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Building Your Bookselling Vocabulary

by Craig Stark

#67, 24 April 2006

Part I: The Fast Track to Success

I've talked about the importance of vocabulary before - specifically, bookselling vocabulary. You may recall BookThink Proverb #15:

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

But tell me something. Do you guys really buy this? At first glance, it might seem pretty far-fetched. Why should one bookseller make more money than another just because one of them knows a few more bibliographic terms than the other? Isn't it more important to know, say, lots of flashpoints? After all, knowing which books to pick up and which to pass on has to be one of the critical keys to success, right?

Sure, you'd think so - and in fact it's hugely important - but I firmly believe that focusing on flashpoints at the expense of building an understanding of books is tantamount to the tail wagging the dog, and ultimately this approach will prevent you from realizing your full potential as a bookseller.

There are several reasons for this. One is that a command of book terminology will inspire confidence in your buyers, especially as you work into selling more valuable books, and in this age of widespread fraud we live in, buyer confidence often converts directly into bigger profits. If you doubt this, I'd only ask you to consider the fact that many booksellers, myself included, buy inventory from other booksellers who are vocabulary-challenged all the time. Often, we resell it on the same venue we buy it on.

A strong bookselling vocabulary will also enable you to communicate what you have. If you don't know what "issue point," "variant," "state," etc., mean, how on earth will a collector know that you have a first edition? For that matter, how will you?

Several years ago I came across an unusually strong collection of fiction at an estate sale. Much of it consisted of first editions, and this meant, of course, that it took me some time to get through things: Copyright pages needed to be checked. There was a competing bookseller there as well, anxiously examining books with me - and getting more and more anxious as I dropped books into my box. At one point he returned a book to the shelf that had been written by a highly collectible author. I grabbed it immediately and opened it to investigate its edition state.

He stopped what he was doing and said, "I just checked that. It's nothing."

"The hell it is. It's a first."

"How do you know?"

"I looked at the colophon."

"What's a colophon?"

The thing is, if you don't know what a colophon is, you'd probably never think to look in the back of a book for indications of printing state. In this case, I knew that the publisher in question had used colophons, and it was a fast ID.

Ok, assuming that you see validity in what I'm saying, how would go about expanding your vocabulary? Doubtless most of you know that grabbing a book of terminology and memorizing stuff willy-nilly is a highly inefficient and not especially mnemonic method of learning. Better to look words up as you encounter them in your reading (that is, if you can't puzzle them out by their context) or in other booksellers' descriptions. The problem with this is that it's a slow road to China. I have a better suggestion. You may recall two of the three books I recommended in this previous BookThinker article.

Glaister's Encyclopedia of the Book is a classic and, in my opinion, should be on every bookseller's reference shelf, but because its emphasis is on the printing and publishing aspects of the book industry (as opposed to selling and collecting), it simply doesn't meet all of the needs of the dealer or collector. Also, it's not the kind of book you'd want to take to bed with you - unless you needed to get to sleep quickly.

To some extent, John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors takes up the slack. Not only does it address many collector's terms that Encyclopedia of the Book doesn't, but also, you really can take it to bed with you. It's similar in format and tone to Fowler's Modern English Usage in that many articles simply make good reading. There's insight, wit, etc., and additional, related terms which come up in the text and appear elsewhere in the book are italicized, so you can hop, skip and jump around and stay right on topic. This sounds like the perfect solution, but alas, ABC isn't complete either, and many of the articles are so short as to descend into dry definition.

I do have another suggestion for a book - one I actually prefer to the other two - to slip between these two and fill the gap almost completely. However, I'm hesitant to recommend it because of what happened when I featured the third book that appeared in the above article - Lynn Vigeant's Dealer's Thesaurus: 6,000 Ways to Describe Books and Historical Paper. The problem with Vigeant's book and the one I'm about to tell you about is that both are relatively uncommon, and what has happened in the past and will likely again happen is that, as soon as a dozen or so booksellers buy up the cheaper copies online, prices reach (or will reach) obscene levels - and I wince when I see a bookseller spend $50, $100 or more on a book that simply doesn't justify the expense. Anyway, fair warning. Here's the book.

In the Introduction to A Bibliographical Companion, author Roy Stokes writes:

"This book began its life with the intention of becoming a 'Glossary of bibliographical terms.' During the more than forty years during which I have been teaching bibliography, there have been many occasions on which students have asked, 'What does ___ mean?' Many such questions fell somewhere between John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors, with its emphasis on book collecting, and Glaister's Glossary of the Book, with its concentration on book production. Between these two there was a gap, but there is also a great deal of overlap. Those terms which occur in both of those books as well as this one should be read in all three in order to achieve as wide a perspective as possible."

There is indeed gap filling going on here. Example: "dog-eared." This term doesn't appear in either of the other two books, but clearly it's a commonly used bookselling term. Stokes both defines it and explains why it can be a significant flaw: "It is always a crude habit but it is of especial danger in books of those periods when the paper was poor and becomes brittle with age. In such cases the corner is liable to break off completely."

Besides gap-filling, there is another reason why I often go to Stokes' book first. Like ABC, it's reader friendly, but there's considerably more depth as well, and so often Stokes takes the trouble to explain why something is so (as he did in the previous example). This added context greatly aids in the retention of the term's meaning. Take gilding - in particular, gilt text block edges. Pretty, aren't they? But did you know that their purpose isn't solely decorative? Read this:

"The purpose was, and remains, twofold. On the one hand, it is a simple part of the decoration of the book; to make it look more attractive in general and, in particular, to blend well with the overall appearance of the binding. At a more mundane level, but extremely important, it is the most satisfactory method ever devised for keeping the dust out of a book and for providing a surface which is the easiest of all to clean. It is not uncommon to find the top edge lone gilded; it is the one most susceptible to dust and the practice cuts the cost considerably. In such cases the normal abbreviated description is 't.e.g.' [top edge gilt]."

Slap "t.e.g." into one of your book listings - or spell it out if you're feeling prolix - and a savvy collector will know that there will likely be no issues at all with text block soiling.

There's 298 pages of this stuff - not a wasted entry in it. Read it cover to cover, and you may end up doubling your income next year!

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you're still looking for a reasonably priced copy of Dealer's Thesaurus, click this link.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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