The "R" Word


by Rob Rulon-Miller

Today I received twelve—count ‘em, twelve—catalogues in the mail. On average, I receive four or five a day, perhaps a few more than most. I have subscriptions to eight auction catalogues, and because I am a member of the Manuscript Society, I receive plenty of catalogues from autograph dealers as well. Occasionally I receive a numismatist’s or philatelist’s or an antique dealer’s catalogue, too. There is no want for the reading of catalogues here, and I assume it’s the same with most ABAA members.

As much of my business is generated from the catalogues I publish, I take a particular interest in the catalogues of others. I try to read as many as I can, not just to look for books to buy, but to see how other booksellers are cataloguing their books. I am interested in how their descriptions look on the printed page. I am interested in margins, type styles and size, and overall readability. I am interested in the sequence of information offered, where the price is located, and how citations for reference books are handled. Does the bookseller, for example, put titles of books all in caps, as Bill Reese and Mike Ginsberg do; or in bold, as Maggs and Ravenstree do; or in italics, as Jonathan Hill and I do? Are authors’ names printed all in caps or are they bolded, or both? How much abbreviation is used? Each of us has our own particular style. No doubt each of us receives comments from our customers on our catalogues, and we tailor them accordingly, or not, as we wish. The diversity is inevitable and good.

Inevitable, too, is the diversity in the descriptions of books—the words and phrases we use to merchandise our inventories. But where type styles, spacing, formatting, and even, I suppose, our prices are confined by what Joyce called the ineluctable modality of the visible, our prose, such as it is, or paucity of it, has the capacity to urge and sway those who are reading the descriptions in subtle ways. How many of us have had to return a book for it not being as we pictured it from the bookseller’s description? Or for its not being described at all? I’m not talking now about mistakes in cataloguing. All of us have erred in counting plates or have confused a pagination. Rather, I’m talking about the integrity of our descriptions.

Sidney E. Berger’s article, "Else Fine and Other Features of the Dealer’s Catalog: Part One" in Biblio (Volume I, no. 2) addresses a number of concerns I have long harbored about booksellers’ catalogues. In short, Berger argues for forthrightness in booksellers’ descriptions and offers general advice on how to read—or read into—them. As a reader of booksellers’ catalogues for more than thirty years he has a number of useful observations, and his article should be required reading for all booksellers who sell by catalogue.

Berger rightfully argues for clarity of description. Most of us have no trouble stating the facts: author, title, place of publication, and so forth. But, when it comes to the physical description of the book or our statements of edition or why the book is important (and hence worth the price we are asking) or—my personal pet peeve—rarity, a number of dealers’ forthrightness may easily be called into question. A local ABAA dealer once told me he would describe a book as "rare" if he could not get on the phone and find a copy in a week or so. Another dealer told me he wouldn’t use the word rare unless there were five or fewer locations cited in NUC. I read not so long ago, much to my surprise, in an ABAA member’s catalogue, that the first edition of Kipling’s Captain Courageous was "rare in original cloth!" Countless are the times I’ve been offered "rare" or "uncommon" titles of which I have four copies in the warehouse. Myself, I’ve just about given up using the word altogether in order to distance myself from the misconceptions that the word "rare" has come to convey. In my opinion, it is the most overstated, misused word in the booksellers’ canon. So, too, its adjuncts, though I suppose to a lesser degree: words such as "scarce" and "uncommon."

Why do we use these words at all? The simple, basic explanation is that it helps us sell books. If touting a book as "rare" or "uncommon" did absolutely nothing to help us sell books we certainly would not venture to use the words as willy-nilly as we do, except in cases where we could demonstrably show that a book was truly rare, or in cases where we could point to hard evidence, such as a census. So the bottom line on the words "rare," "scarce," "uncommon," and the like, is money, pure and simple. We all have bills to pay. You tell me why we use these words. And at whose expense do we use them?

Except in the most extreme instances, such as early Caxtons or Shakespeare quartos, where censuses have been carefully compiled, aren’t we really only guessing for the most part (albeit educated guessing in some instances) as to the scarcity or commonness of a title? How often have we found just a copy or two listed in NUC only to find a dozen and a half in the RLIN or OCLC databases? How often has a copy of a particular book surfaced at auction, where it has brought an unexpectedly high price because "no copy has appeared at auction in twenty years;" and no sooner are there three or four other copies that have come out of the woodwork, drawn like magnets into the marketplace by the price realized. How many "unrecorded" copies lurk in small public libraries and historical societies? Why, then, do we continue to advertise so many books as "rare" to our customers? In a catalogue that arrived last week there were 236 items offered for sale. By my count 172 were either "rare,""very rare," "quite rare," "exceedingly rare," and even "becoming rare!" Even the most thin-skinned among us has to find this preposterous!

And what about the poor, unsuspecting customer who decided to purchase Captains Courageous based on its being "rare in original cloth." In a word, this customer was duped. Now I know the dealer who made this claim of rarity. I know he knows just as well as I that this popular Kipling title is no more rare in original cloth than Minnesota is temperate in January. This claim of rarity borders on fraud in my opinion, and I am troubled by this and similar instances of hucksterism in some of my colleagues’ catalogues.

In his article, Mr. Berger also calls to question the numerous phrases booksellers use to describe condition—everything from "fair++" to "overall, less than very good," to "a very near fine copy." Berger argues for standardization—an unattainable ideal, in my opinion—but his point is well taken. The inventiveness of booksellers in describing the condition of books knows no bounds and can be infuriating (I too have been guilty of it). Berger suggests simplicity and straightforwardness, something approaching the guidelines for describing books published weekly in AB Bookman—a simple nine-step scale ranging from "poor" to "as new." All books, of course, do not fit precisely into one of nine categories, and each description will have its modifiers. All Berger asks for, God bless him, is blatant, unabashed honesty in our descriptions—a service we should all strive to provide to our customers.

As a librarian (he is head of Special Collections at the University of California, Riverside), Berger’s view is from the other side of the street. For his purposes, he wants as much information about a book as can be possibly crammed into our catalogues. He suggests the use of indexes of subjects, authors, and titles, detailed collations, and illustrations. Even the most well heeled among us cannot justify the inclusion of everything that is to be said about a book, of every convenience a catalogue might potentially offer our customers. Somewhere there is a happy union of description and economics, which, depending on the size of our business, will naturally vary from bookseller to bookseller. But by and large, Berger finds booksellers’ cataloguing efforts commendable. Among his suggestions for the overall improvement of the literature we publish is 1) the dating of catalogues; 2) doing away with the typographical enhancement in our catalogues—the bolding and italicizing of "amazing and important" things about our offerings which may seem to "enhance the worth" of an item; 3) doing away with the implications of rarity suggested by phrases such as "not in NUC," or, "a color not noted by BAL "; 4) doing away with the phrase "first and only edition"—it’s a redundancy; 5) doing away with uncommon abbreviations—or, if such abbreviations are used, provide a key, then use these abbreviations with consistency.

The jargon of our trade can be abstruse, especially to to the novice, but even to the intermediate collector. The vagaries of the books we sell are themselves often arcane, thereby making it exponentially possible to couch or obfuscate facts that should be made obvious to the customer. In an appeal for more honesty in our cataloguing I remind all ABAA booksellers of the first two sections of our Code of Ethics:

1. An Association member shall be responsible for the understanding and use of the specific terminology of the trade;

2. An Association member shall be responsible for the accurate description of all materials offered for sale. All significant defects, restorations, and sophistications should be clearly noted and made known to those to whom the material is offered or sold. Unless both parties agree otherwise, a full cash refund shall be made available to the purchaser of any misrepresented material.

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