Book Buying for the Blind

by Craig Stark

#20, 14 June, 2004

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

It's easy to get exasperated, if not overwhelmed, with the minutiae of bookselling. There's so much of it, for one thing - actually, too much. For another, some of it's maddeningly complex. Making lists of collectible titles, publishers, authors, illustrators, first edition designations, etc., can transform you into a power bookseller in time, but there's really no end to it. Even a lifetime of learning will never get you to anything resembling a final destination.

Still, to be successful, there's no choice but to acquire as much knowledge as you possibly can and, particularly if you're new to this business, in the shortest time possible. Since nobody does or can know it all, however, it may seem futile to apply any deliberate and consistent effort to the task, far more sensible to rely on the process of buying and selling books for your education, even if it is by osmosis. If I had to guess, I'd say that, in practice, almost nobody in this business regularly sets aside time to acquire bookselling knowledge, and if there are those who do, I seriously doubt that many of them would adhere to a logical plan of action or course of study. Most of us acquire our knowledge on the fly, in the process of being booksellers - buying and selling books - and rarely take time (or think we have it) for focused study. Sadly, we're less than we could be because of it.

There's irony here too, a point at which you can sell too many books, come to a place where you'll flatten out in knowledge or even get dumber because you'll be spending so much of your time on the peripheral aspects of the business (interaction with customers, fulfillment, recordkeeping, etc.) and less on the books themselves. This is why most of the most knowledgeable sellers are also high-dollar/low-volume sellers. They spend time with the books they sell. Learn them. Then make more money when they sell them.

If there's any learning at all going on outside the process of buying and selling books, it's probably by way of reading forum notes or talking to other booksellers, which, depending on who's doing the talking, may or may not be productive sources of information. Even if good information is shared, it's at best haphazardly delivered, like throwing multi-colored confetti into the air. Gathering up the reds and blues, etc., as they flutter down, sorting things out, is all but impossible. Some forums (eBay's bookseller's forum comes to mind) make heroic efforts to archive topics on the basics of bookselling, but they often read like Kerouac on permanent leave - a kind of stream of (sub)consciousness that has at best a vague source or beginning, a wildly meandering course, and certainly no discernible mouth at the end.

BookThink's answer to this lovable mess is, as you may already know, flashpoints, those exquisite details that indicate value in books you've never seen before or have any prior knowledge of. (Click here for detailed discussions of flashpoints.) Flashpoints are something that most definitely can be acquired and learned deliberately, and while there's no end to these either, if you concentrate on learning those with the widest applicability first, I think you'll be amazed at how fast you can get book smart. I referred to widely applicable flashpoints in an earlier issue as a form of expansive knowledge - knowledge that, once acquired, expands in your mind. Concentrate on acquiring expansive bookselling knowledge first, that is, and you'll grow by leaps and bounds.

Until now, I've come at this from a positive direction, looking at how flashpoints can be used to identify valuable books. Today, however, I'm going to approach this from a different, more negative direction, first by looking at some things that can't be seen and showing how the un-seeable can help us see, second by introducing the concept of antiflashpoints - details we can plainly see that indicate worthlessness. It's important to know how to buy valuable books; it's also important to know how not to buy worthless ones. Apart from the money we waste on them, they also cost us valuable time in research and disposal.

For this discussion, the ancient Buddhist fable of the six blind men and the elephant, here retold by 19th century poet John Godfrey Saxe, is a good place to begin:

The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
" 'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The stated moral of this poem, that each of us sees only part of the truth and should keep this in mind, make allowances for it when interacting with others (who, in turn, see different parts of the truth than we do), is straightforward and readily grasped. But there's a deeper lesson here that's often missed. The poem was written for us, not the six men of Indostan, and the truth is that most of us aren't at all blind, not clinically anyway; we can see pretty well. Thus, provided we don't stand too close, most of us can see at least half of an elephant at once, and if we're standing on one side of a specimen, we can readily extrapolate things, assume that we'd see much the same thing if we were standing on the other side. And we'd be right.

It might be more difficult to extrapolate to tarpaulin-sized ears, ivory tusks or a trunk if were we standing at the back end, nose-to-nose with the elephant's swishing tail, but even then past experience would probably suggest that there's likely to be at least a head, eyes, ears, and so on, up front, and tusks would not necessarily be something we'd be surprised to learn of if we also had knowledge of, for example, rhinoceroses. Given the similarity of a rhino's hindquarters to that of an elephant's, we might even surmise something horn-like, though likely we'd guess at one horn, not two, and be wrong altogether about tusks being horns.

There are flashpoints for big game hunters too, and clearly ivory tusks qualify as flashpoints in spades, but flashpoints on animals (as well as on books) aren't always easily spotted. Like blind Indostans, though we look, sometimes we don't see. Animals are often camouflaged by their environment. So are books. Put an exotic book in with some ho-hums, and it might be all but invisible. One of the most valuable lessons I was ever taught about deer hunting was not to look for deer at all but for branches that resembled antlers - and sometimes a deer might be attached to them. The equivalent lesson for booksellers is, don't look for valuable books; look for flashpoints, and good books may follow.

This kind of seeing, the capacity to extrapolate from parts to wholes, can be powerful, even in bookselling. If we look for tusks, that is, can elephants be far behind? But what if there are no tusks to be seen? And no elephants? Can we extrapolate to them anyway? Take an estate sale you've arrived late to. Or an FOL sale. Let's say there are bookcases lining the walls of a room and perhaps many 100's, maybe 1,000's of books, remaining. No blockbusters (elephants) in sight, but, here and there, there are gaps. Places where books obviously were. Or books fallen over because supporting books are no longer supporting them. No accumulation of books would've looked like this if it hadn't been recently ransacked. The only explanation is that books have been sold. If not entirely elephants, no doubt plenty of lesser (though still valuable) game. You've been left with a field of small, furred rodents.

Your first instinct at seeing a book sale hunted out might be to turn and leave, but if you're new or relatively so to the sport of book hunting, it could be very instructive to stay for a few minutes and study what's left. Believe me, almost nobody does this kind of thing, and there may be much to learn both from the evidence of things not seen, not to mention the junk that's left over.

Consider numbers first. Unless it's a very unusual sale, chances are most of the shelves are still relatively full of books. This should tell you - and perhaps this is too obvious by half for most of you - that books with value are remarkably few in number, but it should also tell you something else that's not widely appreciated: books that do have value are most often found in the large, sometimes obscuring company of worthless books. Camouflaged. The gaps confirm this time and time again, as will your own experiences at sales you arrive early at. In Bookland, you don't have to travel to Africa to find big game. It's everywhere, sometimes in the most unlikely places.

Also look at gaps. More often than not, if people have large numbers of books, they arrange them, group them in an intuitive manner, usually by subject or author. Look at where the gaps are. Then look at the books that stand nearby or actually form the gaps. There's a good chance that they will suggest some things about the books that are no longer there in the same way that two parts of an elephant might suggest an intervening part. A shelf with numerous books missing may be especially revealing. Make mental notes of what you see; make a habit of doing this at all big sales you arrive late at; and in a relatively short period of time you'll get very, very smart about books, know what's topically, flash-pointedly valuable, without ever having seen the books that were sold.

Look also, of course, at what you can see. A good exercise is to look for books that you'd probably buy at any time and any sale, not on the basis of having specific knowledge of their value but on the basis of their apparent value. Since you know going in that it's very likely that everything left in the room is worthless, try to figure out why books that interest you don't have value. Do this also with the ones you do buy. Don't just toss them aside in disgust.

Here are some specific things to look at, some obvious, some perhaps less so:

  1. Copyright (and title) page. The most valuable information you can have about a book that you're contemplating buying is the number of copies that were printed, and some indication of this number may often be surmised from the copyright or title pages. A publisher with high name recognition, a reprint publisher (click for list), a number string that doesn't begin with "1," more than one printing date, a stated later edition or printing, differing dates on the title and copyright pages, the phrase "published by permission of" (the original publisher), a statement of number of copies printed that's well into the thousands, and so on - anything at all that suggests big numbers.

  2. Book club edition. Almost all of us know that most BCE's lay large eggs, and most BCE's are readily spotted. However, some aren't, and it doesn't take long to learn the less obvious indications. Click here for more information.

  3. No price on dust jacket. While this is often an indication of BCE state, it may also be an indication of reprint state. If you haven't been to a Border's or Barnes & Noble lately, stop in and take a closer look at those large, densely illustrated - and deeply discounted - coffee table books on the shelving or tables at or near the front of the store. None of them are BCE's. Most of them have no price on the dust jacket.

  4. Fiction. The numbers aren't in our favor for non-fiction either, but they're much worse for fiction. For every book of fiction that has value, there are probably 10 or 20 non-fiction books that do.

  5. Naked novels. Fiction absent a dust jacket, especially if published in the past 50 years or so, is, with microscopically few exceptions, worthless.

  6. Lists of author's other books. If there's an extensive list of previous publications on either the dust jacket or inside the book, beware. Prolific authors tend to be published in big numbers.

  7. Later work. If there's any evidence that the book was written later in the author's career, chances are better than 50/50 it's a loser.

  8. Author's name in large type on dust jacket. This usually indicates two things - one, that the author is popular and often sells books on the basis of his or her name alone, and two, the particular title is a later work (see above). Both speak high numbers.

  9. Remainder Mark. If one is present (typically in the form of a dot, stripe, light spray, or stamp either on the covers or the edges of the text block), this may suggest several things. First, that the publisher miscalculated the desirability or demand of the book, and it's likely that, in a used state, it's still undesirable. Second, that there are many more of the same title floating around.

  10. Condition. This may seem painfully obvious, but values for otherwise desirable books in poor condition can plunge absolutely to the basement. Don't waste money on them unless unusual circumstances prevail.

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