by Craig Stark

#12, 16 February 2004

What They Are and How to Use Them

When I first considered using the word flashpoints to describe book elements that indicated value, I was standing in front of a bookcase at an estate sale and had just spotted a title on the spine of a vintage book that contained the word airships. I felt a small flash of excitement in my diaphragm. I'd sold a few books on airships (dirigibles, etc.) before for serious money, and I sensed that this one was a winner too - thus my reaction. It was interesting because at the same moment an image of the airship Hindenburg bursting into flames appeared in my mind, and the concept of flashpoints was born.

No doubt every experienced bookseller uses flashpoints but probably calls them something else (e.g., instinct, gut feelings, etc.) or isn't actually conscious of using them at all. Typically, sellers accumulate flashpoints via osmosis - that is, direct, hands-on experience with books they buy and sell adds to the list of things to look for on the next buying trip - but this is nowhere near as productive as it could be because the process is passive. Passive just doesn't get you anywhere, anytime, soon. Instead of Seven League Boots, osmotic sellers wear the equivalent of Chinese Lotus shoes, bound so tight as to deform the foot, prevent it from growing much, and make traveling painfully difficult.

So, what exactly are flashpoints? Are they just interesting words on the spine of a book? Titles? They can be, but they can be many other things as well. A snakeskin binding. A miniature landscape painting on the fore edge of a book that becomes visible only when the pages are fanned open. An author's name - for example, legendary archer Saxton Pope. Easton Press on the title page. Rough Proof on the copyright page. And on and on. Flashpoints are anything about a book that indicates value.

Different flashpoints have, of course, different values. Some - the above examples qualify - are so powerful that a single one can shout "BUY ME!" Others need the accompaniment of additional flashpoints to get the same message across. I like to think in terms of flashpoints falling somewhere on a scale of 1 and 10. A power flashpoint, in this system, would be have the benchmark value of 10, and if only lesser flashpoints were present in a book - say, a 5, a 3, and a 2 - they would need to add up to 10 before you got up off your money. Obviously, we can't accurately quantify many flashpoints, but we can guess.

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