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Collecting Science Fiction
The Language of Books

by Timothy Doyle

#74, 31 July 2006

The recent discussion of Old School versus New School booksellers reminds me of the old saying: "The world is made up of two kinds of people: those who lump people into two categories, and those who don't." Sellers in the used book trade are by nature opinionated, independent thinkers - ask six booksellers a question, and you are likely to get a dozen different opinions - so trying to neatly divvy them up into two camps may be an exercise in futility.

That said, there is still value in discussing two theoretical opposing themes in current bookselling, with the explicit acknowledgment that the real-world situation is far more complex. This article will examine different attitudes towards the importance of learning the language of books.

But first, a little historic digression ...

This summer, my family went on a camping trip to Indian mound country in southern Ohio. We planned our trip to take us out through western Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to do some sight seeing along the old National Road.

The building of the National Road and the later construction of canals and railroads caused major changes in the American social and business cultures. In much the same way, the advent of the Internet - the so-called Information Superhighway - has radically changed the economic and social landscape of the world. Any technology that directly impacts the flow of information and goods has a fundamental effect on the marketplace. In early nineteenth century America, the technology was road building, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, rail transport, and in the twentieth century, there were two major technologies: first, the internal combustion engine, which initiated another round of road building (cf. the US interstate system); and second, air transport. And finally, the late-twentieth century to today has seen the burgeoning growth of the Internet.

Scattered along the old National Road are the remnants and ruins of numerous towns - in particular, businesses that at one time flourished as a result of trade, the continuous movement of goods and people. Stables, inns and tollhouses are three examples. A traveler might only expect to go 15 to 30 miles in a day, so the National Road afforded much commercial opportunity along its entire length. When rail transport arrived and diverted much of the traffic away from the National Road, the economic landscape changed, and many of these businesses simply disappeared.

It is a BookThink precept that concealed within the heart of change is opportunity. Prior to 1990 - admittedly a somewhat arbitrary date - bookselling had remained essentially unchanged for generations. Of course, there were important historical changing forces at work in the 20th century - two world wars; the Great Depression, etc., and there were noteworthy changes within the bookselling trade - the rise and decline of individual authors, collections and institutions; the growing significance and value of dust jackets; the hypermodern phenomena, and so on. But bookselling itself remained largely the same. Stories of the grand old booksellers teaching the trade to lowly apprentices, who then took over the businesses or went out to start their own ... these Horatio Alger tales were as common in the 1930s as they were 50 or so years later. The language of the trade was passed on from one generation of sellers to the next and indeed helped to define the trade and the professionals who practiced it. Just as two rocket scientists who've never met can have lively discussions about SRBs, discharge coefficients and ablation, so too could two booksellers happily discuss aeg, intaglio, and yapps - preferably over brandy and cigars.

Which brings me to one of the most persistent complaints traditional booksellers wage against the "New School" booksellers: "Those damn newcomers barge in and don't even bother to learn the language!" The language of bookselling is in fact a precise tool that has evolved over centuries to serve specific purposes: It allows professional booksellers to communicate quickly and precisely about very specific points of a book - points which can sometimes differentiate a common reading copy from a four-figure collectible. As with any profession's jargon, acronyms abound: aeg (all edges gilt), 8vo (octavo), waf (with all faults), ffep (front free end paper), etc.

Publication costs demanded that both brevity and precision be used in producing copy for print catalogs or placing ads in trade magazines. One observes the same phenomenon in real estate classifieds, where every character is counted and paid for, also in text messaging, where acronyms and other shortcuts are used to be speed communication and make efficient use of small cell phone displays. Of course, having a "secret" language makes it more difficult for non-trade members to understand, thus reinforcing an "Us and Them" mentality and contributing to the (largely undeserved) negative connotations of the word "jargon."

Today, the pressing need for "want" and "for sale" ads in trade magazines no longer exists. Indeed, the quintessential trade magazine for placing such ads, AB Bookman's Weekly, went out of business in 1999 after over 50 years of publication. Some booksellers still publish paper catalogs, true, but their numbers are declining, giving way to online listings. In contrast, there is no premium for brevity when listing online - just the opposite - no longer a practical reason for a seller to use "aeg" in a book description. It may seem to be an elitist affectation that traditional sellers cringe when an eBay seller describes a book as having "shiny gold stuff on all three sides" instead of the traditional "all edges gilt," but there are several good reasons for making the effort to learn to speak professional bookseller's vernacular.


Online bookselling is very competitive, and successful booksellers take advantage of any edge available to them. A command of book terms helps you stand out, gives you credibility in the eyes of both customers and other professional sellers.

When I first started selling books online in 2000, I made a deliberate decision that I would not waste time on books that I didn't believe I could sell for at least $20 - and a limited number of those at that. Over the years I've added to my monthly overhead by subscribing to services such as PayPal and The Art of Books. Along the way, all bookselling venues have raised fees and commissions, and my decision to concentrate on higher priced books makes more sense then ever. At present, over one third of my inventory is listed at $75 or higher, and one fifth is over $100.

Maintaining a higher average value inventory has a few consequences relevant to the discussion of language. First, to spend the kind of money I'm asking, buyers need to have confidence in sellers. Proper use of book terminology helps to instill this confidence. Remember, buyers who are willing to spend this kind of money are often (though not always!) well versed in book terminology themselves; they will gravitate towards sellers who have a command of the language. Second, in researching your high-end books, you may find yourself consulting listings from other professional dealers, where at least a working knowledge of terms will help you understand what they are talking about. Related to this, you will eventually end up talking with other professional dealers (either in person or via email), and if you wish to be accorded professional courtesy and respect, then you should be able to speak as a professional.


I've used the word "professional" several times in this discussion. This is a slippery word, one that has more than once been the topic of heated discussion on book forums. Some Old School booksellers complain about the erosion of professional standards, by which they often seem to mean that the trade is being taken over by hobbyists and "widget-sellers" (sellers who perceive books as widgets and would be equally content hawking ginsu knives as long as a profit could be realized).

The best of New School booksellers advance the argument that "professional is as professional does." In other words, to be a professional bookseller, simply conduct your business in a professional manner: Describe a book and all of its faults completely, answer emails promptly, ship quickly, provide quality customer service, etc.

As is usual in cases like this, both sides are right - and wrong.

It is true that with the advent of online bookselling (particularly at eBay), large numbers of hobby sellers have entered the market. Many of these sellers do in fact sell shoddy goods in a slipshod manner, and their listings may be rife with ignorance and/or deliberate deception. And it does seem that as soon as one goes out of business, two others spring up as replacements. It is also true that scam artists have taken advantage of the relative anonymity of online book selling.

But this is nothing new. Pre-Internet bookselling had its own share of problems with both the clueless and the criminal. How else to explain the existence of professional organizations? The Internet has simply turned up the volume (pardon the pun) by making it so very easy for amateurs to put their goods out in the world market. The solution: Distance yourself; get as far out of the shallow end of the pool as you can.


It is important to understand that the language of books evolved in the context of booksellers AND collectors interacting. The concepts and vocabulary of bookselling and collecting, therefore, provides many insights into the mind of the book collector as well as the bookseller. This in turn will better enable you, the bookseller, to market to the collector, and the collector will be one of you best customers for high-end stock.


As always, good reference books speed education. The following three titles, listed in Craig Stark's article "Talking the Bookselling Talk," will get you started:

ABC for Book Collectors, Eighth Edition. John Carter and Nicolas Barker; Oak Knoll Press, 2004. ISBN: 1584561122 (hardback). 224pp. My personal favorite, this should be a required text for anyone who wants to sell or collect books - and it's a fun read too.

Encyclopedia of the Book. Geoffrey Ashall Glaister. Oak Knoll Press. New Castle, Delaware. 2001. ISBN: 1884718140 (paperback). 551 pp.

Dealer's Thesaurus: 6,000 Ways to Describe Books and Historical Paper. Lynn Vigeant. Privately printed. Maps of Antiquity, Inc. Montclair, New Jersey. 1993.

Note that both ABC for Book Collectors, Eighth Edition and Encyclopedia of the Book are in print. Find links to purchase both of these books here.

SCIENCE FICTION EDITOR'S NOTE: BookThink has previously published an article ("Talking the Bookselling Talk") on this same theme as part of the Building a Bookselling Reference Library series, available here.

If you have not already read other articles in the series, I strongly recommend them. Links to all related articles are available here.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Who knows, Lynn Vigeant may be getting tired of shipping out copies of Dealer's Thesaurus - or out of them altogether! - but if you encounter trouble finding a reasonably priced copy online, write me at and I'll try to help.

Online Resources

An excellent online guide to book terminology is available here.

The focus is on bookbinding and conservation, but the terminology remains the same.

Also, IOBA (The Independent Online Booksellers Association) maintains a glossary of basic terms.

Finally, here is an interesting series of essays, The Essentials of Book Collecting: An Essay in Parts by Robert F. Lucas, which includes book terminology, a guide on how to read a catalog description, descriptions of bindings and paper, and much more.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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