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.

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