On the taxonomic branches of gee-whiz factors in bookselling.

The Wall Street Journal has run a “gee-whiz” article about an upcoming sale at Sotheby’s in conjunction with the June book fairs in London. The collection being auctioned off has been built around a catalogue of high spots, Connolly’s The Modern Movement, and the material is certainly of the sort that fetches high prices (and the attention of financial newspapers).

Collections built around an established framework of high-spots (Printing and the Mind of Man, The Zamorano 80, etc.) don’t hold many surprises — the items already hold a cultural cachet and one isn’t going to find many sleepers. The inelasticity in the demand for a particular title will still be driven by this moderately complicated stew of rarity and prestige, so it’s not like you’re going to be surprised when a “Yellow Bird” (“the rara avis” of the Zamorano 80) pulls $60,000-$75,000 at an auction. The price in itself perhaps subsumes the rarity and becomes a big part of the gee-whiz factor in the item. And you get articles like the one in the Wall Street Journal.

For those of us in the book market who are under-capitalized and even at some weird ranting level fundamentally uneasy with the very concept of high spots, I’m forced to operate under the assumption that we need to exploit other factors besides (obviously) the price itself and (maybe less obviously) cultural importance. At its worst, this becomes a perverse exercise in re-contextualizing an item to plug it into a possible customer’s interests. I might for instance play up the fact that an author was a woman or a Free Mason or perhaps even of unsound mind, and thus

what one might call the bookselling frame of mind is largely inimical to judicious scholarly statements about individual titles. To be successful a bookseller must unfit himself permanently for much of the rest of life. A bookseller, if he is truly to be a seller, must be able to detect in every volume its saleable ‘angle’ (Ian Jackson, The Key to Serendipity vol. 2, Berkeley 2000, page 28).

Thus in the poetical works of a 19th century working man does the optimistic bookseller attempt to discern the lineaments of incipient class struggle! (Gee whiz!) I take comfort that my job is not necessarily to make the fine academic distinctions about the item but rather to hang enough context onto a title that somebody willing to amass a sufficient quantity of kindred material might be able to move beyond the initial gee-whiz factors to find the common (more serious?) social threads that run through a collection.

My apologies for fumbling around with this topic. I find in the end that a bookseller tends to price an item on a host of decisions based on experience and metacognitive exercises such as these blog entries leave me feeling as though I have less of an understanding of what I’ve been doing on a daily bases for the past nine years than I had when I started.

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