Friday, May 08, 2009

Collectibles, Collections, and Accumulations - or Amazon Finds the Wrong Path

One phrase that floats around the used and rare book trade is the term "collectible' Amazon recently has moved to begin tightening what they have in their "collectibles" category (see their stipulations for items and sellers here). Leaving the "who can list collectible books" issue aside for this entry, they make 2 assumptions that show a great deal of naiveté.

Kind of shame, considering they could have listened more to both collectors and booksellers.

The two assumptions of Amazon are:

# All books listed in "Collectible" condition must be signed, limited first editions, or have other desirable qualities that could reasonably be assumed to increase the book's value to a collector.

# All products must be authentic. We do not allow any counterfeit, replica or knock-off products.

I am not a fan of the word "collectible". Not only is it overused to the point of meaninglessness, it is, like obscenity, way too hard to define. In regards to printed books, anything can be collectible, depending on what the collector wants.

So, for me, a true understanding of what is collectible must begin by defining a collection. I make a distinction between a collection and an accumulation. Simply put, a collection is the basis of a story that the collector tells with the individual items in the group. An accumulation is simply a group of things that someone has because they like it, want to have it or just wound up with it.

A collection is a thoughtful process. It may start out as an accumulation, but at some point the person gathering the material has begun to shape it, by themselves or with the help of a bibliography or bookseller. That shaping creates a story, which is just the tale of a particular author's work, or perhaps an answer to a question that the collector wanted to know. It can be a great story of interest to many people, worthy of donating to a great library and kept intact. It may just as likely be a personal story, one of interest only to the collector, but shaped with just as great a passion as any other collection. The monetary or scholarly value of the collection does not matter, the size does not matter and even the condition of the material may not matter. What matters is the purposeful shaping of the story. Why did that collector want only reprints of Nancy Drew, instead of originals? What does that tell us about the impact of those stories on girls? A frequent regret is that many a fine small collection's story was lost when the owner passed. I urge collectors to write the story of their collections, whether in a blog, a book, or just as an ongoing record to refer to and alter over time.

An accumulation is what most of us have. Most of my books on history and graphic arts are just books that I like. Together they do not tell much of a story or have any greater theme than my personal, varying interests. Nor should they. Good accumulations of books are fun and varied and damned interesting. They can tell as much about a reading person as a finely focused collection, perhaps more.

What Amazon is missing is a deeper understanding of what can make up a collection. As I said, it is anything, so trying to put a fence around collectible is simply a modern search for the Seven Cities of Cibola, apologies to Señor Coronado. "Qualities that could reasonably be assumed to increase the book's value" is not related to collectibility, or even desirability in every case. It is related to monetary value and perhaps scarcity, but that is all. If I am collecting every edition of Faulkner, many of those editions may not be pricey at all, or uncommon. If one collects books on American Teddy Bears in the 20th century, then the issues are the same. An edition of a reprint publisher may not be rare or expensive or indeed have anything different than the first edition of the original publisher, but it shows that the book still has interest. Bibliographically, it may tell us something about the publisher, trade book making, or even printing processes at different times. There are even collections of damaged books, used by teachers, book repair folk or libraries to show the fragility or ill-use of books.

Their rule stating "We do not allow.... replica or knock-off products" is just weak thinking. Facsimiles are replicas. The First Editions Library makes lovely replica first editions of important American literature in slipcases and nice dust jackets. These are quite collectible, though modestly priced. The important thing is that they are described as such, and not misdescribed by incompetence or ill intent. You can also require folks use pictures, but pictures can mislead as much as words.

I understand that Amazon wants some way to move the better books away from the mass of common books. But the best way to do that is demand better description and cataloging, and then the give the searcher better tools to define what they want to see. How about a way to exclude all ex-library books, or all ebooks? How about doing away with or correcting all records stating "unknown binding"? These are actually far more substantial improvements for buyers and collectors than a "collectibility" initiative.

Labels: , ,

More after the jump...

Myles of Books, Part the Fifth in which a Book is Turned Away

Topher regained a bit of the joy of having a shop as the week went on. Sales were not spectacular, but steady. A few people brought books for sale, and he was able to buy a few things and not pay too much or too little. People both walking by and coming in had appreciative faces, and a number out and out welcomed him. One or two shook their heads at his window sign. All Topher could do is shrug and wave.

It wasn't until the end of the week that Tom Knowles presented himself. He had either had a rough few days or been mugged minutes before entering the bookshop. Topher went with the mugging option and urged Tom toward the big chair.

"You ok, Tom?" he said.

Tom sat down on the edge of the seat, his long, creased face bent toward his chest. "Yeah man. I'm good. Just, just kinda beat today. I was going sweet the last few days, then crashed. I'll be good as new come the weekend." He leaned back and closed his eyes.

"Good to hear." Topher nodded. "You want a soda or a glass of water? "Nah, I'm more hungry than thirsty. Gonna grab a burger over at the Downtown on my way back home. I could gnaw the... " he leaned forward quickly and looked around, noticing a young couple at the back of the shop. "Well, I could gnaw whichever end of a cow you gave me right now."

Topher nodded anxiously then plunged ahead. "Um, did you get my call the other day?"

Tom looked up and ran a thick hand through graying brown hair. "Yeah, damn man, I'm sorry. I cut a bad template and used it all over the window. I'll fix that up right tomorrow. I just wanted to come by and let you know I wasn't dead or blowing you off."

"No problem, Tom. I didn't think either of those things. Arthur said you'd come by soon enough."

Tom rubbed his jaw. "Yeah, he knows me pretty well. I gave him a few calls back in the day when I did more work and heard about books here and there. I also made every shelf he has in his house at one time or another, unless he snuck some cheap mail order stuff. Good guy."

Tom placed his thick hands on the arms of the chair and pushed himself up. "Alright. I'm out. Thanks for being cool about your sign there Topher. I'll fix it no charge. My mistake, my time."

Topher stood up from leaning against the desk and shook Tom's hand. "Thanks Tom. Come by some time around closing and I'll join you at the diner."

"Cool. See you tomorrow." Tom walked out the shop slowly, but a little straighter.

Topher smiled a bit. One down, he thought. A proper sign for a proper bookshop.


Later that day, an order had come in from Canada for an art book on Kachina Dolls. Topher mulled briefly whether the person was an expatriate Arizonan or just a collector far way from what she loved. He found it soon enough, right next to a different book he did not remember having. It was an older book about a man from Kentucky at the Russian Court, which should have been in the Russia section and not Fine Arts. It also had no price in it.

He had just walked the oddly manifested book up to the desk when he saw a middle aged man with graying hair struggling in with a flat oversized box in his arms and a woman holding open the door for him.

Need some help with that?" Topher asked, moving toward the couple.

"Nope, I got it. Can I put 'er down on that table? " The man jerked his head toward the table with a a few Modern Library titles laying on it.

"Sure thing." Topher rushed over and cleared the books off onto a step stool.

"Thanks." The man set down his burden gently. "I was driving by last month, and saw you setting up. I told my wife, and we thought we'd bring this by." The man, early in his older years, carefully opened the box and pressed down the flaps. He looked up at Topher, smiling. "Not often you'll see a book this old is such good shape."

The woman nodded, glasses jingling above her expansive, sequined bosom. "We kept it boxed up, to make sure it doesn't get damaged. Open it up Bill."

Bill went back to the box. He lifted a second box carefully out of the first, and set it down next to it. He opened that box, revealing something wrapped in a towel. Topher glanced up to see the woman was beaming at him, while her husband began to gently lift back the folds of the towel. Topher raised his eye brows and tightened his mouth to show his seeming anticipation.

Under the towel was yet another layer of brown paper, which Bill set to work on carefully. "May, move the box over so I can take this out."

May quickly grabbed the first box and set it on the floor. Bill pushed the brown paper aside and pulled out a small square surrounded by bubble wrap. He gently set it down, and opened the last barrier to the treasure. "There it is. Still in great shape."

With those words, Topher began taking the first steps in the fine bookmanly art of gently deflecting visions of glory toward realistic possibilities.

On the table, set in the middle of the plastic cushion was a red and gilt edition of Tom Sawyer Abroad. The covers of the book were frayed at the edges, and its spine had seen better days. Topher looked at the couple nervously, but not for the reason they supposed.

"Go ahead," Bill said. "You can touch it."

Topher mumbled a thanks, then opened the front cover and gently turned the first few very browned and fragile pages. Dreaded words appeared. Volume XX. Authorized Uniformed Edition. 1910. Harpers.

He wasn't up on the latest ins and outs of Twain editions, but he knew this was not high on the list. Tom Sawyer was written in 1876, and he also knew the British edition preceded the American by a number of months. It wasn't much, but it was enough to give him a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Then he saw some writing, right on the inside of the cover. In a bold hand was the signature of one "Abner Chambers" with an early date and the name of a local town. It was an opening, and he took it.

"Um, do you know who this Abner Chambers is?" he asked.

May looked over at the open book. "My mom mentioned she had a great uncle named Abner. I always thought that was him."

"Did she say anything about him? Was he a mayor or anything?"

May looked at Bill, who shrugged. "Mom never told me much about him. Do you know the name?"

Topher shook his head. "Nope. But, this is an old book, and it has been in your family awhile. It might be worth looking into Abner. Won't hurt the value of the book if you wait to sell it either."

"Never thought of that. What do you think., Bill?" she asked.

"That might be an idea, May," Bill said. "We've always said we wanted to work on the family tree for the kids. Maybe this'll be useful."

"Ok, " she said, looking at the book again. "We'll take your suggestion. Very nice of you to put family over money."

Topher brought up his hands, palms outward. "Well, some books belong in a particular place, with particular people. I'm happy to help with that however it happens."

Bill reached over, and just as carefully rewrapped the book in the bubble wrap, the paper, and the towel, and finally replaced it in the box, which was put back into the the original container.

"Just out of curiosity," Bill said, "how much would a book like that go for?"

Topher flinched. "I couldn't say without some more research. But that name makes it unique, that's for sure."

Bill nodded. "It sure does. Thanks for the help, Mr. Myles. If we find anything else of interest, we stop here first." May waved as Bill picked up the box. Topher waved back as they left.

Collapsing in his chair, Topher sat for a moment, then went ahead and looked up the book on the web. Being generous, the retail prices was $1.59. With shipping, five and a half. Those were not numbers that would have produced a happy ending in a conversation with May and Bill. On the plus side, Topher thought, if old Abner did turn out to be the mayor of some town, it might triple the value of the book.

May and Bill turned out to be the last customers of the day for the shop. After he had closed up and settled the accounts, Topher sat alone in the shop. His first week nearly done, and he was still in the black. His window would be corrected soon, and he hadn't made a fool out of himself. Good, the thought. Time for a treat.

Labels: ,

More after the jump...