Early June has long been an important spot on the calendars of bibliophiles around the world. The original source of interest came from the fact that it always marked a unique concentration of opportunities to buy and sell books during a busy schedule of London book fairs and auctions. Those events alone were enough to lead a diverse flock of booksellers, collectors and other bibliophiles to converge annually on London, like swallows to Capistrano.
Recent years, however, have seen a greatly expanded scope and duration for what has now become known as Rare Books London. An impressive cohort of libraries and other bibliophilic groups have now joined their bookselling friends to organise an 18 day “fesitval of old and rare books” running from May 24 to June 10. In addition to the well-known book fairs and auctions, their schedule of events now includes 18 talks, 10 tours, and a special performance based on the writings of Samuel Johnson. More events will likely be added as the dates approach.
Information about everything that will be happening can be found on the RARE BOOKS LONDON website. Nearly all the events are free, but for many of them an advance ticket is required and spaces may be limited. It will be smart to reserve your places soon. Links for booking all the activities will be found on the website.
Rare Books London is a great idea and we are happy to be able to support it. If you think so too then you can also help support it and contribute to its success by posting, tweeting, pinning or just plain writing about it anywhere you can. After that I hope I will see you there.
If you are a wandering bibliophile who will happen to be in New York City at the end of the month you should count yourself fortunate. Bibliography Week 2017 will be taking place there from January 23 to 28 and a there is a full schedule of events that you should find of interest. Lectures, exhibits and receptions are all on the list. The event does not appear to have its own website, but a full program of events will be found on the Grolier Club website.
We would love to be there ourselves, but that week we instead find ourselves in Stuttgart instead, where two major and long-lived book fairs will again be taking place.
It does not sound like it will be aweek for staying home.
Anyone who managed to struggle to the end of my recent post on “Searching For Books In Days Of Yore” may recall my reckless promise to continue on that topic at a later date. It was not an idle threat. So, ignoring the fact that I am probably the only person who actually finds this subject of interest, I will keep my promise and now pick up where I left off two weeks ago.
In case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of things about book searching have changed since the days I was describing in my previous post. Out of all of them, one fundamental change in particular needs to be mentioned first: before the internet came along, if you wanted a specific book that was out-of-print you almost always needed a bookseller to find it for you. There were no real options for doing it yourself. The periodicals which carried the necessary “books wanted” lists were all trade publications. Private buyers did not advertise in them. The search process was effectively closed to the retail customer. This meant that if a sought-after book was available somewhere the buyer who wanted it never actually came in contact with the dealer who had it in stock. At least two booksellers were required for every sale.
The internet made one of those booksellers superfluous.
Needless to say, this innovation did not generate enthusiasm from the booksellers who had once derived income from the inefficient system it destroyed. I have enormous sympathy for them, as I do for all the travel agents, encyclopedia salesmen, music store owners, directory publishers, newspaper delivery boys and members of any other occupations whose lives were similarly upended by the internet. The current popular term for this is “disruption.” It is a very Big Thing and has many people excited. Venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs worship in the temple of disruption. They spend a good portion of their working day trying to cook up new ways to render useless the existing skills and practices that provide a living for the rest of us. Thus, when disruption came to the book searching business about 15 years ago there was no cheering from the trade. It is easy to understand why. For many of them it was the end of the world as they knew it.
As for myself, there is definitely a part of me that would be quite content if they called a halt to all this disruption and just let everyone go on with their business doing things as they had always done them before. I especially feel this way when I think about all my fellow booksellers who once made a living helping their customers find books in the pre-digital age. In fact, I must confess that I ran a book search service myself once upon a time. It was how I got my start in the book business, even before my wife and I opened our first shop. I did not know then that I was a dinosaur, and was happy not to know it. Things seemed just fine the way they were.
But today, for better or worse, I have to count myself among the disrupters. It would be pointless to pretend otherwise. And if I stand in that camp and consider the question of book searching I feel compelled to do it from the perspective of the buyer rather than the seller. When I do that, this is what I see:
-Before the internet, if you discovered an out-of-print book that you thought might be of interest it generally took at least a week or two just to find out if there might be a copy available somewhere for sale.
After the internet you could find this out in seconds.
– Before the internet you might learn about a book that you thought could be of interest to you, but have no idea of what it might cost you if a copy were found. The only way to find out would be to put a friendly bookseller to the expense and trouble of searching for it for you. Since there was always good chance it might cost more than you could afford or want to pay, it was likely that you would only decide to do this if it were a book you absolutely had to have it.
After the internet you could quickly check the price and availability of any book without expense, embarrassment or commercial engagement.
-Before the internet, the pool of available books to search from was limited to the available stock of those booksellers who took the time and trouble to quote from published want lists. This was only a tiny fraction of the total books available in the marketplace.
After the internet, the pool of findable books exploded as it became possible for booksellers to upload their entire inventory online and leave it there until sold. At the same time, the actual quoting of a book became unnecessary to sell it. These two things made it dramatically easier to locate a reasonable copy of a wanted book.
– Before the internet the reach of want lists rarely went beyond national or linguistic boundaries. The periodicals that carried them had limited distribution beyond the countries they were published in, and quoters rarely saw profit in mailing out quotes at international postage rates. This made searching for books published in other countries or languages especially difficult.
After the internet the marketplace became international. Metasearch sites brought books together from booksellers around the world. Customers were no longer limited to looking for foreign books primarily from the stocks of booksellers in their own country.
– Before the internet, most of the book descriptions offered to search services provided little more than a coded description of format and condition. Things like “8vo, v.g./dj.” were often all you knew about the copy you were offered to buy,
After the internet descriptions became fuller and more useful. Many copies were even illustrated with photos, and if photos were necessary and not already displayed online it was always possible to ask for them to be sent as email attachments.
Of course, the most significant change of all was in the price of books. Before the internet, common books purchased through search services were usually quite expensive relative to what they would normally sell for anywhere else.
After the internet, common books became cheap.
I could go on, but there is no need. The point is made. Disruption came to the world of book searching and the result, for the consumers at least, was a dramatic change for the better. What was once impossible became possible. What was once difficult became simple. What was once costly became cheap. And the vast availability of books online, coupled with new and powerful tools to search for them, enabled serious bibliophiles to pursue their interests in ways that were unimaginable two decades before.
Collectors, of course, already know this – the younger ones in particular. I hear it from them often. They are happy. Many of them have come to realize that they are living in a golden age. The booksellers of my generation, however, are not all convinced. I still hear many of them complaining about how heavy and shiny everything has become. I try to argue with them sometimes, but I never win.
[Long before viaLibri had its own proper blog I began blogging (and even tweeting) under the name of vialibrian. It was not, I must confess, a very sustained effort, and the size of my following reflected this. Now that viaLibri has its own blog, demanding its own attentions, I have had to acknowledge that finding the time for a single blog is challenge enough. I do not need two. So vialibrian has posted his last post.
However, we still imagine that most of the subjects that vialibrian chose to comment on continue to be interest, at least to some. So, rather than abandon the old posts completely I decided to let them emigrate here to a new home where they can live on in fresh obscurity. Most will just sit far back in the timeline, as though they had been there all along. A few of them, however, will be brought over and re-inserted, under the pretence that there may still be visitors who will find interest in what we had to say a few years ago.
We begin here with some comments on book searching that were first posted on August 4, 2013.]
Searching for books in days of yore.
Back in April , when I launched this blog, I was pleased that my first post managed to elicit a nice comment. One particular point made by this commenter has been banging around in my head ever since. On the subject of want lists, he wrote:
Electronic book-collecting tools are all focused on “dealer push” — a vendor essentially saying, “Here’s what I have. Are you interested.” The tools aggregate and push this information. We know that many large booksellers do not have the time or inclination to post all of their inventories. It would be nice to go back to the old days of “pull” — posting want lists in magazines to let dealers and fellow collectors know what we are interested in and looking for. It’s a service I would readily pay for within the context of a strong collector community like ViaLibri.
It was an interesting suggestion, even without the hint of additional revenue. It made me wonder. I am always surprised at how easy it is to forget the ”old days” of antiquarian bookselling, before the internet changed everything. It was a time when weekly printed periodicals like The Clique, Bookdealer and AB Bookman were the primary tools of book searching; or, more precisely, the only tools for book searching.
For those too young or forgetful to remember, it worked like this: First you made a list of the books you wanted. Unless you were a bookseller yourself, you then had to find someone who was and give them your list. They would type it up [another call to nostalgia] along with all the other lists they had been given and then mail it to one of the aforementioned magazines where it would appear, along with numerous other similar lists, every week, ink on paper, in endless printed columns of ”Books Wanted.” At that point thousands of hopeful booksellers around the world, many of them list-makers themselves, would begin reading through the pages, line after line, column after column, searching hopefully for any wanted book they might happen to have for sale.
After that the “quoting” would begin. Items to be quoted would first need to be hunted for and located on whatever shelf they had been assigned to or misplaced on. Then descriptions had to be prepared. Postcards, paper slips, even letters would be written, usually by hand, describing, as succinctly as possible, the essential details of the book on offer – and little more. The amount of time required to write all these descriptions placed a great premium on abbreviation. As a result, a compact, almost stenographic language of book description evolved in response. (It had, I would grant, antecedents in the jargon of printed catalogues) Notations such as a.e.g, ARC, ALS, FE, bce, f.f.e., v.g. and, most notorious of all, w.a.f, all became part of the compressed specialist language of booksellers and initiated collectors. But even these shortcuts only reduced by a small fraction the work at hand. And it was not a stimulating activity by any measure.
But tedious labor was not the only investment made in quoting books for sale. Ignoring the cost of postage (which for some might not be an insignificant expense) the bookseller also invested opportunity cost with every book he offered for sale. This came from the fact that quoting a book nearly always meant removing it from available stock and putting it on reserve. In the days of snail mail this usually involved three weeks or even a month. (Sometimes the actual customer at the other end also needed to be contacted by post, so a month could easily pass before a sale could be confirmed). To quote a book and then be unable to provide it was a breach of faith that few colleagues would easily forgive or forget. So the decision to quote an item to a distant hypothetical customer might also mean foregoing its equally possible sale to a customer who might actually walk through the door after the book had been withdrawn on quote. The more desirable and uncommon the book, the greater the risk and cost in putting it on reserve.
The quoters, however, were not the ones who took the greatest risk. That would be found on the other side of the potential transaction: the booksellers who made the lists in the first place. These, you see, were not free. They were paid advertising, pure and simple. You were charged by the line, or the page, and it was not cheap. Every book listed was a separate wager that a copy might be found and sold. Many booksellers were only willing to take this gamble on the behalf of their regular customers. The others who were willing to offer a “search service” to the general public did so as a calculated risk. For most of these, the ordinary out-of-print book was their bread and butter. The more common it was the better. On one hand, a customer looking for Fanny Farmer’s Cook Book was as good as money in the bank. On the other hand, a PHD student with a list of the 18th century epistolary novels not already available from nearby libraries was an almost certain financial loss.
A few booksellers would try to shift their risk by charging their customers for each book they wanted before they had found it. This was, however, unusual. The typical customer readily perceived a potential scam in this approach and usually went elsewhere. The “free” book search service was always the norm.
In spite of the risk, many who provided this service appeared to be quite successful and regularly advertised multiple pages of wants. Some even advertised their free services in places like the New York Times and the TLS. The economics of this have always been intriguing to skeptics like myself. It is a losing game to advertise for uncollected books that are unlikely be found. If you had the experience to already know what was available, and what was not, the temptation to ignore requests for the latter might be difficult to resist. The only alternative would be to have the customer for Fanny Farmer subsidise the cost of searching for the other items that were unlikely to be found. This was the usual approach, but it could make the out-of-print cookbooks and knitting manuals very expensive. And often they were, at least when you resorted to a search service to find them. But the buyers rarely complained. They generally understood that the marketplace for old books was hopelessly disorderly and inefficient. Whenever it did manage to yield, on request, a long sought-after item the reaction on the part of the customer was almost always a mixture of gratitude and surprise.
Many, many books were bought and sold in this fashion. It was a system that lasted a bit more than a century. It helped sustain many struggling booksellers whose shops were otherwise too remote from regular customers to support a living wage. It provided to the inexperienced novitiates of the antiquarian book trade a weekly lesson book on the mysterious marketplace they hoped to enter. It became, in many respects, the universal binding agent in the large and otherwise disconnected world of second-hand bookselling.
This weekend (June 18-19) we will be attending a conference in Cambridge with the promising title of: Mania and Imagination: Perils and pleasures of the private collector, present and future. Odd though it may seem, I am actually excited by the idea of spending two days discussing the current and future state of book collecting. Especially the future bit. The conversations I am most often engaged in along these lines generally trend towards irritation and despair. Things like PODs, kindles, robopricing and the relentless decline in the value of books once thought to be rare have put a sour taste in the mouths of many who first entered the world of book collecting in the pre-digital age. Optimism about the future of collecting books seems to be a scarce commodity among the bibliophiles of my generation.
But I’m expecting that the conference in Cambridge will reflect a more hopeful outlook. I find it hard to imagine that many participants would pay a fee and travel all the way to King’s College, for two days, just to grumble about how the current and future prospects for collectors have been ruined by the internet.
I do, I admit, wonder what the perils referred to in the conference title might actually be referring to. Mania? That, of course, would be nothing new. But perhaps it is changing its form. That could be interesting. And there is a session devoted, simply, to Dilemmas. I am eager to learn what those might be. (I think it must be the problem of how to adjust to a world where the digitally-driven flood of collecting opportunities exceeds our capacity to evaluate or purchase them. Could it possibly be anything else?)
So I am looking forward to seeing old friends, perhaps meeting a few new ones, and having a generally stimulating weekend talking about old books. And I will also be taking notes, which means you may hear more about this again in the future. The glorious future.