BookThink's Proverbs of Bookselling Revisited

by Craig Stark

20 February 2015

The First Five

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Have you ever noticed how some booksellers seem to succeed almost effortlessly and others have to grind it out - and usually come up short? As much as I emphasize the need to acquire knowledge here - and this is crucial - it's important, I think, to acknowledge that there's more to it than this. There's wisdom as well. Wisdom isn't what you know; it's what you are.

Nearly nine years ago I compiled a list of 50 (what I called) bookselling proverbs. Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms groups the word "proverb" with the following words: saying, saw, adage, maxim, motto, epigram, aphorism and apothegm, then asserts that they share a common denotation of "a sententious expression of a general truth." Later, more specifically, it defines "proverb" as "an adage couched, in homely and vividly concrete or figurative phrase." One example offered is Emerson's "A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful."

Sounds straightforward, yes? It's not, necessarily. Proverbs usually need to be unpacked, not by puzzling out their meanings but by letting them expand into bigger implications. When I first wrote about this, I had this to say:

Bookselling knowledge is widely available and, if sought, acquired. Couldn't be simpler. Any and all expenditures of effort will produce results, and if there's any theme that BookThink hammers on relentlessly, it's this: bookselling success depends critically on acquiring book knowledge, the more the better.

However, knowledge without wisdom, wrote T.S. Eliot, "brings us nearer to our ignorance." It's wisdom that breathes life into knowledge, gives it power and direction. Unlike knowledge, wisdom can't be acquired, even through prodigious effort. It's something that can only be awakened in you from a slumbering cache of gathered experience.

Moments of awakening - those precious aha! times - are triggered by various things. Sometimes they arrive with the sting of ignominious failure but by no means always. Other times they come more quietly, when it's least expected, when there seems to be no trigger at all (though it only seems so because we've missed it). And sometimes they come in perfect silence, by a reading a group of words whose very function it is to wake you - the proverb.

Proverbs have been used for this purpose for eons. A proverb breathes life into knowledge because it's embodied with wisdom, not detached from it. I don't know if anybody has ever deliberately written a collection of bookselling proverbs, but this won't stop me from trying.

Maybe one or more of these will awaken something in you; maybe not. It's the very nature of a proverb that it will mean absolutely nothing to somebody who isn't ready to meet it. Whatever you do, if you come to one that makes no sense whatsoever, don't try to puzzle it out - and don't ever ask anybody to explain it. This will only make it more elusive. Instead, leave it as a question, and perhaps next time it'll light up your sky.

It's important to note that proverbs can be misunderstood, misapplied, and otherwise shamelessly abused. Some seem to mean one thing at first glance - and often seem overly obvious - and something entirely different, more profound, the next time. Some reveal themselves in steps, over time. Some can be taken too far. Consider Mark Twain's cat, the one who jumped on a hot stove. Bereft of wisdom, the cat never returned, whether the stove was hot or cold. Ah, the meals it must have missed!

So, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the original 50 proverbs, perhaps 5 at a time, and not so much explain them as elaborate on them by unpacking possible implications. The first 5:

1. In bookselling, the exception is the rule.

At first glance, this seems clear: There are no rules in bookselling that don't have exceptions. However, if you ponder this, isn't this itself a rule? And, if this proverb is "true," there must be an exception to it as well - and yet there aren't rules that don't have exceptions! The reason this seems madly circular is that we're trying to puzzle something out. We're in our minds. Proverbs don't work this way.

Let's look at an example. Suppose somebody new to bookselling posts a question about a book in a forum, something along the lines of, "Do I have a First Edition?" Photos posted along with the question clearly show that it's a book club edition of little or no value. The OP then connects the dots: "Oh, book club editions aren't worth bothering with" - and runs with it. And maybe the next thing that happens is that a copy of the first book club issue of To Kill a Mockingbird is passed by at an FOL sale. Too bad.

Over time, if this bookseller persists, specific exceptions to rules are learned; a body of knowledge is built. But if this is all that happens, something bigger is being missed: Being open to possibility. The proverb, that is, has a potential transformative power that opens us up, gets us outside of mind, and a new, bigger - and more profitable - way of seeing happens because we've been changed.

2. You can't find good books unless you're where they are.

Surely this is too simple by half: Attempt to put yourself in situations where finding good books is most likely. But if this is knowledge-based only - that is, if you make it a matter of learning what, say, the best FOL sales are, over time this will likely move you into increasingly more competitive situations because other booksellers will be looking for the same thing. And these situations can make it difficult to see good books. You may recall this.

But ponder the proverb for a moment. It doesn't say anything specific about buying good books, only being where they are. One of the first things I suggest to booksellers who are getting started is to put themselves where good books are. This could be something as ho-hum as doing a search of sold books on eBay and sorting them from most expensive to least. Living with these books day in and day out will change you - and again, seeing becomes bigger.

3. You can't consistently find good books unless you consistently look for them.

Work hard, right? Spend more time scouting? Not exactly. It's one thing to remind yourself to look, look, look for books, pursuing them anytime and anywhere; it's another to be quietly open to possibility as a way of living.

4. You can't sell a book for its best price unless you sell it.

I know booksellers who hoard their best material. For them it's a kind of insurance policy. A sort of biblio 401K. Or in some cases it's about waiting for the market to improve. Booksellers don't wait. They sell. They are sellers. Recall Wm. Blake's Proverb of Hell:

"The cistern contains; the fountain overflows."

5. Book collectors follow quality.

I know what you're thinking. Quality = critical acclaim. Quality = historical importance. Quality = gorgeous cover art. Quality = fine binding. And so on. Well, sure, but does Quality = you? If it does, collectors will follow. If you are it, they know you will see quality and lead them to it. And quality is not always conspicuous. This from Michael Sadleir's Passages From the Autobiography of a Bibliomaniac:

"I soon discovered that Gothic Romance as a collecting subject perfectly illustrated a truth about book-collecting which is not everywhere realized. In itself it was an untrodden and an uncharted field; but among Gothic Romancers were a few writers famous either as individuals or on other grounds. In consequence, among the Gothic titles which I ought logically to acquire were certain items of already great celebrity and therefore sought after by collectors. These titles were expensive; but paradoxically they were comparatively easy to find. The genuinely difficult ones were those no one had bothered to want. It is worth remarking that a collector will often have this same experience - that the high spots in his subject, though costly, do not test his assiduity or his skill as a collector; the real snags are hidden among the crowd of titles hitherto despised and rejected."

And so, does "A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful" make more sense now? Be possibility.

Go here for the complete list of BookThink's Proverbs of Bookselling.

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