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The Accidental Antiquarian

Bookseller Catalogues
Part II

by Chris Lowenstein

#127, 18 August 2008

On a recent visit to an antiquarian bookshop, I asked the owner if he had anything by or about Dante Alighieri, the subject of my first catalogue.

"No. I don't think so," he answered. "I have a lot of Western Americana and Californiana. But feel free to browse around."

I spent about a half hour scanning the shelves of the shop. At last, my eye landed on a small book with a parchment cover on the bottom shelf of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. The book's spine was painted in red Italianate scrollwork.

Parchment cover. Florentine scrolls. Hmmm. Quite a few editions of Dante are bound in parchment. Could it possibly be?

I knelt down on the floor and pulled the book off that low shelf. The front of the parchment cover was hand-painted with a large dragon and calligraphic letters. Reds, greens, and golds, a bit faded but still intact, shone in the daylight. I experienced that moment of pure elation that every book hunter knows - that feeling of serendipitously finding something I'd been seeking for a while, that feeling of discovery of something wonderful, something that, until I found it, had been sitting innocuously on a shelf waiting just for me.

"I think I found your only Dante book," I said, rising off the floor. "I'll take it."

"Oh my goodness! I forgot I had that one. It was given to me on consignment a while ago," the bookseller said, surprised. "It's yours."

With that, I purchased what would be the final book in my Dante catalogue. I had 49 other books, prices researched, images scanned, and descriptions written. This last book would be a fitting addition to the rest of the collection. It was time for me to work on piecing it all together to make a catalogue.

First, I needed to find a computer program that I could use to digitally lay out the catalogue's pages. I started with Pages, a program on my Macintosh, but I wasn't satisfied with the ultimate product. I had too much trouble sizing images. Rather than research other, more sophisticated programs, I started over with Microsoft Word, which provided ample options for fonts, colors, and images. The bonus was that since I already knew how to use Word, I could use it quickly. I'll save the fancier desktop publishing programs for those already in the know or for my next catalogue.

Since my catalogue includes many illustrated books and fine bindings, I thought it crucial to include images of each book's cover or an illustration from inside the pages. Some booksellers might disagree. One bookseller I respect has been known to say, "Are we selling photographs or books?" Another bookseller, whom I also respect, has images of every book featured in his catalogue and on his website. In color. While including images is a matter of personal preference - I like to see what I'm buying if I don't know the bookseller and am not standing in his shop - it is also time consuming and expensive. I spent a couple of weeks learning how to properly image and size all of the books in my catalogue. The process will be faster next time, now that I've learned it, but I've invested a good deal of time learning about imaging that has delayed my catalogue's completion.

If a seller does choose to include images of books in a catalogue, he must next determine whether or not to print in color. The bottom line is that color printing costs more. A lot more.

Now that I've completed the final draft of my catalogue, I am ready to determine how many catalogues I need to print. Before I can determine print run, I have to compile a mailing list. For this catalogue, my first, I am casting a wide net. I plan to send the catalogue to:

  • Previous clients and customers
  • People who know I'm working on the catalogue and have asked for one (these requests frequently come from people who read my blog)
  • Other booksellers I know
  • Other booksellers I want to know (check the ABAA directory or the Book Hunter Press Used Book Lover's Guides)
  • Libraries who have special Dante collections or who I think ought to consider beginning a special Dante collection
  • People who sign up for my mailing list at book fairs
  • Friends and family

Once I have a basic list of potential customers, I'll know how many copies I need. Then I can get started determining the size of my catalogue's print run. I plan to explore the costs of using a small printer in my hometown versus the costs of using a printer I find on the internet.

One way in which I hope to save a bit on printing costs is to have my catalogue available on my website as a downloadable PDF. Those who have the technology can download the catalogue and peruse it on the computer screen.

Because I have invested a lot of time in images of my books and because this catalogue features books that are beautiful to look at, I want to use technology to further disseminate my work. I have toyed with the idea of creating a dedicated blog featuring entries from the catalogue. I'm not sure what that will look like or whether I will even create such a blog, but I see it as another way of making the investment of my time scanning book covers and images pay off. I would also like to create a video catalogue of sorts, using the images of the books, some good soundtrack music, and ordering information. Such a video could be posted on my website, my blog, or a public site like YouTube. Though print catalogues are a long-existent tool for booksellers, the creative use of new technology also allows booksellers to use catalogues to reach new customers in new ways. Since the next generation of book collectors will likely be as reliant on technology as they are on books, it's good to consider how to use that technology to reach them.

I expect to have my catalogue printed and mailed in the next month to six weeks. I'll let you know how it goes.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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