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    Adventures of a rare book dealer (and former small bookshop owner).

Catalog Reactions Part II

Written on June 2, 2007

Note that this blog has moved. The new URL is biblioblography.briancassidy.net. Please update your bookmarks.

Some nice online press have been posted in the last couple of days. Americana Exchange notes “those who collect the ‘beat’ generation and its contemporaries in particular will be pleased with this catalogue” (more here). Meanwhile colleague Garrett Scott on his blog says “The catalog includes a well-researched batch of material [...] For somebody like me, whose attention to American literature tends to flag once we reach an era where Richard Griffin has faded from the scene, the catalogue still made for entertaining and informative reading.” My thanks to both sites for their kind words.

I’ve also been corresponding with Jed Birmingham, who writes perhaps the best online column devoted to book collecting, The Bibliographic Bunker, which is part of the William S. Burroughs website realitystudio.org. His column, however, is not restricted only to matters Burroughs; he has astute observations on the book collecting and the book business in general, all the while demonstrating that collecting at its finest is a form of scholarship.

Jed has written before about bookseller’s catalogs and he asked me about my feelings on the matter: why I choose to issue my first catalog now, whether I think catalogs are making a come-back, and the effect of the internet on catalogs and book collecting in general. In large part, I agree with his assessment:

All booksellers agree that the internet has changed the way rare book selling and collecting are done, but they also believe that it is merely one tool in the arsenal and that a successful collector or dealer cannot rely on the Web exclusively. In fact, many of the booksellers interviewed for the article, including Ken Lopez, felt that the pendulum was swinging back to the personal contacts of the pre-internet era. In a column a while back, I noted the joys and importance of this aspect of book collecting, and apparently I was not alone in my need for face-to-face contact, in my desire to talk with knowledgeable professionals about my books, and in my boredom and frustration with bookselling databases. More and more collectors are seeking out personal relationships with bookdealers possibly through email, but also, more interestingly, through the older means of the catalog and book fair.

For me, the decision to issue my first catalog was one I made more than a year ago and was due to a number of factors. First and foremost, I had items that required a catalog to sell them properly. The constraints of most databases mean that for important items needing long descriptions, necessary information would have to be left out or only suggested. Catalogs allow you to sell the book the way you want, with as many images as desired and with as much verbosity as you can muster.

Not only that, but put frankly – a dealer is not going to sell very expensive books on the internet. Few collectors or institutions are going to plunk down several thousand dollars on a book through ABE. A quick look at ABE’s monthly list of most expensive books sold bears this out; these prices are regularly eclipsed by book auction results and listings in dealer catalogs. A catalog demonstrates a certain professionalism and proficiency that lend themselves to confidence on the buyer’s part. A catalog also allows you to target your marketing, aiming your books at the customers and collections who would most be interested in your offerings. And finally, as a new and relatively young dealer, my hope was my first catalog would act as a kind of calling card within the book world – a way to announce myself. So there were both practical and marketing reasons for my decision to issue my first catalog.

That said, I recognize that the internet necessitates certain changes in catalogs, modifications that in my opinion need to be adopted if catalogs are to continue and if they are to be used successfully. In the current climate of easy price-comparison and simple access to many millions of books, a catalog to succeed must meet two or more of the following criteria, and the more the better:

1) Scarce, rare, unique or unusual offerings.
2) Competitive, if not down right tempting, prices.
3) An interesting and informed perspective.
4) An appealing format and presentation.
5) A cohesive marketing identity – branding, if you will.

Before the ubiquity of the internet, a dealer – because of asymmetrical information – could often get by with perhaps a well-designed catalog, or a well-written one. Now, however, either #1 or #2 are musts (and preferably both) and they need to be coupled with at least one of the remaining conditions. Why? Because for catalogs to succeed they must offer something the internet does not.

More on this soon. For the moment the store beckons…

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