BookThink and the Mind of Man

by Craig Stark

16 November 2012

Part II: Printing and the Mind of Man

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There are occasions in bookselling when it's helpful to think outside the box. For example, when seeking out information on bookselling, what's the first thing most of us do? Turn to an online resource - Google, Wikipedia, bookselling forums, etc. Unfortunately, as vast as online resources are, in-print resources are still significantly more vast. More importantly, they are also more trustworthy. Thanks to the prevalent online phenomenon of piggybacking, once errors are put into the system - and they can be entered by anybody - they insidiously migrate to other sites. Worse, because they multiply, they can often take on a false credibility via strength in numbers.

Books, on the other hand, are more often than not seen through an initial, usually rigorous editorial process and, if reissued as second and later editions, are typically further corrected and otherwise revised to take on a greater credibility over time. Since anybody can be an online author, good information and bad alike often have no bar to clear at all, and it shows up regularly.

For these reasons, it gives me pause when I read a bookseller's forum post asserting that the resources in the forum are so substantial that a beginning bookseller can learn just about anything that needs to be learned about bookselling by studying the archives. This is so far from being true, however, it's laughable. And really, all one needs to do to convince oneself that it isn't true is to read one or two good print books about bookselling. The depth of knowledge found within will these put any forum's resources to shame.

Notice I said good books. And there are many that are, some so good that they are consulted almost daily, others so good that they can change the course of our bookselling lives, converting us in short order from booksellers who don't get it to ones who do. And, contrary to what many forum-trained booksellers might think, getting it begins with seeing what makes some books important to buyers; others not; and not just knowing which books will make us money. When you get this and use this knowledge when presenting your books for sale, money has a funny way of taking care of itself.

It's the latter type of book that is the topic of this discussion.

In Part I discussed generally five categories that important books fall into. In Part II, here, I'm going to get specific. To repeat from Part I:

"One of the most valuable books booksellers can add to their reference libraries is a book I have never mentioned at BookThink, let alone featured in our somewhat irregular series "Building a Bookselling Reference Library." It's not an obviously useful reference like, for example, Zempel and Verkler's First Editions: A Guide to Identification, and maybe this is why I've put off mentioning it as long as I have: It will take some doing to persuade some of you to spend $50 to $100 for the pleasure of owning it. Nevertheless, I'm going to try; I think it's that important."

There's a good chance that you've heard of this book - Printing and the Mind of Man - but perhaps haven't considered it useful enough to bookselling to add it to your reference library. Or perhaps dated. If so, I ask you to reconsider. Some history: PMM emerged from a 1963 International Printing Machinery and Allied Trades Exhibition that featured, to quote the catalog, "the most impressive collection of books ever gathered under one roof." Actually, there were two books. The first was the softcover catalog issued expressly for the exhibition itself consisting of 389 listings with short bibliographic descriptions accompanied by brief textual descriptions ...

... the second a ca. 1967 enlarged edition consisting of 424 listings with much expanded descriptive content.

It's the second book - the full title is Printing and the Mind of Man: A Descriptive Catalogue Illustrating the Impact of Print on the Evolution of Western Civilization During Five Centuries - that will prove most valuable to your apprenticeship because it demonstrates in detail why each book has had a major impact on mankind, which it turn almost guarantees their attractiveness to collectors.

Director of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library Michael Ryan put it this way in a lecture he delivered several years ago:

"PMM had an immediate impact on the world of book collecting and connoisseurship in the west: It dramatically expanded the universe of collectible books. From the staples of western literature and fine printing that had long dominated connoisseurship, it opened onto the great traditions of science, medicine, law, philosophy, history, religion, and learning in general. It argued persuasively that content should be as important as style, and it gave collectors a new, much expanded and diverse canon of texts to pursue. It had the effect, moreover, of reinvigorating the antiquarian book trade at the exact moment when North American collectors - institutional as well as private - were reentering the marketplace in a major way."

Now to specifics - specifically, a case study of a book featured in PMM. This isn't by any means the most valuable book in the catalog; in fact, it may be the least valuable. Nor is it one that many have even heard of. But it is unusually illustrative of how value evolves in books, how these values influence values of books in the same niche and how knowing why books have value is perhaps the most important factor in maximizing profit. Though you many not have heard of the title, you very likely have heard its first line: "Heaven helps those who help themselves," a more alliterative take on "God helps those who help themselves" appearing in Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack.

Samuel Smiles' Self-Help, published in 1859, owns the distinction of being the first focused self-help book of its kind. Its influence was so powerful that an entire self-help movement was fueled by it. From PMM: "Its success was immediate and then unequalled: twenty thousand copies were sold the first year, fifty-five thousand by 1864 and two hundred and seventy thousand by the end of the century. It was translated into almost every foreign language, but the proof of its success which most delighted Smiles was the number of letters attesting its usefulness which he received from artisans - the class to whom it was directed - all over the world."

It could be argued as well that Self-Help spawned the publication of innumerable other self-help books in many different fields, some far more valuable than Self-Help itself. First and sometimes early editions of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, to name only a few, can sell for thousands. As a bookselling niche, in fact, self-help books is one of the more consistently profitable ones, and opportunities are plentiful enough that one could specialize in it.

So here's the thing: This bookselling pattern is repeated often. A breakout book is published, its profile soars sky high, and the copycatting begins. In the trade, these are called derivative books. When the copycatting is good, when it effectively elaborates on or adds original (and valuable) content to the topic of the original book, opportunities for us as booksellers grow in kind. And this is why PMM is so important a resource. Within the covers of this book are over 400 descriptions of books that, like Self-Help, will grow our bookselling knowledge base and gradually help us focus on the most important - and most profitable - books and teach us how to present them to buyers.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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