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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Blogger DangAndBlast! said...

I always put a description of the book's plot (etc.) when I was selling them ... had one person even tell me that I shouldn't, because implying that it's something someone might want to *read* meant that it wouldn't be of interest to the people that collect books, and would reduce my chances of getting a sale. (May have -- never sold many!) Because, you know, all book collectors look on them as investment value only, and have no interest in the book...

(Me? I prefer the feel of decently-made (i.e. non-brittle) books from about the 1880s up to the last years before the Depression, when reading, rather than more modern commercial printing/binding styles, so that's what I'll get for myself -- and content's the top decider there, if I'm buying a book to read!)

4:37 PM  

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