BookThink's Proverbs of
Bookselling Revisited

by Craig Stark

16 August 2015

The Third Five

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11. Luck without book knowledge is no luck at all.

As it does in many endeavors, luck plays a role in bookselling. But dumb luck almost never does in any consistent or meaningful way. Happening upon something special at a sale, for example, often requires some luck, but unless this is accompanied by knowledge of what makes a given book special, there's a good chance it will be passed by or, if purchased on the basis of dumb luck, flipped, that is, re-sold for a deep discount. Absent the knowledge to recognize a valuable book as valuable is also, often, absent the ability to maximize its outcome. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible, and you'll be prepared to capitalize on the luck that comes everybody's way sooner or later.

12. Books are everywhere.

One of the more oft-repeated proverbs. Obviously, there are more books in some places than there are in others, and it's part of the game to put yourself where the greater concentrations are. Or where the best ones are. However, this proverb doesn't point to chance encounters as much as it points to readiness - being forever on the alert for possibilities because you never know where something valuable is going to pop up, and things do pop up seemingly everywhere. In this sense bookselling is a 24/7 job, and the most successful booksellers live bookselling day and night.

13. Buy a bad book today, and you'll forget it tomorrow. Pass up an opportunity to buy a good one, and the memory will never leave you.

Nothing haunts a bookseller more than passing up an opportunity to score a good buy, and I'd wager that every bookseller has multiple tales of this kind to tell. Again, this is about knowledge - being prepared before the opportunity presents itself - so that these disappointments are minimized.

14. Expect to find good books, and you won't. Seek to find them, and you will.

A quiet confidence that life will give you what you need is one thing. It's a form of seeking - an openness to possibilities. An expectation that it will is quite another. The energy is different because self-interest is actively involved. Surely we all know overly aggressive booksellers - the type who camp in their vehicles all night so as to be first in line, charge in the door when the sale opens and … all too often pass by what's worth picking up or, if they do pick something up, don't always have the clear vision to see that it's worthwhile. Expectation is blinding because it's egocentric. If you're sensitive to energy in others, you can palpably feel this sort of thing just by being near a disconnected person. It's heavy. If you exude this kind of energy, others will sense it whether they know what's happening or not. If it's an estate liquidator who senses it, the chances of getting a discount or be invited into a sale before it starts, etc., will be slim to none. There's a saying that's kicked around often in the area I scout in: Being number one is the kiss of death. Better to be no number at all, if you know what I mean.

15. The smaller your bookselling vocabulary is, the less money you'll make.

When I was teaching myself how to write many years ago, part of my daily regimen was to spend a half hour or so building my vocabulary, as if that was one of the keys to becoming a good writer. In a sense it is; without command of whatever language you're attempting to communicate in, your chances of communicating successfully plunge. But my initial approach to it was misguided. I simply memorized definitions of words, and, along with over-using a thesaurus, the result was my penning some of the most awkward sentences ever put to paper. Knowing the definition of a word is useful only if one understands what it means and knows how to use it properly. In English class this is called diction, but what it really comes down to is finding your voice.

Somewhere in this process of vocabulary building I stumbled across two books that opened my eyes to what I actually needed to do. The first was Norman Lewis' Word Power Made Easy. Instead of presenting lists of essential words and definitions to memorize, Lewis took a much different approach. First, he presented words in context, crafted brief stories around them so as to make them live. At the same time he examined their roots - often the Greek or Latin roots that served as building blocks and pointed to meaning. Then he presented additional words with the same roots. Grouped them. The result for me was, almost magically, without feeling I had memorized anything, a vocabulary that was suddenly bigger and more useful.

A second book that has proven invaluable to me over many decades is Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms. This book accomplishes something critically important that a general dictionary does not: It groups words of similar meanings - synonyms, that is - and distinguishes in detail their various shades of meaning. This was an antidote to my over-usage of a thesaurus because early on I would often pluck what appeared seemed to be a more erudite or aurally pleasing word out and swap it with something similar in meaning without having a clue as to why the two words existed apart from each other in the first place - and almost always they existed apart for good reason.

What it comes down to this is: There are things that readers will not be able to grasp unless the proper words are used to describe whatever is being talked about.

Now, again and again and again, you'll hear something like this from inexperienced booksellers: "I just describe my books in plain language. Most buyers don't understand technical book terminology anyway and might even be put off by it." To this I say, bull. Sure, if you're selling low-dollar books, it probably won't matter much one way or the other how you describe them because you'll be selling them primarily as commodities on the basis of price. As you move up, however, how you describe your books (which have now moved into antiquarian realms) - the words you choose to do this - will become increasingly important. Most experienced booksellers and collectors speak a language of their own. At the higher end, many sales happen between booksellers as well, so if you're not speaking their language, you'll risk losing high outcome sales to both groups. It's important that your descriptions are both precise and concise. This is why bookselling terminology exists; it achieves both.

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