Building Your Bookselling Vocabulary

by Craig Stark

#67, 24 April 2006

The Fast Track to Success

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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.

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