Online bookselling is very competitive, and successful booksellers take advantage of any edge available to them. A command of book terms helps you stand out, gives you credibility in the eyes of both customers and other professional sellers.
When I first started selling books online in 2000, I made a deliberate decision that I would not waste time on books that I didn't believe I could sell for at least $20 - and a limited number of those at that. Over the years I've added to my monthly overhead by subscribing to services such as PayPal and The Art of Books. Along the way, all bookselling venues have raised fees and commissions, and my decision to concentrate on higher priced books makes more sense then ever. At present, over one third of my inventory is listed at $75 or higher, and one fifth is over $100.
Maintaining a higher average value inventory has a few consequences relevant to the discussion of language. First, to spend the kind of money I'm asking, buyers need to have confidence in sellers. Proper use of book terminology helps to instill this confidence. Remember, buyers who are willing to spend this kind of money are often (though not always!) well versed in book terminology themselves; they will gravitate towards sellers who have a command of the language. Second, in researching your high-end books, you may find yourself consulting listings from other professional dealers, where at least a working knowledge of terms will help you understand what they are talking about. Related to this, you will eventually end up talking with other professional dealers (either in person or via email), and if you wish to be accorded professional courtesy and respect, then you should be able to speak as a professional.
I've used the word "professional" several times in this discussion. This is a slippery word, one that has more than once been the topic of heated discussion on book forums. Some Old School booksellers complain about the erosion of professional standards, by which they often seem to mean that the trade is being taken over by hobbyists and "widget-sellers" (sellers who perceive books as widgets and would be equally content hawking ginsu knives as long as a profit could be realized).
The best of New School booksellers advance the argument that "professional is as professional does." In other words, to be a professional bookseller, simply conduct your business in a professional manner: Describe a book and all of its faults completely, answer emails promptly, ship quickly, provide quality customer service, etc.
As is usual in cases like this, both sides are right - and wrong.
It is true that with the advent of online bookselling (particularly at eBay), large numbers of hobby sellers have entered the market. Many of these sellers do in fact sell shoddy goods in a slipshod manner, and their listings may be rife with ignorance and/or deliberate deception. And it does seem that as soon as one goes out of business, two others spring up as replacements. It is also true that scam artists have taken advantage of the relative anonymity of online book selling.
But this is nothing new. Pre-Internet bookselling had its own share of problems with both the clueless and the criminal. How else to explain the existence of professional organizations? The Internet has simply turned up the volume (pardon the pun) by making it so very easy for amateurs to put their goods out in the world market. The solution: Distance yourself; get as far out of the shallow end of the pool as you can.
It is important to understand that the language of books evolved in the context of booksellers AND collectors interacting. The concepts and vocabulary of bookselling and collecting, therefore, provides many insights into the mind of the book collector as well as the bookseller. This in turn will better enable you, the bookseller, to market to the collector, and the collector will be one of you best customers for high-end stock.
As always, good reference books speed education. The following three titles, listed in Craig Stark's article "Talking the Bookselling Talk," will get you started:
ABC for Book Collectors, Eighth Edition. John Carter and Nicolas Barker; Oak Knoll Press, 2004. ISBN: 1584561122 (hardback). 224pp. My personal favorite, this should be a required text for anyone who wants to sell or collect books - and it's a fun read too.
Encyclopedia of the Book. Geoffrey Ashall Glaister. Oak Knoll Press. New Castle, Delaware. 2001. ISBN: 1884718140 (paperback). 551 pp.
Dealer's Thesaurus: 6,000 Ways to Describe Books and Historical Paper. Lynn Vigeant. Privately printed. Maps of Antiquity, Inc. Montclair, New Jersey. 1993.
Note that both ABC for Book Collectors, Eighth Edition and Encyclopedia of the Book are in print. Find links to purchase both of these books here.
SCIENCE FICTION EDITOR'S NOTE: BookThink has previously published an article ("Talking the Bookselling Talk") on this same theme as part of the Building a Bookselling Reference Library series, available here.
If you have not already read other articles in the series, I strongly recommend them. Links to all related articles are available here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Who knows, Lynn Vigeant may be getting tired of shipping out copies of Dealer's Thesaurus - or out of them altogether! - but if you encounter trouble finding a reasonably priced copy online, write me at email@example.com and I'll try to help.
An excellent online guide to book terminology is available here.
The focus is on bookbinding and conservation, but the terminology remains the same.
Also, IOBA (The Independent Online Booksellers Association) maintains a glossary of basic terms.
Finally, here is an interesting series of essays, The Essentials of Book Collecting: An Essay in Parts by Robert F. Lucas, which includes book terminology, a guide on how to read a catalog description, descriptions of bindings and paper, and much more.
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