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Building a Bookselling Reference Library

How to "Photograph" Books with Words
Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings 1830-1880

by Craig Stark

#155 2 May 2011

In the recently published Chapter 6 of BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling, I suggested that inexperienced booksellers study catalogs of mid- and upper-tier auction houses to accelerate the process of learning how to describe books. The better catalogs are accompanied by clear, color illustrations, and by referring back and forth between these illustrations and their textual descriptions, one can start to learn not only how to describe a book's condition but also its important physical elements - each with terminology that will suggest that you know something about books. And the latter is important because it establishes trust between you and potential buyers and, more importantly, allows you to ask for and achieve good prices. In turn, if you can achieve good prices, you can compete more favorably in the marketplace for inventory - pay better prices for it, that is. And so it goes until you wake up one day and realize that you've figured out how to make money at this!

Okay, so it will take some time for you to get there no matter what, but meanwhile there many are tools that will speed things up. I'm continuously looking for tools that will do this without busting your budgets, and today's "find" is perhaps an unlikely sounding book titled Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings 1830-1880: A Descriptive Bibliography.

Essentially, this book is what the title suggests - a descriptive bibliography of books with Victorian decorated bindings - but what makes it special, in my opinion, are the lessons it teaches in book description.

In author Edmund M.B. King's "Preface to the Bibliography" he explains the format of the bibliographical entries, all of which conclude (after the standard format) with a section of notes: "The Notes entry of each entry contains the details of the bookbinding and the description of the design blocked. Designs have been described as though the reader does not have an illustration of the design. This entails a degree of detailed description of the design elements, in order that accurate identification and comparison may be made with a copy elsewhere."

The intent, in other words, is to "photograph" each book with words. This level of description is rarely found anywhere in booksellers' listings, online or in catalogs - and, for that matter, rarely in auction catalogs. Mostly it isn't necessary. But what an effective learning device it is for the student of the trade! Whereas in the typical book description, the bookseller describes only what is necessary (if that) to distinguish binding state, edition state, etc., King describes virtually every detail of the binding, relevant or not. Likely you'll likely never have cause to write this kind of description yourself, but when the occasion demands that you describe one or two binding details, you'll know how to do it if you study his examples. And, as an aside, it's my observation that booksellers seem to have more difficult describing earlier, especially decorative bindings than anything else - in fact, they often betray their ignorance of bookselling terminology right and left. And here we arrive at that pesky trust issue again.

Anyway, here's an example from King's guide:

And here's the accompanying description:

Not much left to the imagination, eh?

Now, I should mention that there are only 41 color plates and 87 monotone figures in Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings with fully 752 books described, but since King used British Library copies to produce this book, additional plates to accompany his descriptions can in many cases be found at the BL Database of Bookbindings. Plenty here to keep us out of trouble for days.

You might be thinking, well, this is all well and good, but what if I need help describing what's inside a book? In fact, internal points of issue are frequently more critical than binding variants. Such are the complexities of bibliography that a brief tutorial won't begin to answer this question, but again, there are tools out there that can speed the learning process, and of course BookThink's Guide gets into much detail about this as well.

But I'll leave you with an example in any case. Here's a page from David A. Groseclose's James A. Michener: A Bibliography:

Pretty much nails it, I'd say.

By the way, both books can be had at a reasonable price, so why not start class today? It doesn't take much to outpace most of your competitors.

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