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Book description is both an art and a science.

A science demands careful observation and meticulous data gathering. Reporting must be absolutely accurate. A second observer would reproduce the results of the first.

The very best book cataloger in the trade today was trained as a geologist. A person who can carefully distinguish the differences between two similar-appearing black rocks, can bring those same skills to distinguishing the differences between two similar-appearing books.

Those of us who have neither the time, nor the interest, in re-training in the sciences, can nonetheless, use scientific principles in describing our wares. We are also responsible for learning the vocabulary of the trade. A bookseller must know the difference between a 4to and a 16mo and where the terms come from. One cannot describe a book accurately if you cannot locate the fore-edge or the head.

The art of book description translates your enthusiasm for this particular book to your reader. Why is this book important? Why did it move you? Why would you recommend it to a friend?

A book description should always include:

The author, title, city, publisher and date are usually shown on the title page. Copy the information very carefully. If there is no city, use 'np'. If there is no date, use 'nd'.

Edition will sometimes be shown on the verso of the title page. Book Club Editions, even if stated as 'First Edition' MUST ALWAYS be identified as Book Club Editions. Do not make claims for 'First Edition' unless you can prove it. Understand that there are 'First British Editions' and 'First American Editions' and this can make a profound difference to your reader.

Description, as I use it here, is a written summary of the object: size, binding materials, pagination, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. This is not the place for dramatic flare. Any two people doing this task should do it exactly the same way. They might differ on whether the cloth color is 'burgundy' or 'deep burgundy' but there should be no question about whether it is the original cloth or a rebinding.

Condition. The condition descriptions as given in the AB are standard. Use them. Do not attempt to create new meanings for the word 'fine' or 'very good'. If a book is ex-library, it must be identified as such. If the book is foxed, or soiled, say so. Describe bookplates and prior owner's signatures. Describe the condition of the dust jacket. If one is selling only to dealers, a F/F would suffice. It is not reasonable to expect someone unfamiliar with the out-of-print trade to know what you mean.

Understand the material which you are selling. A buyer of modern first editions is going to require a thorough description of the condition of the dust jacket, because the condition of the dust jacket is a major factor in the value of the object. A person buying early travel narratives is most interested in the edition, the number of maps and plates.

Know and use the bibliographies which pertain to your material. One could hardly deal in Americana without knowing, owning and using Howes and Sabin.

Sales Pitch. Bookselling is different from most other kinds of selling. The superlatives which are used to hawk cars or soft drinks are unacceptable. Using terms common to television advertising will mark the writer as an amateur or con artist. If the book is significant or important, say so. But give good reasons. If the title is listed in bibliographies, cite them. If you quote from a bibliography, use quotation marks. If you are paraphrasing, give the cite. Do NOT copy another dealer's description. You will be found out and embarrassed by such a thing.

Price. List your price. If you want to sell books, you must price them. Only you know what your cost is, what your overhead is and what your profit expectations are.

Some general observations:

Additions, comments and discussion are welcomed and encouraged. Personal attacks upon the author will result in the loss of dessert for a month.

Book School Page
Last Updated: January 28, 1997
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