Secrets of the Book Trade: Number 1

Imust first qualify my title. I am referring only to the antiquarian booktrade; that is, used and rare books. It does not refer to the sellers of new books; which brings us immediately to the first of the secrets I will divulge:

Antiquarian booksellers are snobs – book snobs in fact. The truth is that antiquarian booksellers do not really consider new booksellers to be booksellers at all. That doesn’t mean we don’t think of many of them fondly. After all, while they are really only retailers selling whatever the publishers provide, they are at least selling, along with the tons of mindless crap which should never have been published, some worthy additions to civilization. That civilization of which we, the real booksellers, consider ourselves to be the true guardians.

Many of us antiquarians habitually enter new bookstores to buy current books for reading. And, of course, for many years, until the Internet rendered it futile, we regularly pillaged new booksellers’ remainder tables for first editions, bought when they are at their cheapest and sold later for handsome prices in the world of Modern Firsts, where all that counts is knowledge.

New booksellers, of course, seldom frequent our stores, nor even consider us, except as convenient scapegoats to blame for their stolen and missing books.

Would it be cruel to state that we look on new booksellers professionally, in rather the same manner that professionals in anything look at amateurs? With some affection, a certain respect even, but with the quiet unspoken condescension that the pro invariably contemplates anyone, no matter their passion for the subject, who hasn’t really reached the heights of professionalism? Don’t you first need to reach the “Bigs” before you can understand what it’s really like? We, the antiquarian trade, consider ourselves to be the equivalent of the “Big Game,” even though we are invisible to almost everyone else in publishing and bookselling. I have always found it a bit sad that our colleagues in publishing and new bookselling are mostly unaware that right into the first third of the nineteenth-century the entire booktrade was unified – the publisher, the new bookseller, and the used and rare booksellers – in the same person.

The pros, in sports, call the new players rookies, even though they probably have spent their lives preparing for the moment. So let’s be gentle, let’s call new booksellers rookies and not dismiss them. After all they worship the same Gods that we do – the “Gods of learning,” and of culture, and of civilization.

So, while it’s true that we view new booksellers in perhaps the same manner that real publishers view vanity publishers, who publish only with the assured profit of the author’s payment, we are not seriously prejudiced against them. In fact, we are often on friendly terms. Indeed, I could say that some of my best friends are new booksellers – although that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would be pleased if one of them wanted to marry my sister.

I have noticed that one characteristic new booksellers share with publishers is a certain distrust – even fear – of antiquarian booksellers. The only explanation I can provide for this phenomenon is because, generally, publishers and new booksellers are pretty clever people. And they share a characteristic of many clever people: they don’t like to be ignorant of one aspect, indeed a fairly large aspect, of a field they purport to know something about. They like to think that they are experts about books and bookselling and they become nervous when faced with evidence that they are lacking. In this case what they are lacking is knowledge of about 500 years of the history of their trade. And the evidence is us, the antiquarians. Actually, if we were to include in our mutual history the transcribing and selling of manuscripts, we go back not just five hundred years, to the invention of printing, but millennia, to the beginning of all recorded history, along with soldiers, whores, priests and medicine men. So though they like to dismiss us as unimportant or inconsequential, to what they do, we do not share their ignorance of a side of the trade that we don’t practice. Many antiquarian booksellers, including me, started their so-called careers working in new bookstores, so we often have direct experience of the day-to-day experience. Actually it’s pretty easy. You order a bunch of books from a catalogue, provided by a publisher, sell what you can and return what you can’t. No risk, no penalty, if your opinion of what might sell is wrong. I don’t think it’s cruel, or even unkind, to suggest that anyone who knows something about books could do that. Antiquarian booksellers on the other hand spend years educating themselves about books, paying for every misjudgment in hard cash. And, furthermore, we are forced to confront our errors every day as we encounter our mistakes sitting on nearly every shelf in our stores – unless we simply bite the bullet and throw them out. That leads to a certain humility, which I believe is a necessary counter to the tendency towards arrogance, the inevitable result of our daily interaction with that ignorant but powerful monster known to everyone who has had any contact with it as “The Public.” You can see the snobbery peeking through, can’t you?

That said, it is true that new booksellers, despite their historical deficiencies, are still immensely superior to your regular sort of merchants, who merely sell banal goods of no cultural significance.

And along with our mutual history going back five centuries with printed books, they also share that peculiar sort of character trait that isn’t daunted by the poverty that goes automatically with any sort of bookselling.

Our mutual acceptance of poverty ennobles both branches of bookselling, even if none of us necessarily knew that lifelong poverty was a certainty when we started out. All booksellers must be optimists. How else could we go on trying, especially those of us who have friends not in the trade? Who but an incorrigible optimist could so often enter the often palatial homes of the old friends we went to college with only to see $10,000 to $20,000 worth of electronic equipment, walls of CDs and DVDs and other expensive appurtenances of modern life, with the only books in evidence a shelf of old university textbooks, interspersed with three bestsellers from the last ten years and two coffee table books. Why wouldn’t viewing this gross negation of culture not induce a little bitterness? In our grandfather’s time any successful professional man would be expected to have a library for his leisure. Now expensive possessions seem to be the measure of accomplishment.

Perhaps a more gentle comparison between new and antiquarian booksellers would be found in the difference between a doctor and a veterinarian. The doctor needs to deal with only one species, while the veterinarian deals with all others.

A new bookseller needs to deal only with publisher’s catalogues and Books in Print; we antiquarians need to be able to deal with all the books ever published. How could we not end up assuming a certain sense of superiority?

But in the end new booksellers are our brothers and sisters, and we, despite the hints of bitterness expressed here, know it. They, unfortunately it seems, do not. That’s too bad, because if they better understood how we complemented one another in our noble contributions to all that is best in humanity, they might better understand our mutual destiny.

2 Responses to Secrets of the Book Trade: Number 1

  1. Dear Mr. Mason,

    I’m afraid you’ve lost me. I followed you as far as the admission that antiquarian booksellers are snobs – agreed, and good for you! – but the generalizations which followed about trade bookselling sound made up to me.

    Which booksellers, pray tell, were you referring to? I’m not sure if you’ve looked around lately, but there aren’t a lot of trade booksellers left, and those still standing don’t bear any resemblance whatsoever to the characture you’ve drawn. “…what they are lacking is knowledge of about 500 years of the history of their trade.”? “new booksellers share with publishers is a certain distrust – even fear – of antiquarian booksellers”? “You order a bunch of books from a catalogue, provided by a publisher, sell what you can and return what you can’t. No risk, no penalty, if your opinion of what might sell is wrong.”???

    The above quotes represent three total untruths about trade bookselling featured in your essay.

    Just this week Ben McNally delivered the 2012 Katz Lecture at the Thomas Fisher on the topic of Is There a Future (Or Even a Present) for Bookselling? ( which included a learned history of the book trade. Yesterday I attended new book creator Andrew Steeves‘ lecture on “The Ecology of the Book” which also consisted, largely, of a history of the book trade. Even I am a new book seller and a book historian, not to mention an antiquarian book lover and collector. The booksellers I know – those who remain – are very knowledgeable people who are in no way the peddlers of pap you seem to be describing. I think you and I can agree that Chapters/Indigo is not staffed by “booksellers” so let’s leave out their lack of participation in the larger world of books – unless it was actually that straw man you meant to burn down, in which case I’d feel better if you’d been a little more clear.

    We bear the antiquarian trade no ill-will. In fact we continue to foster relationships with used and rare sellers. Our remainder tables continue to be pillaged by scouts and dealers, and we offer deep discounts to some favoured dealers who will take away our overstock by the box. We know that the antiquarian dealers do us the same service we do them – redirecting customers who erroneously visit one or the other of us in search of “nice copies of…” or “cheap copies of…”. I send my customers to you weekly. I hope you do us the same courtesy.

    As to this business of publishers’ returns policies giving us a free pass… well, perhaps it is this which stuck in my craw the worst, as I hear it again and again from everyone, customers, academics, and now you, who should know better. The ability to return a limited quantity of books allows us nothing but the merest bit of breathing space. We have to remainder or toss books too. We have to vet the vast, vast floods of new books which are solicited each year into a good, salable collection of which we can return no more than 15% and, even then, which we often have to return at great cost to ourselves in shipping and brokerage – especially brokerage. Choosing which books will sell requires not just an intimate knowledge of every author, publisher and subject we cover, but of our customers and their interests, price points, and whims. Every book we buy is a gamble. Unlike you, who can pick up certain Modern Firsts at a good price without having to think about it, we have to speculate on the market of every book which comes through the door. And we can only be wrong 10-15% of the time.

    Further, if we feel a social responsibility to pick up and flog new, upcoming authors and presses with no existing market whatsoever in the name of encouraging local talent and the potential cultural giants of tomorrow, we do so by the grace of this returns policy. Not that we send books back to small and independent publishers – quite the contrary, we have a policy of keeping these books whether they sell or not, out of respect for the limited resources of their publishers. But we can do it because of the returns to larger publishers who can afford it, which will let us free up some cash for zero-gain experiments.

    I cannot imagine what point you will eventually make with Number 2 of this series after making such an artificial distinction between booksellers in Number 1. If your intention was merely to point out how very learned you are, I salute you but suggest that you do not become more learned by painting us as less learned. I’d like to suggest that a more useful project might be to make common cause against the real outsider in our field, the entirely algorithm-based online bookseller who is undermining both our businesses by selling entirely unvetted, undifferentiated texts based on price point alone.

    In conclusion, I think you’ll find those booksellers among us who remain in business in this difficult age are a hardy bunch, creamier than whatever booksellers of yesteryear you’re remembering. We each have our bodies of knowledge about aspects of the objects we dedicate our lives to. We are aware of how we compliment each other – have we kissed and made up yet?

    Thanks for you time,

    Charlotte Ashley

    P.S. I would love and prefer a job in antiquarian bookselling. If you’re ever looking for a knowledgeable and neurotically dedicated apprentice, you just let me know.

  2. Honey Boo Boo says:

    I think Ms. Ashley has a strong counter-argument to Mr. Mason’s, but I have to admit, as someone who has worked in an antiquarian shop for some time and aspires to the kind of bookselling brilliance that Mr. Mason represents, I do look down my nose at new booksellers, and publishers for that matter.

    When you’re covered in red rot after a day of sifting through your as-is stock, or when you slip a sheet of paper that’s worth a month’s wages into a bag and board, there’s something in the experience that I really don’t believe my new bookseller or publisher compatriots can relate to. I have loads of bookish friends. Among them are clever folk, cultured folk, hardy folk. They most certainly all make more money than I do. However, most of them do not know the first thing about a hinge and have never cracked open a bibliography save for a research paper. There are some of us–only a small group of kindred spirits–who read book catalogues for enjoyment.

    There are rewards to antiquarian bookselling that I believe very few can truly appreciate, and even fewer have the honour of taking on as a form of livelihood. The history of bookselling that Mr. Mason refers to can be found in the end papers, when a series of pound marks in pencil are followed by dollar signs, betraying the provenance of a book that has been piled on many desks just like the one I might be cataloguing at that day. I admire the shop around the corner as much as anyone else, and I always refer customers looking for the latest book club fad to our downtown independent, but when someone comes in to browse and hunt, someone who knows their stuff, I feel particularly happy. Give me a nut job with a fetish for books on ballooning any day.

    Oh, and Ms. Ashley, the bookseller apprentices I know are keen enough to work weekends for free until they earn their stripes. If you want to learn from someone like Mr. Mason, you have to knock on their door until they let you in. They will never advertise their job openings. Rather, they look for the person who has been hanging around for such a long time that they might as well start getting paid.

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