Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oak Knoll Press - The Bookseller to the Book World

If you like any aspect of the book arts, history of the book, bookselling, or library history, you need to know about Oak Knoll Press in Delaware. They have made the books about books field their own, publishing new titles for any budget and distributing books for smaller publishers that might be overlooked without them.

And they even have a festival.

As you can see from their front page, Oak Knoll was started in 1978 by Bob Fleck, to fill a void of booksellers who sold books about books. They issue 35 titles a year, on such topics as book collecting, book design, binding, forgery, papermaking, typography, calligraphy, and more. Some of the titles, like Rostenberg & Stern's OLD BOOKS IN THE OLD WORLD, are quite affordable, in the 20-25 dollar range, while others like Bennett's TRADE BOOKBINDING IN THE BRITISH ISLES 1660-1800 are specialty publications with excellent illustrations and sell north of $80.00.

Oak Knoll has deep and important ties to other organizations and publishers as well. They co-publish books with the British Library and the Library of Congress, for example. They are the exclusive distributor for 10 firms, and for selected titles from 13 more. These firms include the American Antiquarian Society, the Bibliographical Societies for the US & UK, the Caxton Club, and many others. These publishing and distribution arrangements allows them to be almost one stop shopping for books on any niche of the book world.

The other important aspect of Oak Knoll to note is the quality of production they bring to their books. Without exception, any book published by them, and virtually all distributed by them, are well made and attractive. Good paper, solid binding, and good layout are hallmarks. The previously mentioned TRADE BOOKBINDING IN THE BRITISH ISLES is a prime example. It is scholarly but accessible, well illustrated, with a unique focus, and is most definitely practical. That work alone would make one notice a publishing house, and Oak Knoll has dozens.

From a bookseller's standpoint, Oak Knoll stands out for two features. The utility of the publications they carry for the trade, and the commitment they have to publish books directly about bookselling past and present. Not a day goes by that I do not use either a bibliography or reference work they did not have a hand in publishing or distributing. The memories they have published of American and European bookshops and booksellers both inspire me and help me be a better, more professional bookseller. If a bookseller's reference library is their tool set, then Oak Knoll is the equivalent of the Craftsman company. You can't go wrong with them.

Oh, and the festival is called Oak Knoll Fest. The next one is in October of 2009, but they generally do not have information on the next event up til summer. It is definitely on my list of book festivals to visit.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Books Away! Dilemmas with Book Shipping Fees

There are two common scenarios for disappointment with shipping. Both start the same way. You're looking on one of the book or auction sites for a title you really want. You find it at a good price, but then you look again - shipping is $7+ for media shipping. That's scenario #1. The second scenario kicks in when you actually get the book. Let's say you paid $4 for shipping. But when you get the book, it is packaged loose in a padded envelope, which does little or nothing to protect book book. You may or may not see the actual shipping cost, but either way it's a poor result.

These two events happen all the time, and the blame is shared most everyone selling books.

In the first case, the seller is clearly overcharging for shipping. Rare books, oversized or heavy books, or even expensive book can cost that much regularly (or more) if packaged well and insured. But when buying though any site where a seller sets the price for shipping, Anything above $5 is too much for an average octavo sized book, if not insured, heavy, rare or expensive. For us, media shipping is around $2.25, .35 cents for the box, and perhaps 75 cents (at the most, it can be cheaper). $3.50 generally is the most shipping will actually cost us for media mail in the US.

The second scenario is far more common on sites where shipping fees are capped, or when the book itself is quite cheap. The quiet policy of sites like Amazon, Alibris, and recently ABE is to take a chunk of the shipping fee for their own use. For Alibris and Amazon, that fee is approx. $1.34-1.35 per fee. Amazon compounds this by not allowing discounts with the same seller (feel free to let me know in the comments if I am mistaken here, but I don't think so). There fore, sellers do not get the $4 a buyer pays for shipping. They receive about $2.65 or so. Many seller respond by shipping the cheapest way possible, and that means the lightest possible packaging in least expensive package. Indeed, some sellers make more money on the shipping, than they do the book itself, if the book is very cheap. And, given the math I shared with you above, that means we at Motte & Bailey lose money on shipping. We often do. Pretty much anyone who wants to ship a book properly does.

In both cases the buyer is not getting the service for which they paid, partly out of greed by the bookseller and partly out of greed by the bookselling sites. Business models are business models. They can be whatever is not illegal. But, like most folks, if I pay $4 for shipping, I want to see $4 in shipping. For sellers, I can understand the cost of materials in shipping fees, and insurance if need be. But everything else should be in the price of the book.

Likewise, the bookselling sites are taking part of the buyer's cost of shipping and simply pocketing it. For what? The best argument they have is that they are charged a fee when processing the credit card fee for that Amount. I understand that, but no credit card company charges 33% on a four dollar charge. None. It is simply a money grab, and the result is shoddy shipping practices are reinforced across the board. It is my greatest irritant in dealing with Amazon and Alibris.

There is nothing illegal about trying to generate income from shipping, but it has always smacked of sharp practice to me. Shipping should be a covered cost, not an income generating service, unless you are UPS or FedEx or the Post office. It costs sales, goodwill, and often the book itself, damaged or destroyed when the cheap packaging gives up its already tenuous ghost.

So look for shipping costs. Go to various websites. Buy direct as much as possible. For us, we offer free media shipping when people buy directly from our site, as it saves us money from a host of fees and delays that accompany any sales at the big book sites.


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Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Club Editions - The Good, Bad, and Ugly

We often see book club editions of works, either offered to us in the shop or at the various library or garage book sales we attend. On occasion we will visit a home and an entire library will contain nothing but book club editions, all looking smart and even in their tidy rows.

At such times I think - I wonder how much bulk pulp paper goes for these days?

Lest you think I am on the verge of forgoing bookselling for recycling, let me explain. Book clubs - Book of the Month Club, the History Book Club, the Science Fiction book club, the Romance Book Club, the Mystery Book Club, etc. etc. etc. supply reasonably priced books to a host of readers across the country. The are currently almost all printed by the Book Club master, Bookspan, a wholly owned subsidiary of the mega media giant Bertlesmann. The books are generally smaller in size than trade editions with different binding and paper. Most are hardcovers, but not all. Many are in standard size and do indeed look quite nice on a shelf. Most are cheaper in price than original editions as well.

In some cases, they are collectible. Some genre fiction sees its first hardcover (or only) edition in book club form, and often the dust jackets reproduce the original designs. This allows a collector to at least have the appearance of some of the earlier important works without the cost of the original editions.

For readers, there are benefits as well. It is sometimes easier to find a hardcover book club edition of a book than a paperback copy. Copies are, as noted above, cheaper than new trade editions. Club membership can also be managed online, certainly an improvement over the old card system.

That said, overall I am not a fan. I will pick up book club editions of science fiction when the dust jackets reproduce the original designs, but beyond that call me Savonarola. Book club book, esp. hardcovers, use lower quality paper and binding than trade editions. They are usually smaller, and sometimes not printed as sharply. In the early days, the book clubs would sometimes sell copies printed by the original publisher and You pay less, and you certainly get less.

They are also confusing and mis-described all over the used book market. Newer book clubs editions are harder to spot, as this article at the Tom Folio website notes, though a more extensive article is needed. Either by lack of attention or education, or by sharp practice, booksellers often offer book club editions as first editions. Many book club dust jackets do not print the price on the flap, and more mercenary booksellers sometimes clip the corner to hide this fact. Others simply do not note that the book is a book club edition, and price it as if it were the original trade edition.

In financially tight times, book clubs can seem like a good deal. But book club books also are not necessarily good value books. While book club editions are cheaper, in many cases waiting a bit will allow you to get a even cheaper used copy of a nice, well made trade edition of the same book. Such a copy will last longer, and have better resale value, than a book club edition. Even with shipping, it is at least no more than the grasping "shipping & handling" charges by the book clubs.

So take a longer term view with book club editions. Think about what you want the book for when you buy - just to read or to collect. Will you want it for a long time, or just for now? And what does a book club really cost compared to a used copy of a better edition? And what is the current price per pound of pulp paper?


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Monday, February 16, 2009

Booksellers to the Federation - Are We Selling Antiques?

In the 2 major Start Trek series, the original and Next Generation, both captains had printed books, which others often saw only as antiques. For both Kirk and Picard the books represented a refuge for reflection and a historical tie to earlier eras of exploration.

More realistically, a colleague of mine, Chris Volk, suggested recently that booksellers were becoming "antique dealers" as more and more e-books are becoming available. I don't think we're at the United Federation of Planets state of printed books yet, but I can see why some view books as outmoded.

And I can also see why they are wrong.

I think 2 groups of people see books as "antiques". The first group are not heavy readers, and their exposure to hardcover printed books consists of early 20th c. family bibles and great-grandma Murphy's weathered victorian novels. The second group are early adopters of technology and/or those who have particular needs or constraints driving them to digital books.

The first group do not incorporate or perhaps have a need to incorporate books into their daily lives. They may read a good number of books, but possibly paperbacks only, and in narrow genres - true crime, romance, religion, fantasy, western, mystery. This is not to say all readers of these genres fall into this category, but a good number do. Hardcovers are a luxury or simply unnecessary.

The second group do indeed incorporate books into their daily lives, and may also be genre focused. Science fiction, literary fiction, short fiction, reference works, scientific anthologies etc. They also are heavy users of digital information in other forms - websites, forums, newspapers, blogs, online journals, and more. They have moved the internet to a central point in their information world, and digital books fit well in that space. Hardcover books and even paperbacks are one more "device" to carry on a trip, or to and from work. Printed books are old technology, old matter, which are superseded in terms of ease of access, web integration, and portability by electronic books.

For both groups, printed books are indeed antiques. Both groups have fairly defined information spaces in which they like to exist, and printed books do not fit in those high or low information spaces. They are decorative and perhaps valuable to one, and quaint and physically burdensome to the other. Also, though both groups certainly read longer works, the majority of their reading is of text in smaller units - news or scholarly articles, reference entries, blogs, etc.

For many readers and researchers though, printed books are far from antiques. They are tools or collectible items, sometimes both. Folks in this group are more likely to read nonfiction, and book length nonfiction at that, whether a single work or an anthology of related essays or articles. They are not necessarily early adopters of technology, nor are they luddites. Electronic reference works are probably the most important electronic books they use, either websites or databases available from libraries. For collectors the book, while not an antique, is a more unique object melding information and package in one, that makes a statement about books arts, the author, the printer and the content of the book. Such a book may also be a tool for book arts researchers as well. In short, they are sophisticated users of books in their own right, demanding of books as useable object, not just a containers of content.

So will booksellers be antique dealers? Not for some time. There are many optimistic predictions for electronic books, with devices being compared to IPods. Projections are over 1.5 billion for 2010, which I think is very high, but such projections have been common in the e-book industry, yet booksellers and printed books are still here. I think a number of changes will need to occur economically, technologically and even politically before that happens. One day we may be selling books as only objects, or as unique records of historical events rather than intellectual tools. But it is not this day. Nor will it be anytime soon.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To Break or Not to Break - Always the Question

One of the issues any used & rare bookseller faces is what to do with books that have great illustrations, esp. older ones. Many such books are worth more in parts than as a whole. Each bookseller has to address this issue for themselves at one point or another. All kinds of issues can come into play, from financial to moral. For a reflective seller, it is not easy.

So here's one bookseller's approach.

Many, if not most beautifully framed images in museums, libraries, historical associations, antique shops, homes, and used & rare bookshops come from books, magazines and atlases. Some of the sources were actually made to be broken up by their owners and made into framed art, whereas others were intended as collections of images to fully present a subject. But beauty often carries danger, and magnificent illustrated works were often broken up for sale or display. In the case of some works, complete copies are far more rare than any individual print taken from them or incomplete copies.

In a few cases regarding older works, these fragments are all we have left, and it is good that at least something survived. Fire, poor storage, censorship, and weather often decimated copies of early illustrated books, which were not printed in large numbers. The breaking up of the books at least insured that we would know a bit about them, their authors, and their publishers.

These days the greatest danger to such beautifully illustrated works is financial gain. As a notorious example, a book sold by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the Nurnbergische Hesperides was sold for $50,000. Its new owner sent it to Europe where the 248 black and white plates were hand colored (also common with maps) and then put out to be sold around the world for between $500 and $1500 each. The 2 volume book, created in the early 1700s, was one of only 8 known copies in collections around the world and considered a landmark in 18th century botanical wrk. This is often repeated, daily, for works of much lesser importance.

For our shop, we practice a simple motte: do no harm. If the book is complete, we do our best not to break it up. That is, if we can sell it as is, we do so. If it is worth rebinding, we do that. In some cases I imagine the buyer broke a book up that we sold, but we just don't do that ourselves. If the book has lasted this long with its content intact, then we won't be the shop that destroys it as a complete entity.

If the book, magazine, or atlas is incomplete OR (sometimes) extremely common when we receive it, we will break it. Sometimes we break it for digitized art, to scan it. We sometimes sell the prints, ads, maps, or covers in the case of magazines. We don't often sell the articles within, though I know of booksellers who do have some success with this depending on the magazine or journal. In these cases the alternative is recycling, which we do with the leftover bits. We have not done this with any work older than 1880, and the earlier the work the less likely I feel we would break it up, as older books, even incomplete, are still hand made, and the printing, binding, and paper are still important to preserve in situ, and often show unique variations.

As I noted above, each bookseller has to set their own rules in this area. But a good bookseller will keep a longer view of the life of a book. Items that are common today maybe not be so common in future. A discerning eye for art or design is important as well. I see a lot of illustrations and pages removed from books or magazines which really aren't that attractive or interesting. Perhaps some folks just see an old magazine and get to cutting.

Not us, and not you I hope.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

ABE, Now With 100% More E-Book

On the website ABE books, a user can create want lists which ABE matches every now and again, primarily when a bookseller adds more books. Those books are matched against all of the wants in ABE's system and notifications go right out.

But what happens when those listings are e-books, and all of a sudden several booksellers seem to have durn near every book in electronic form?

Sounds like Operation Mayhem to me.

That is just what recently happened. All of a sudden today (yes, I am a day behind dear readers) many of us who have such want lists with ABE get these e-book notifications. I have no interest in e-books. The closest I have ever come to buying one was back in the cd-rom days, when Voyager was putting out those awesome multimedia books. I still have them, and they still hold up. No, when go to ABE, my want lists are for books made out of atoms, not bytes. I am not going to go into the merits or problems with e-books in this post, but boy, it’s coming.

ABE seeks to promote itself as a professional used and rare bookselling site. But increasingly I have been seeing Kessinger and University of Michigan Print on Demand titles. Now, an e-book swarm. This is not good, and the main reason it is not good is a very old one, something I learned early in my bookshop days:

Bad books drive out good ones.

If you have a lot of beat up common books on your shop that are always there and never change, then that says something about your shop to your customers. The bad books not only take up space for better books, they hide the good ones, or give the impression that there aren't that many in the shop.

If you are trying to be a used and rare and "collectible" site, then I do not se how those e-books further that aim. All those easily made e-books aren't used, rare, or collectible. The plethora of records that may very well sprout up would overwhelm records for actual books, so that users look through the first 20 or so listings and just give up.

Worse, most of the online sites are what I call "sites that can't say no" - they don't let you limit searches by removing records with certain words. eBay does this, and true, listers there are always trying to find some cute way to get around the search parameters to show you things you won't buy. But they help. So, if there is at least an attempt allow users to easily limit want matches or searches to printed books (and while you're at it, a way to remove ex-library copies as well) then that can be a win win. It won't be perfect, but it can sure help.

IF ABE does not do this, I predict lot of complaints, and a number of buyers moving their want lists elsewhere. Inaction and a lot of false hits are not exactly customer service, and a bit of a dangerous gambit to play in these times of tightening belts.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Myles of Books Part the First

It is said everyone has a book in them, and that it should probably stay there. Well, no such luck. Below is part one of a book I have been working on. No promises, but I am hoping the blog helps me keep it moving forward. I will be posting new entries once a week. Happy reading. Comments welcome.

For many people, owning a shop of interesting used books would be the joy of a lifetime. For Topher Myles, that unblemished joy lasted exactly from 10 a.m. 'til 10:20 a.m. the day he opened.

The collapse of his initial enthusiasm occurred while he was shelving the last of the books in the necessary but not favored psychology section. He caught sight of his first visitor coming through the door. A short older woman, purposeful, with a rather sizable purse and firm set to her face seemed to be giving the place a thorough going over. Topher put down the books and turned to greet her. The look she gave him made him think getting too close would not be advised.

"Um, good morning ma’am. If I can help you with anything, please let me know." Topher smiled weakly. The woman nodded slightly, then began looking over the shop.

Not looking exactly, but peering. Investigating. As Topher watched now and again over his shoulder, she went over each section, pulling a book out here or there, then putting it back. She tested the chairs, tipping one sideways to examine it then setting it down. of particular interest was the curtained doorway to the back and the various books, pens, papers and computer spread over the main desk.

Seemingly satisfied, she reached deep into her bag and pulled out a notepad and pencil. She scribbled a few furious notes, then dropped both back inside. She raised her head to Topher.

Topher took one step toward her. She took three quicker steps towards him.

"You are selling used books yes?" she asked, somehow looking down at him though she was a head shorter.

"Yes ma'am. Most subjects." he said.

She looked him over. "You do have dictionaries?"

"Yes ma'am, for several languages." Topher raised his arm to point to the reference section.

"Then I suggest you find one for English, review your window, and do a bit of correcting." The woman turned, stabbing a finger at the window, and left as fast as she entered.

Topher went to the window, which was just finished yesterday by a local carpenter and sign painter suggested by his good friend and colleague Arthur Bailey, of Bailey's Rare Books and Manuscripts. The carpenter, Tom Noels, had finished the bookshelves last week and done excellent work. Topher had paid him, but he had disappeared for most of the week leaving the windows untouched 'til yesterday. Topher looked at the reverse lettering, then went outside for a better view. After a moment he saw it, in large, white, somewhat antiquated lettering:

Myles of Boosk Booskhop
Used and Rare Book Bought and Sold

His shoulders dropped. Maybe he could get Tom back before the weekend.

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Blackwells to the Right of Me, Volley'd and Thunder'd

I have always thought that knowing the history of one's profession is important, and knowing the history of businesses that impact our lives equally so. I don't think one have have any understanding of bookselling without knowing something of Blackwells of Oxford, probably the most successful single bookshop and one of the greatest mid-sized bookselling firms ever. Their publishing arm is not to be overlooked either.

Luckily someone wrote a book about the history of the firm.

There are a number of books about bookselling firms, new and used. Not all are very good, but most give one some insight. Most also are fairly sketchy about the recent past, as many of the principals are still alive and active in the firm. It probably wouldn't do to dwell on the warts too much, especially if the author has close ties to her or her subject.

That said, A. L. P. Norrington wrote a history of Blackwells in 1983 which I think stands up as a very good firm history. The book, "Blackwell's 1879-1979: The History of a Family Firm", is a bit sketchy on the late 60s forward as I noted does happen in some histories. Norrington was on good terms with Blackwells, having worked for the Oxford University Press and later President of Trinity College and Vice-Chancellor of OXford University. In fact, the great underground 10,000 square foot room at Blackwell's flagship shop at 50 Broad Street (actually 48-51 Broad Street). I imagine his interest was on a positive work rather than on a scholarly study of the firm.

What makes this a good book? Well, first, it is about a man as much as a bookshop. Basil Blackwell, the son of the founder, was the guiding light for much of the growth of the firm. A firm but fair leader, a lover of fine printing, and a conservative champion of his profession, Sir Basil (known as the Gaffer) led the growth in the publishing arm of Blackwells, and took over in 1924 after his father's death, staying on 'til his own demise in 1984. His work with the firm make interesting reading, and Norrington is not quite so dry as one might expect.

I believe British authors do a better job discussing the business side of bookselling than Americans do, and this books holds to that tradition.
The book is fairly detailed in the history and operations of the firm, up to the chronological point I mentioned earlier. The overall theme seems to be quality - good books, well made, and sold at a reasonable cost. The firm is noted for attention to the bottom line but not an obsession with it, and Norrington mentions a number of decisions regarding publishing, bookselling and the acquisition of other firms that are done for reasons other than profit, though in most cases profit was made.

I think that is why I like this book so much. It is clear from Norrington and a later derivative work called "Adventurer's All: Tales of Blackwellians" by Rita Ricketts that Blackwells is rather unique. It has grown, but is not into a Borders or Barnes and Noble or Waterstones. It has kept a sense of itself, and members of the firm are aware that this is an important legacy. Other shops I feel share this was well, like Foyles in London, though none with quite the steadiness of Blackwells. It was and remains a model firm for the industry, and back in the day when I worked at Borders here in Ann Arbor the lore had it that the Borders brothers admired Blackwells in Oxford so much they modeled their original concept on it.

Whether that shop legend is true or not, it has the germ of a good idea. Keep an eye on Blackwells, when looking either back or forward. There's much to learn there, from commitment to quality, to growing a firm intelligently, to being a true participating member of a profession. Get Norrington's book, and read it.
All we need beyond that is an update that take us into the 21st century, so see the next chapter.

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