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The Accidental Antiquarian

Why Write an Antiquartian Book Catalogue?

Or, Catalogues
the Hallmark of the Antiquarian Bookseller

by Chris Lowenstein

#149, 11 October 2010

In recent years, we've all heard all about the intrusion of the internet into the reading, buying, and selling of books. Recent hype might have us believe that the old ways of selling books - the days of brick and mortar shops, of browsing for books, and of perusing antiquarian bookseller catalogues - are over. The virtual seller who sells books primarily on the internet, may have greater exposure and a variety of venues in which to list his wares, but he is also working in a bit of a vacuum and is less able to build a relationship with his customers. How can he reach the customers who will provide the best homes for his books? How will he build a reputation as a knowledgeable and known antiquarian bookseller when his books are listed among thousands of others whose business model is just like his? If he truly wishes to sell his books, the virtual bookseller must do more than simply list books for sale. He must build a brand.

There are many things an antiquarian bookseller without a traditional brick and mortar shop can do to establish and build a reputation as a knowledgeable dealer with good inventory. Invest time and effort into creating your own website, in addition to listing at the online listing services like ABE, Biblio, and Amazon. Set up a blog where, if you have writing skills, you can communicate with your customers on a regular basis and educate them about your field of specialty. Sell books at book fairs, the best place to meet customers and potential customers face to face. The hallmarks of a good antiquarian bookseller include demonstrated knowledge of the books he sells, selection of desirable books people can't easily find for sale anywhere else, and the ability to show others value in items they may have previously overlooked. If you don't have an open shop, there's one other way to let your customers know that you have these characteristics - the print catalogue.

Discussing the importance of catalogues in their book, Between Boards, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern wrote, "There is never anything elusive about a dealer's catalogue. If it is a good one, it will be its maker's earthly representative and hopefully remembered. A catalogue is a dealer's showcase. In it he displays his wares; parades his knowledge; offers his expertise. His first [and I would say subsequent] catalogue[s] is extremely significant. He has made his public debut before a critical group of connoisseurs. This, his first catalogue, occasionally becomes his hallmark, stamping him as a specialist in Western Americana, medieval arts and letters, or modern firsts."

Producing catalogues, whether regularly or occasionally, whether print or electronic, will benefit you and your business. Catalogues can help you distinguish yourself from the crowd. When I started to work on my first catalogue, I was long on enthusiasm and short on cash flow. I had no client list, I had no employees, I possessed only 25 books that might be suitable for a catalogue, and my "reputation" in the trade was as the stay-at-home mom who decided when my kids hit school age that I should, with no experience, start my own business and join the ranks of those who have decades of experience selling antiquarian books. In short, I probably couldn't have been a worse candidate for producing a quality print catalogue.

Never one to be deterred by the obvious, I forged ahead with my idea of producing a catalogue while having little idea of what "producing a catalogue" actually means. I learn a lot from reading other booksellers' catalogues, and I learn who other booksellers are because I read their catalogues. I wanted to add mine to the mix, get my name "out there" and introduce Book Hunter's Holiday to the rare book world, inexperience be damned. If nothing else, I would learn a lot about catalogues from the experience of building a meaningful collection on a tight budget, researching it, describing it, pricing it, and marketing it.

I then decided to tempt the chance of epic failure by choosing to produce a catalogue of a well-known and generally expensive-to-collect author - Dante Alighieri. The choice of author was good. No other American booksellers already specialized in Dante. The problem was that I couldn't afford to buy the high-spot editions of Dante, the ones produced in 14th and 15th centuries, even if I was offered a 20% dealer discount.

Undaunted (ignorant, really), I decided to assemble a collection of Dante editions from the past 300 years. The books would have to be illustrated or unusual in some way, and they would have to be affordable. I decided early on that no book in my catalogue would cost over $1,000 (that's really cheap when compared to the very early editions of Dante, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars). Perhaps I could try to introduce new high-spots to collectors who had previously been focused on incunabula. Perhaps I could show new collectors that you don't have to have a million dollars to be a book collector with a meaningful collection. I decided that my catalogue was either the dumbest or the smartest idea I'd had in a while, and that the marketplace would be the ultimate judge.

It took me three years to complete my first catalogue, which only has 65 books. I did it in small doses, between selling books at book fairs, online, and taking care of my family. I don't recommend that you follow my timeline, but I am sure you should make the time to produce catalogues, whether print or electronic, and get your brand established in the marketplace. For those of us who do not have open shops, the catalogue is our public persona. I'm happy to say that my first catalogue, which I released in 2010, three years after I started it, was warmly received and sold about 60% of the books in the first two months. The lesson here: Do your research, do your best, and don't doubt yourself.

You can read some of the story of my Catalogue #1: Dante Alighieri in subsequent articles, and, if you are a glutton for punishment, you can check out the category called "Catalogues" on my blog and read about the development of the catalogue as it actually happened.

Click here to download the complete PDF catalog.

Next Month: What Makes a Good Antiquarian Book Catalogue?

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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