Good booksellers can be identified by their abilities to do several things well. I’ve written before about book fairs and print catalogues being the hallmarks of a reputable antiquarian bookseller, and I’d like to add proper bibliographic description to the list of things that set such a bookseller apart from those who simply choose to scan books electronically and list them on the internet willy-nilly.
Good bibliographic principles are not hard to learn. I wrote about some books you can use to learn them here. Good bibliographic principles are numerous and, yes, somewhat tedious, and can be hard to remember until you get used to applying those principles on a daily basis. I always have a hard time remembering bibliographic shorthand — the difference in meaning between parentheses and brackets, for instance — but I take time to check what I’m describing and the format I’m using to describe it before I offer a book for sale. If I constantly published descriptions filled with errors (even small ones), I’d never build the reputation I hope to as a knowledgeable bookseller who does her research. I’m putting this information about bibliography on my blog so I can refer to it quickly when I catalogue books. I hope it is of help to you, too.
First, Joyce Godsey, queen of book repairs and erasers, has a post on her blog, Bibliophile Bullpen showing the appropriate order in which a professional describes a book. Do yourself a favor and print this out and save it for future reference. Keep it next to you when you’re writing book descriptions.
Next, let’s talk about citing dates. I just went to ABE and entered “Laura Ingalls Wilder”, “Little House on the Prairie”, and “First Edition” as my search terms. The search yielded 44 books, all described as first edition. The problem with that — not one of them is actually a true first edition. Because, like all good collectors, I am obsessed with all things Little House on the Prairie, I happen to know that the first edition of this particular title was copyrighted on September 26, 1935. The first printing, by Harper and Brothers, states First Edition (subsequent printings do not). Wilder’s books were so popular they have been reprinted many times since the 1930s, most notably in 1953, when all of her books were re-issued with new illustrations by Garth Williams replacing the original illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle. Most recently, modern-day writers have taken historical aspects of the real-life Laura Ingalls and re-written them as short chapter books for beginning readers (The Little House in the Highlands, by Melissa Wiley, among others). These books are great, but they are not first editions of Little House on the Prairie and should not ever intentionally be marketed as such by lazy or dishonest sellers.
Of the 44 “first editions” that appeared in my search, here are some of the publication dates listed: 1997, 1953, 1957, and 1998. Each claims to be a first edition, which in the mind of a savvy collector, means first printing. Only one copy, the most expensive at $250, lists 1935 as the publication date, but that copy is actually an edition published for school libraries by E.M. Hale and not Wilder’s publisher, Harper and Row. That particular seller has at least done his homework and lists his copy as “First thus.”
I have no problem with people wanting to perpetuate the exciting pioneer adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder by selling her books, but I don’t like it when they don’t describe their books properly. I read descriptions on ABE all the time for fun (yes, fun), and you can bet I remember the names of sellers who get this kind of information wrong. I probably wouldn’t buy books from them, and if I did, I would verify all bibliographic information before making the purchase. I’m not saying booksellers don’t make mistakes from time to time, but there is no need to be so deliberately sloppy. Courtesy of my friends at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar email list, where we’ve spent a lot of time discussing bibliography lately, here are the generally accepted ways to list dates in bibliographical descriptions so that your customer knows what you are selling — even when your book doesn’t list a date — within your bibliographic descriptions:
1935 = Date appears on the title page.
(1935) = Copyright date, which will not necessarily correspond to the date on the title page or to the publication date. If it differs from the date on the title page, you can list both the title page date (as above) and then the copyright date in parentheses after, like this: 1953 (1935).
 = No date appears in the book, but this is known from some other (citable) source to be the publication date.
ca. 1935 = For a book with no date, but which can be dated via other means such as the binding or advertisements for other titles.
Sorry for the rant. I better have some tea and chocolate and go look at my own first edition copy of Little House on the Prairie.