Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Be sure to read part 1 of Jed Birmingham’s interview with Dan Gregory of Between the Covers.
You say there is a dearth of originality and inspiration in the rare book trade. Who are the dealers and web sites whose work you admire or who inspired you?
With our catalogs, we’re known as one of the few dealers to regularly issue full color catalogs with a photograph of each book. We usually do them every six to eight weeks. Other dealers have copied our format (sometimes with our help and training, I admit). But the great children’s book dealers, Helen and Marc Younger of Aleph-Bet Books, led the way with fully illustrated catalogs which they had been issuing on a regular basis for I don’t know how long before I joined Between the Covers.
Regarding dealers on the Internet, there was a site in the late 1990s that I admired a great deal. I think it was called Purple Cloud Books, though I’m not sure. It’s long-gone. (I’ve looked through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine but I couldn’t find it.) It didn’t last for more than a year or two, but its concept was way ahead of its time. The main page showed a bookcase of book spines, created from photos of real books the dealer had in inventory, and when you clicked on the spine, it brought you to a photo of the front of the book and a description. The scale of the photos of each spine was even in proportion to the whole, so that it really looked like a single photograph of an entire bookcase, rather than scores of individual spine photos. Here was someone, limited by the html coding of the era, but taking great strides in recreating the experience of actually browsing books in a store. It was an inventive concept, and I thought about doing it with our relaunched site. But at the time we were also prototyping our rotating books and the initial tests on that were so successful we ultimately went off in the direction of our current site. Another consideration was that we already had about 35,000 books scanned a certain way, and in order to make the new site consistent we would have had to go and take new photos of all 35,000 of those books. But the spines-on-a-bookshelf would still be a cool presentation, and could now be done dynamically and really make for an incredible site.
The Purple Cloud site with the spines inspired me in another way as well. Of course I bookmarked it and went to it often, but it never changed — the selection with the neat bookcase effect was hardcoded. He was offering about 100 books, and those same 100 books were all you ever saw. I realized you can’t create a great web effect if it takes just as much work for your second hundred books as for your first. So when we designed the features of our new site I was dead-set on making every element I could dynamic, so that it could change with our inventory with automatic revision. For example, if we were to add another signed William Burroughs item to our inventory, it would automatically come up randomly in various features on our home page such as the top “today’s highlights” box or the lower “signed” box. If we were to photograph it for a rotation display, our system would check the images, feed them into our array, and display them as a 3D book, all automatically.
On the other hand, switching gears from high tech to low tech a bit, another dealer site that I must credit is the Philadelphia Rare Book and Manuscript’s site. I sent several emails to our designer early on singing their praises because it was the only bookseller site I had seen that was clearly made by people who love what they are doing. And the structure, which doesn’t try in the least to be slick, demonstrated to me that you could build a content-rich web site where the engaged visitor would want to spend significant time and go deeper and deeper. It was a site built by hand for browsing rather than searching. I contrasted this with a few of the smoothest and clearly most expensive book sites, which though they were always tastefully designed, were very antiseptic in their approach to books. PRBM also were possibly the first and I think the foremost promoters of offering books exclusively on their site. For years they advertised this and major collectors in their specialties learned that if they didn’t want to miss good material they had to go to that site. Collectors were not going to see these great books on ABE or Alibris. Furthermore, I guess it’s no coincidence that both their site and ours devote a section to the shop cats wherein the cat “offers” special books and sales. I admit we stole that from them. But we used our own cat.
And finally, Mark Hime of Biblioctopus has done unusual projects and “thought outside the box” for years. In the late 1980s he issued catalogs which were posters, with a single item pictured on the front (like the only surviving first-state dustjacketed copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and item descriptions on the back. Then he did an elaborate joke catalog of “literary objects” that he supposedly had collected. I think someone actually tried to order Huck Finn’s original fishing rod from it. He was the driving force behind the three Classic Book Cards sets we did together, and we’re working on an entirely different project at the moment which will, I think, present books in a way that hasn’t been tried before. What works so well with Biblioctopus is that he has not only the necessary insanity to try the unusual, but incredible books with which to play. You could make a poster catalog of $30 books, but it’s not going to have the same “Wow!” effect as if you can do it with $30,000 books.
What is your thought behind the return of the personal touch in bookselling (such as the return of the more detailed and ambitious catalog, the re-emergence of the book fair, and the rise of interactive web site)?
I think the luster and novelty of the Internet have faded a bit. It is still the best way to purchase and sell books under certain circumstances. But it also has many limitations. There was a period right around the millennium when we saw a number of seasoned collectors trying out the Internet and doing a lot of buying that way. How could you not? If you had been collecting for a long time, you had probably built up a wish-list, and suddenly this tool comes along that allows you to fill most of it quickly. But after a while you realize that the number of good booksellers hasn’t increased, and as a buyer you still have to find dealers whose knowledge and ethics you can trust. I don’t think we’re quite out of the “now-I’m-going-to-buy-everything-online” dip, but I think we are definitely coming out of it. We are at the Churchillian end of the beginning. Obviously the Internet is here to stay, and its role within the larger scheme of all bookselling will continue to evolve, but the pendulum for many books, and collectors, is swinging back to a more balanced approach to collecting.
Each way of buying books offers a different experience, but we’ve always been very strongly a catalog-driven business at Between the Covers. For one thing, we offer a lot of weird and unusual material. You try selling a 1930s book about the American pie industry on the Internet. It ain’t gonna happen unless the author’s great-granddaughter discovers ABE. No one is looking for it. But we can put a book like that in a catalog and get multiple orders. Some might be from customers who appreciate the kitsch element as much as we do, and some from institutions that realize that a treatise on Depression era baked goods is a valid primary cultural artifact. (Anyone? Anyone?) Catalogs always offered a pre-selection of books, but now, in the age of information overload, the pre-selection that a catalog offers is actually MORE important than it used to be to collectors. Online we offer about 40,000 books in our primary business and another 160,000 books from our used book warehouse. Computer searches are great for finding specific things you might be looking for in that pool of 200,000 books. By comparison, in our catalogs we usually offer about 100 books at a time, all specifically chosen, and not just the 100 most expensive ones either. In our catalogs we try to cover the full spectrum of our inventory in both price range and subject matter. What are the chances that one of those 100 books is something you’ve been looking for? Not so great, but that’s what search engines are for. What are the chances that you’ll actually notice something interesting and new to you in the catalog that you would never have spotted otherwise? Much, much better. And most definitely these same virtues of pre-selection are at play at bookfairs and on web sites that categorize books and make suggestions.
After over ten years working with bookselling and the internet at Between the Covers, how do you react to the statement that the internet has put the nail in the coffin of the traditional used and rare bookstore?
It’s no secret that the Internet has eroded the traditional used-book business. All the ubiquity of information, the frictionless market, the auto-repricing, and similar web factors have made it very difficult to sustain a viable business selling used books online. (By viable business I mean for the full-timers who have to sell books or starve.) When market forces take so many decent used books, which had been $10 books, and $20 books, and $40 books, and makes them 99 cent books, there is almost no way you can make money selling them online unless you are willing to sell an awful lot of them and smart enough to create a hyper-efficient operation around that. And if you actually manage to do that, and only a very few people have, you’d be running a widget factory, that is, a business that is pretty far removed from the joys that I associate with bookselling anyway. Think about it this way — to sell books for 99 cents, every time a human being in your business touches the book you’ve lost money. Selling books without ever touching or seeing them — not my idea of fun. So the online market is not only soaking up customers, it is also driving the prices of perfectly good books down to outrageously low, insupportable prices on the Web.
Despite this, one of the greatest surprises for me since joining the faculty of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminars has been the number of participants (i.e. students) who have open shops. I went in thinking it would be almost entirely online-only sellers and that is very far from the case. Many of these open shop owners are also selling online, but they are very committed to keeping their shops open. A good number of them are doing this as a second career, and I suspect that is a factor. The romanticism of owning a bookstore is very appealing. And if you’ve already had a soul-eroding career that was geared toward just making money, you might be more receptive to the feel-good upsides of owning a low-profit or break-even only business you genuinely love. So the Internet has made it much harder to run a traditional used bookstore in many markets without adapting to market changes, but despite this used bookstores are still around and new ones are still popping up, God bless ’em.
Now when it comes to antiquarian or rare books, the Internet at its height of effect only dented the upper end of the traditional selling market. There is a pretty stiff price ceiling when it comes to books being sold on the Internet. It’s probably different for different kinds of books and different dealers, but in general once you get past $2000 – $3000 for a book the sales on the Internet thin out quickly, whereas those books in the four and five and six figures will sell at book fairs and through catalogs, etc. I’m not certain which of several potential factors contributes most to this disparity — why would an expensive book from a well-known dealer fail to sell on the Internet but generate multiple orders out of a catalog? But it happens all the time. And there are many very good books that are simply not offered on the Internet. There are a still lot of Internet-only bookbuyers out there who don’t know what they are missing, who haven’t been to a major fair or who don’t receive catalogs. Sometimes we’ll run into a collector who tells us they built their entire collection on eBay. The fact of the matter is you can spot those collections pretty easily from the lack of discernment — bad copies of good books.
The Internet, however, has affected the high end of the market on the supply side. There’s no shortage of good books, but it’s very difficult for us to buy the more obvious ones advantageously. When everyone “knows” a certain book is a $10,000 book, no one wants to part with it for less. It doesn’t mean they can sell it for $10,000, but the Internet has engendered an obstinacy that was perhaps less prevalent before. It’s harder to buy the Faulkners, Fitzgeralds, Hemingways, and Steinbecks. We see books that would fit in with our inventory, but there’s no margin on them for us. So we’ve been forced to move into books that are not collectors’ darlings, such as obscure poetry, obscure early 20th Century literature, archives — material for which price guides and the search engines offer little pricing information, books where our experience and feel for the potential of the material gives us an edge. So again, adapting to a changing market is essential.
What directions do you see the Internet taking used and rare bookselling in the future?
If I tried to predict rare bookselling on the Internet in 10 years I’m sure I’d get it wrong. But I know what I’d like to see and some of the changes we’re already starting to see. I hope we’ll see more standardization of data, so that when you search for a title, all copies of that title show up in a way that makes it easy to compare apples to apples. When data is more standardized, not only will consumers be able to, for example, sort by condition easily among copies of the same edition, but data systems will be able to match individual copies listed with titles in data libraries that could contain information about the books that is not just copy-specific, such as the book’s weight, dimensions, and subject categories. I think the importance of these attributes has been underestimated.
We’re already seeing some good work being done with subject information. If you look up a book now on some web sites, you’ll see alternate title suggestions that are not dissimilar to the suggestions made by a knowledgeable clerk in a bookstore. So, if you’re looking for a copy of Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs, these sites might also recommend Regina Marler’s Queer Beats. Library systems link the two by subject, so why shouldn’t online bookstores? Once data systems recognize that a single book being offered can be linked to a “record” of information about the book, not just the copy, then all kinds of interesting things are possible. At present, from what I’ve heard, most online book buyers don’t browse to discover new titles. They may look at lists and recommendations, but they don’t “go down an aisle” as you would in a store. Hopefully better information display, coupled with relevant data (i.e. suggestions of related works) will get Internet book buyers to learn about books they weren’t searching for, instead of just finding the ones they were searching for. We do this a little on our own web site — making algorithmic suggestions based on the book a person was searching for or a book they are viewing the details on. Our system is just in its infancy; I would like to expand this feature over the next few years. Also, on our site we offer biographical information and collecting tips on hundreds of authors, linked to our copies of their books available. This just seemed to make sense from a data perspective. Once you input a short critical blurb about Allen Ginsberg, for example, you never have to do it again and it shows up with each of his books. I was pleasantly surprised when customers actually told me they found these features helpful.
Getting back to the weight and dimensions of books, this is something about some of the big used book vendors that really bugs me. There is really no reason that we couldn’t see far more accurate shipping matrices. Many dealers have to cancel foreign orders for books over a certain size or weight because the Internet listing services offer rigid and unreasonable compensation on shipping. But let’s say there is a data library of book specifications. When a dealer offers a folio photography book that weighs four pounds, just about every copy is going to be the exact same size and weight. With size and weight, plus some calculable extra for packaging, you can reasonably predict the shipping costs. This would be a tremendous service for both sellers and buyers, and there is no reason it can’t happen.
I want to talk about one of your innovations to the internet book-buying experience: the rotating-books technology. You explain how it works on the site. What has been the reaction to this from customers and what do you see as the future of the technology?
That was something I had wanted to do for a long time. Even on our old site some people may remember that you could view a couple of rarities rotating, like a first edition of Ethan Frome in dustjacket. But I was using a very primitive technology, it was over 400KB to load, and it only spun around on a single axis. And worst of all, it was a lot of work. It took a couple of hours to create a rotation for a single book. I did two books that way, and I did the principle photography for about two dozen more, but I never finished the coding for them. I never found the time. In our new system it takes about eight minutes to load the book into the system from start to finish, and we can add as many books as we want without having to program them into place on our site. We still only get around to it periodically, but it’s much easier, more effective, and more efficient than my early attempts.
Customers definitely appreciate it. A person might call to order a book and I’ll say, “Well, just to warn you, there is a little chip on the rear panel.” And they’ll reply, “Yes, I saw it on your site. That’s not too bad.” It’s hard to quantify how much it helps. We’re at a stage now with our rotations that most other dealers are with merely taking pictures — you devote the extra time to the best and most interesting books, and when they sell it can be hard to tell how much the extra effort contributed to the sale. Sure it spun around, but it was also a beautiful copy of Gone with the Wind, so someone was going to buy it anyway. But clearly it doesn’t hurt. Other dealers have asked about our making the technology available to them, and that is something we’re looking into. It’s difficult because half the effect is achieved by technology, and the other half by very refined photography parameters.
The rotating books might very obviously fall into the bells-and-whistles category. And I admit, I love it when people refer to it enthusiastically as something cool. But to me it’s never been just a gimmick. For me it is a logical extension of my belief that many antiquarian books are bought, sold, and appreciated primarily as objects. There is very little reason for any sane person to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a text which is exactly identical to what they could easily buy in a paperback reprint for just a few bucks. How many people buy first editions because they’re preparing a variorum of some kind? One in ten thousand? The other 9,999 collectors might feel attached to the book-object because of the text inside, but what they’re paying for is the physical object itself, the possession of which gives them an emotional satisfaction. So when a dealer shows a photo of a book, it isn’t just extending the ability of the dealer to communicate the condition of the book to the customer with a “worth a thousand words” description, it is simultaneously reinforcing the concrete reality of that particular object which the customer is otherwise taking on faith. So by offering a three-dimensional representation of the book, we’re taking both those elements a step further. Not only are we adding to the customer’s ability to appreciate remotely the book’s condition (warts and all in some cases), but we are also, I hope, subtly bolstering the customer’s trust that this particular copy really exists, really is in our possession, and really can be theirs.
I would love to marry the rotation technology with some of the other book display technologies that are out there, such as the turn-the-page tools you can see at the British Library. Imagine being able to inspect the exterior of a book from every angle using our rotation tool, AND THEN examine the interior just as effortlessly. Also, it would be great to see another connection speed jump like we saw from dial-up to broadband. I don’t know if optical lines could deliver this, but if we saw another manifold increase in widespread connection speeds, it would allow for much larger and more detailed images with the rotations. Right now we try to keep the total rotation for each book under 65KB, so there is a limit to how much picture information you can squeeze into that space. But it would be great to see the book at a higher resolution and zoomable to full size and beyond. I think that as the web evolves more and more of the physical world will be represented and recreated online, so that in a decade’s time perhaps people will be accustomed to “virtually” picking up and examining not only books, but much more complicated objects as well.
I see how the book-rotating process is an attempt to recreate the sensory aspect of the book-buying experience but on Between the Covers I always print out anything I want to read. Can the internet or the ebook ever really replace the physical and emotional sensations behind holding and reading a book?
The bibliophilic answer is definitely not, never, books are here to stay. You hear this all the time. And the technophile answer is, probably, eventually it will. I lean toward the latter, I admit. I think many reading activities which have not yet migrated to electronic format will. Some texts lend themselves more readily to becoming etexts than others. Think about encyclopedias: at first of course they were printed, like everything else. Then there were a few years when CD-Rom encyclopedias sold well (mostly packaged with new computers). Now much of the information people used to go to the printed encyclopedia for they try to get directly from the Internet, either for free or, if they are affiliated with an institution, perhaps through a new iteration of old standards such as Encyclopedia Britannica. At some point I think it’s likely to become economically unviable to print encyclopedias.
Obviously reference materials lend themselves very much to the conversion from printed text to etext, not least because they can be sorted, filtered, searched, and updated so much more easily. In many cases they simply become tangibly better as etexts. You can find information in reference etext that you simply would not uncover in the same printed reference. As a dealer, I particularly appreciate the electronic versions of helpful references like the auction price guides and various bibliographies.
But the question is usually aimed at more romantic visions of reading, like fiction and poetry. A few things would have to happen for ebook novels, for example, to replace printed novels. For one thing, you need a convenient, reliable, effective, sturdy, and above all affordable screen. I’ve heard about prototypes that offer a single flexible “leaf” screen that can become any text and does it very sharply. It really does look like print, and you even have the sensation of turning a page. Sell it for $25, make it waterproof, scratch-proof, tear-proof, and cheap to refill with any text, including lots of free ones, and you could see an incredible transformation in the way people read. Still, as has been pointed out so many times, the book really is a magnificent vessel for text already. So for anything else to replace paper in a widespread fashion, and not just as a novelty, the price, ease of use, durability, convenience, and pop-culture appeal all have to mesh just so. Maybe if Apple made an iPaperback — they seem to have a knack for putting all those elements together, except maybe the price. But it doesn’t always work. Every World’s Fair since the 1930s has predicted widespread video-calling to replace telephones, but it hasn’t happened. We should have stopped driving petroleum-fed cars years ago, but that didn’t happen either. There are a lot of reasons these technologies haven’t changed, but it has more to do with psychology and market forces, and less to do with either technological possibility or even economy.
It’s going to be hard for paper books to die out because people like them. Most people who love to read can vividly recall particular editions of works which left a strong impression on them. For example, I have a very tactile association with the 1986 Penguin edition of Moby Dick, annotated by Harold Beaver, which made a great impression on me. But I also listen to audio books a lot, especially while I’m working around the house. So I associate A Tale of Two Cities with painting my basement, and A Gathering of Old Men with resodding my backyard, because those were the projects I was working on while listening to those books. I know what different editions of those titles look like because I work with first editions, but my emotional memories of those books are not connected to any physical objects at all, except a paint brush and a rented power tiller (which, by the way, I cannot recommend highly enough). From my own experience, the association of text with books should not be taken as a de facto relationship.
So creating an adequate alternative vessel for the text is still only a preliminary step. There also has to be a generational shift. My father is from the old-time radio generation, when “the stories were better written because you had to use your imagination.” And if you listen to recorded episodes of The Shadow or Suspense, you can appreciate some of the appeal of pre-television drama. But the appreciation is an intellectual one, not a visceral one. It’s not the same as if you actually grew up with it, a child listening to a radio drama in the dark. Or to turn it around, think of the film The Wizard of Oz. It’s almost impossible for contemporary America adults to assess that film in the way it was reviewed in 1939, because almost no American since the 1950s has grown up without seeing the film on television as a child. No matter how critically we want to look at the movie, we cannot divest ourselves from the wonder and attachment of our childhood experience with it.
What I’m getting at is, as Buck Rogers as it sounds now, if there comes a time when children start with e-board books, and then graduate to e-story books, to e-chapter books, to e-young adult novels, and so on, they won’t have the same object-to-text associations we have. Are we talking 20 years, or 50 years, or 100 years? I have no idea. But I believe it will probably happen eventually, though you and I may not be around to see it. I don’t think booksellers, particularly antiquarian booksellers, have anything to worry about.
To switch gears a bit, Between the Covers was involved in the appraisal of the William Burroughs collection that sold to New York Public Library. How could archives such as that be best served by the internet?
Suppose all the letters, notebooks, and cutups of Burroughs were scanned in. In theory, the more manuscript and archival material scanned in, transcribed, indexed, and searchable the better. The possibilities for advances in our understanding of authors, their writings and their personal lives, are tremendous. Anybody, anywhere, could sift through the raw material themselves and make connections that nobody else would make. This isn’t the best example, but look at what Scott Brown was able to do with the issue point on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Scott, the editor of Fine Books magazine and a tenacious researcher, examined via scanned archives of periodicals the advertised prices of a certain book over the course of a few weeks in 1929, and in doing so figured out roughly when that book’s price was changed. Since the book is advertised on the back of The Sound and the Fury, but at different prices on different copies, this allowed him to determine which issue precedes (the one with the lower price, rather than the one with the higher price). With an archive of manuscripts and correspondence made truly publicly accessible via the Internet the possibilities for fresh insight are almost infinite.
But there are at least two problems with this information Utopia. First, scanning archives costs money, and institutions need to see a return on their investment in some form or another. Hopefully page views by interested patrons would be enough to justify a grant for further scanning. Secondly, I’ve heard from some librarians, such as Dan De Simone, Curator of the Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress, that counter-intuitively the increased accessibility of scanned material leads to an increase in requests to see the real thing. Maybe it goes back to my mantra of appreciation for the physical object — I don’t know. But if institutions are spending more not ONLY on scanning, but also on increased supervision of requests to touch as well, then they might be doubly disinclined to get that unique material digitized. I hope not — I hope one day any person anywhere had as great a likelihood of making a unique contribution to the understanding of an author or a work as the couple of people have ready access to the physical archive.