of data, either by account, date or quantity or all three. However, the variety of books they cover makes that information far better than nothing. The best sales data is for more uncommon books, and that is auction records. The best site for such data is, IMHO, Americana Exchange (we'll talk more about them in a later post). You can also get access to cd-rom or paper editions to these records at larger libraries. Auction records have a great history, and one can often track a single copy of a book through over a century of sales. Again, a great variety of books are listed, but most are pretty pricey, and not ones you come across every day and a general bookseller.

The kind of sale data needed should have a number of facets. Date (month, year), of course, title, author, publisher, condition, and price. I'd like to included description as well, but as some online descriptions are like a fingerprint for who sold the book, I might live without that - anonymity of seller and buyer is important. I would also be interested to see the state (i.e. Arkansas, New York, etc.) of the seller and buyer. Again, I could live without it, but it could prove useful. I would like the data to run back as far as it could into the past of a particular site. As noted above, this is a service I would have no trouble paying extra for - but it would have to be as useful as auction records.

I am not entirely sure why sites do not so that now. Perhaps someone in the comments section will suggest something. But if it is just processing power or some other "too much work" related argument, I won't buy it. Site revenues will flatten. There are only so many books and so many people who want to list them and so many sites users are willing to engage. By adding a fee service with tools and depth, It could add an important revenue stream. Even if sellers do not list on a site they might pay for access to the data on that site.

Access to such data improves the entire bookselling industry. If a book would sell just as well at $5 as a penny, that is useful information. More accurate pricing AND more accurate pricing tools are more professional, and lead to more sales, less problems, and more knowledgeable booksellers. It would be an added revenue stream for book sites. And it would help limit (you can't prevent a fool) the confusing, all over the map pricing that seems to be getting worse. If the major bookselling sites don't do it, then the association sites should as a service to their members.

It seems to me deeply silly in a multi-hundreds of million dollar industry to NOT have access to such important data. So pressure your sites - bring it up at roundtables and advisory boards and forums. Accurate sales data is good for any industry, and lack of it seems amateurish and downright counter productive to a healthy market.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

An Old, Cool Word

One thing that is certain in being around books is that You Will Learn New Words. Sometimes you come across them in a book, at others they show up all on their own, and require a bit of digging to understand. The internet helps a great deal, and the ever-full OED is a superb tool to go digging with as well. If it is a good enough word, you make it yours.

One of my recent words is Wayzgoose. And it has a good story.

Wayzgoose has an interesting history, and I won't just rewrite what Wikipedia has said about it, which is a good start. Suffice it to say the term is a late medieval one, and associated with a feast for or by journeyman printers. The original form of the word is likely have been way-goose, as the OED states, and the "z" added later in the 19th century and eventually supplanting the original.

This is borne out a bit by a 1683 description of ancient printing traditions by Moxon in his MECHANIK EXERCISES, the first manual on printing in English. He describes a "Way Goose" being presented to the journeymen by the master printer when they replaced the old paper windows with new ones. This done around St. Bartholomew's Day in late August and markets a shortening of the days as summer ended.

The Master printer would entertain them in his own house, and give them money with which to go out and drink that evening. Other members of the establishment are invited to attend, with all of them adding in some funds to the drinking balance except for the Corrector. The Corrector is the only one of the other positions (founder, smith, joiner, inkmaker) who is not chosen by the journeyman, but instead by the Master Printer.

Today it seems the word is often for book- or medieval-related events, not just feasts. Being a traditionalist I think it is best that some large spread of food accompany any use of the word, even if not book related.

One current Wayzgoose event is on I would dearly love to visit is the annual Gasperau Press Wayzgoose held in october each year since 2000, which celebrates literature and the book arts. Authors and printers and fine presses come from across Canada for a busy weekend of socializing, presntations, and workshops.

So, if you want to have a book-themed party with lots of good hearty food, call it a wayzgoose and introduce your guest sto a great word and a bit of book history to boot.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bookplate Junkie - I Think I'm Hooked

On the internet there are of course sites for everything. But the catch is that there aren't really GOOD sites for everything. But, thanks to one Mr. Lewis Jaffe, there is a really outstanding site for bookplates. By outstanding, I mean a site to learn from, to enjoy, and to move deeper into the wonderful galaxy of bookplates.

But first, a bit of background.

Bookplates (or exlibri, sing. exlibris) have a long history, but their rise parallels the increase in book ownership associated with the printing press. Like the press, bookplates as we know them started in Germany and gathered an exuberant following there before spreading, primarily to the west.

Most early bookplates included coats of arms and other such heraldic devices, and as the fashion spread some plates have very elaborate images and designs surrounding the heraldic arms. Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein were known to have done bookplates, and a host of skilled lesser-known craftsmen as well.

Bookplates of the 18th century began to take on wider themes. These included portraits, allegories, and architectural and decorative designs, but heraldic themes were still the most common.

By the late 19th century, the rise of the artistic, personalized bookplate begins, as does the rise in collecting them. Popular graphic artists begin to get commissions from both the famous and not so famous, and a number of artists begin to get well known for their work in bookplates. A wide variety of subject groups appeared, and collectors were right behind them - Chess, Military, Printing Presses, Castles, Animals, Ships, Ruins, etc.

One of the most interesting articles I've viewed in one in a French Journal from the 1920's that had a large article on WWI bookplates by French soldiers. The reproductions were bad to begin with and time ahd not been especially kind, but I remember being surprised and delighted and even moved at the variety, art, and overriding theme of mortality in them. If I can dig up the reference I will share it with you all in an addendum.

CONFESSIONS OF A BOOKPLATE JUNKIE is a site that surprises and delights me continually. I have known about it so long I don't even remember how I heard about it. But I do know i visit it often, and always find something interesting and unusual there. He often links to collections or exhibitions, and has profiles of collectors. He is often more than happy to help others find out more about the bookplates they own, and you can learn a lot not only about the owners but about how folks did their research as well.

Images abound on the site, and are usually available in larger sizes of the main page as well. If you have a slow connection or machine, be prepared. They are for the most part sharp and in full color. Without hesitation I say that his site is better for images than any book I have seen on the subject.

He also recommends a couple books, recommendations I will second and add to here:

AMERICAN BOOKPLATES by William E. Butler (2000)



BRITISH BOOKPLATES by Brian North Lee (1979)

ROCKWELL KENT : THE ART OF THE BOOKPLATE by Don Roberts and Will Ross (2003)

THE ART OF THE BOOKPLATE by James Keenan, with a forward by George Plimpton (a nice little picture book and survey).

Between Mr. Jaffe's CONFESSIONS OF A BOOKPLATE JUNKIE and the books. above, you should be off to e great start with bookplates. Mr.Jaffee ahs done us all agreat service here, and I wish him much success in his blog and collecting.

And no, I will not be held responsible for time lost from work or other things you should be doing.

Caveat Exlibris.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why Do New Book Prices Drop So Fast?

One of the interesting phenomena I see is how fast prices of many new titles from a good number of publishers fall. I have seen books that have been out only a few days have 10+ copies already listed as used, with prices half or less off the Amazon price. Some even have over a dozen reviews months before publication date, which surprised me as well.

Then one day, a person came in the shop and had two boxes of brand new books. These books had been sent them by many publishers because of some small award for which the person had been empaneled. As with many prizes, books are sent to be considered and the publishers decide what to send. I imagine judges do have a bit of leeway to ask for titles they want to see, but I think the number of those titles would be small. I have known book reviewers and editors who have similar experiences as well.

Herein may lie the problem.

Whether it is awards, reviews, or even solicitation for blurbs from writers in the same field, some publishers send out a ton of copies in advance of publication, or shortly thereafter. In the case of reviewers and award judges, a good number of these books are not pertinent to the task at hand. Tangential, obscure, or self published works come in, along with the many pertinent works as well. Even for reviewers, the books may be pertinent but there are so many of them. Eventually, the stacks rise beyond comfort levels and something must be done to save both architecture and relationships.

Happily faced with a deluge, many folks have to regularly weed the books sent them. In many cases they sell them. The Strand in New York City, for example, has a well known reputation for having a wide selection of such review copies. Most university towns have several reviewers about, so on a smaller scale than NY this goes on across the country. Sooner, rather than later, these books start popping up on Amazon and elsewhere. In numbers.

Then the race to the bottom begins. The first few are priced at or even higher than the new copy, esp. if the new copy is not out yet. The next ones drop a bit below that, and so on and so forth. By the time the books has been out a month or two, the book is at most 20% of the value new. Again, we are primarily talking about most trade books here, but I do include some popular art books in the mix as well, and scholarly books published in quantity as some from Yale and Harvard and Oxford. There are of course exceptions but, for most, this is the likely scenario.

Publishers complain about Amazon listing new and used on the same page, thereby depriving them of sales, or about eBay or ABE books and all the new copies of books there. However, as we can discussed this an issue to which they themselves greatly contribute by sending out so many free copies. What are people supposed to do with all the books? Donating them is of course a possibility, but many of those copies wind up on the used market in any case. Recycling is a possibility, but why recycle a perfectly good new book? I think expecting reviewers to jus sit on these free copies or return them to the publisher (esp. if the books were not requested in the first place) is just absurd, and complaining about the current effects of one's own policies a waste of time. Publishers would beter spend their time revisiting their pre-publication distribution policies.

Next Week - How Publishers Might Improve Revenue Stream From Their Titles

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What is Rare? What is Uncommon?

In viewing online listings, I see these two words quite a bit in descriptions of books. Usually, I see such words in the middle of 20+ others listings for the same book. What are they thinking?

There are actually more or less standard definitions of rare and uncommon in the book trade. ABC FOR BOOK COLLECTORS by John Carter & Nicolas Barker (now available in its 8th ed. as a downloadable file) lists several kinds of scarcity, and I encourage you to look them all over. They make a great deal of sense, but don't go as far as I feel we need to into other levels of scarcity.

However, for our purposes, there are 4 levels: Rare, Scarce, Uncommon, and common, and I am primarily referring to books post 1850.

Let's deal with the biggie first.

A lot of booksellers seem to call a book "rare" if they have not seen it before, or often. This is far too limited a view, esp. if the book is going to be listed online with other copies, or more knowledgeable viewers will be seeing the description. Rare should be an item no one sees very often, and ABC FOR BOOK COLLECTORS discusses why that might be better than I. But a book is not rare is there are several copies for sale at any given time - all the time. A rare book is one you see every couple or more years. It may hang around a bit if few are interested in it, it is obscure, or if the bookseller is asking too dear a price, but it still is rare.

Scarce books are those that show up in the marketplace regularly, but never in quantity, i.e. less than 5, across ALL the book venues. Once more than a handful are on the market, it seems to me that supply is starting to match or surpass demand - at least at the prices offered. I often do not call a book scarce unless I have a better understanding of its availability as well - like checking to see if the book is still in print, or how many have been sold in the last few years.

Uncommon books are those that can be easily found, but in small quantities, less than 10 total copies, rarely more than that. These are books that were probably not printed in any great quantity, but that have a soft enough market that copies are usually available. Sometimes they are cheap, sometimes expensive, but if you want one you can find it. I view uncommon books are those whose supply has best matched demand.

Common books are those that you can always get, generally for a lower price, and in decent condition. These can range in quantity from 15 to 300. They make up about 90% of the market. To give you an idea or proportion, if ABE has 110 million books, then 99 million of them are the more common sort.

Even though expensive, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in first edition, first state, is a scarce to uncommon book depending on binding and condition. I don't think think of it as rare. It is at auction regularly. I can think of a dozen other books, less well known, far cheaper, and far more rare. Most booksellers with time in the business and a decent memory could make their own list.

The best advice beyond the above is to look closer at the book. Don't get in a rush to call something rare or scarce just because you haven't seen it before. Do your homework. Look to see how many copies are online, and see if you can figure out how long they have been there. Look at the records of booksellers, and see if they are calling it rare, and why. When in doubt, don't call it rare unless you have a very good reason for doing so. If people are interested, they will find the book, and buy it, without adding vague or excited adjectives to its description.


More after the jump...