Are any of you still reading? I’m sorry not to post much last week. One thing I have learned in the three short years I’ve been an antiquarian bookseller: If I leave home for any amount of time — in February, for ten days — it will take me at least double that amount of time to catch up when I return home. I got home on February 14, and shortly after that my trusty computer of five years crashed and died. I bought a new computer, had a few email problems, and now all seems to be working properly again. But I’m still catching up.
It’s a happy kind of catching up. Thanks to the Dante Catalogue and the San Francisco Book Fair, I’ve had orders to ship. I’ve had quotes to send to interested customers I met at the fair. I’ve had a lovely tea and visit with a reader of this very blog who is thinking of becoming an antiquarian bookseller herself. (You know who you are!) 🙂 I think I have finally caught up with all emails. All of these activities are among the fun parts of being an antiquarian bookseller.
Here’s a more mundane part of the bookseller’s job, which probably explains why it still isn’t finished: I still haven’t unpacked the 20 or so boxes of books from the San Francisco Fair, which, if you’ll recall, was held way back on February 6 and 7. I’ve just signed on to do the new spring fair in Sacramento (to be held March 27) and now I’m considering just leaving the books packed (they’re well cushioned with bubble wrap) for that fair. We’ll see how much progress I make in the next few weeks.
I’ve been asked by several readers of this blog and by more than a few booksellers I saw at the book fairs how the books in the Dante Catalogue are selling. I mailed the catalogue to most people on February 3 and distributed many more copies at the San Francisco book fair in early February. Today is March 1. It’s been almost a month. So — how’s the Dante Catalogue doing?
We’ll get to that in a minute. First, I offer these thoughts about what, for me, makes a successful catalogue:
Not having issued a print catalogue before, I spent absolutely no time whatsoever thinking about how well (or not) the books would sell. I should have thought long and hard about this, but I did not. I just started collecting Dante because I like his work and I used to teach it to high school students. “Start with what you know,” I told myself. I completely disregarded the maxim of, “Start with what will sell.”
Ah, the ignorance of the beginner! In my case, it was blissful.
When I selected books for the catalogue, I actually chose books I thought I could live with for a while if they didn’t sell. I had no idea whether anyone would be interested in Dante enough to buy the books, much less whether they’d be interested in later editions of Dante from only the last three centuries. I knew I was interested in that topic, and I knew of at least a couple of libraries who had special collections of books by Dante. Maybe they’d be interested. I remember telling another bookseller that the premise of my catalogue — to offer affordable (relative to editions from the age of incunabula) editions of Dante that would demonstrate his relevance in modern times — might be entirely crazy. After all, would it not stand to reason that most Dante collectors would want the earliest editions? I didn’t have the foresight to know how the catalogue would do, so, as with everything else I’ve done in my bookselling career, I just went ahead with it figuring I’d learn from the process.
There are no crystal balls in bookselling. When you purchase a book for resale, you never know for certain how long it will take to sell or whether it is really saleable at the price you think it is worth. First, you have to learn to choose good books. Then, you have to be willing to put in the time to actively sell the books. (More to come on what “active selling” means in a future post.) In the field of antiquarian bookselling, there are no focus groups to predict what will sell, and for me, that is a good thing. It freed me to pursue my dream of issuing a print catalogue about Dante without wasting time worrying too much about the sell-through rate of the catalogue, other than the fact that I couldn’t afford to lose money on it.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about the outcome. I certainly do, and very much, or I wouldn’t have invested so much time in this project. I hoped and expected that the books would sell when the catalogue was issued. Beyond that, I got down to the work of researching and writing descriptions that could sell books. Then I made sure to create (despite the time it took) a catalogue that would present the books in a visual and attractive (in my opinion) way. That’s the best I could do. Whether or not it was a fiscal success, at the very least, I would have learned how to create and issue a print catalogue and I would be one step closer to becoming a bona fide antiquarian bookseller.
My main reason for producing a print catalogue when I started working on it was to learn how to gather an affordable yet meaningful collection of books, how to do bibliographic research, how write good descriptions, and how to lay out and produce a print catalogue. It was a steep learning curve, but I finished at last, goal accomplished. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Print catalogues are one of the hallmarks of a good antiquarian bookseller. I don’t for a minute include myself in the ranks of the “great ones”, but I wanted to know whether I “had what it took”, whether, if I worked hard and worked with care, I could accomplish something that the rest of established booksellers make look effortless. Turns out, I could complete a print catalogue! As far as I am concerned, that makes it a successful catalogue.
How some booksellers complete a print catalogue every few months, I still have no idea. I know I need to work toward that kind of schedule. Publish or perish! 🙂
At the Los Angeles Book Fair, (the fair I visited, but did not sell books at — not yet a member of the ABAA), I was asked by some of the other booksellers how much of the catalogue had sold. I was embarrassed to tell them. At this point — about 30% of the books had sold. I was certain that their catalogues must sell 100% of the books offered. I had the same feeling I get when people ask me where I work and I have to tell them that my “book shop” is in a corner of my dining room. I like that I am able to work from home, where my family is, and I was pleased that I had sold 30% of the books in my catalogue. But what would the other booksellers think? What if 30% was a horribly paltry number?
Imagine my surprise when I was told by several very good authorities on the subject that it certainly varies depending on the catalogue and the seller, but that sales of 30% of the books offered in a catalogue in the first two weeks was pretty good.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I still hope to sell 100% of the catalogue, but to learn that not every book in every catalogue sells instantly was a relief to me.
As of today, March 1, almost one month after the initial mailing, 31 of 65 of the books in the catalogue are sold. If I’ve done my math correctly, that’s 48%. To date, I’ve sold items to individual book collectors, to libraries, and to other booksellers. I have earned back my costs of goods (the books) and my printing and mailing costs plus a little bit more. I would say it has been a very wortwhile endeavor, both for what I learned about how to go about putting together a print catalogue and for selling books.
So now you know how the Dante Catalogue is doing. Will the rest of the books in the catalogue sell? I certainly hope so, but there are no crystal balls to predict the future in antiquarian bookselling.
See you in the stacks!
Wait a minute. What’s that? You say you wonder what the topic of Catalogue #2 will be?
So do I.