A Traditional Cataloguer in Search of the New Collector
Lot 59 online benefits from images.
By Bruce McKinney
Thomas, Tom, Cullen, the upstate New York bookseller doing business as the Rockland Bookman in Orchard Park, has issued an interesting catalogue in both traditional and electronic forms that combine affordable and appealing material with up-to-date cataloguing techniques. In traditional form it's his Catalogue 45: Books & Manuscripts, 134 lots and four illustrations. Included in item 59 are 29 individually priced 19th century letterheads from the workshop of Charles Magnus. This catalogue is separately reviewed in Section II. This article focuses on the electronic presentation of the same catalogue. This second version is in color, includes 50 images and 12 footnote files drawn from the Americana Exchange Database of auction, dealer and bibliographic records.
These days the rare and collectible book business is under siege. The audience is always increasing but so too are buyers' choices. What was a concentrated, focused business a few decades ago has become a free-for-all as collectors have moved to the net. Behind the larger number of collectors are two unsettling facts: committed buyers are aging and the next generation of collectors is often finding their material in innovative ways that preclude and elude dealers. For more than a decade now material has been uploaded to listing sites in expectation of sales that often have not occurred. What has inexorably increased have been listing fees and commissions. For many booksellers this is the worst of all worlds: slowing sales, often falling prices and higher costs.
In the midst of this decline it's apparent that dealers who have continued to issue catalogues have done better than those who never did or no longer do. Catalogues have not been a panacea but rather one aspect of a broader strategy to connect with both the older generation and the next. Almost everyone interested in old books is also interested in browsing catalogues. The question has been how to entice the next generation to see them. The old theory was that the collector would find the dealer. Today the onus is on the dealer to find the collector.
To issue catalogues you need focused inventory, command of the language and a knack for enticing description, a reasonably priced printer, and a mailing list. Most dealers have some of the ingredients, only a few all of them. Tom Cullen has all these elements and the need to find the new collector, so he is providing both a traditional catalogue and an augmented one online. He issues several each year.
Recently he released an electronic version in conjunction with his printed presentation and it's interesting to compare these complimentary efforts. Both have 134 lots although the electronic version also offers a break-out of one lot - 45-59, sixteen Charles Magnus maps, views and images. The printed version has been mailed to his list and other copies will be given out at the Rochester Book Fair on September 13th, the ABAA Show in Boston Nov 13-14, and the Ephemera Fair in Connecticut next March [if enough material remains]. The electronic version is available as a stand-alone document in AE's Booksellers Directory, and as an attachment for him to send to interested parties. Every item also comes up in AE's Books of Sale searches and his material is directly accessible to the major search engines.
A Traditional Cataloguer in Search of the New Collector
A Magnus letterhead image of Albany c. 1854
At shows collectors meet dealers, gather business cards and the occasional catalogue. Having a hard copy to offer is an excellent way for dealers to introduce themselves. Most collectors instinctively understand that serious cataloguers are interesting sources for both material and knowledge. The catalogue conveys that. The same catalogue in electronic form extends the seller's ability to describe and illustrate and the online reader's capacity to delve more deeply into the material. Shows are themselves ephemeral, the internet perpetual. Shows last a day or two; the internet is searched 24.7 year-round.
In its electronic form the catalogue is a more versatile document. Printed catalogues are limited to a specified number of pages. Type size and the number of items listed can be adjusted, the length of descriptions shortened and images omitted - all to meet the constraints imposed by the printed format. Postage too is a factor so the number of pages and their weight come into play. In the electronic version these factors go out the window because the catalogue has no physical constraints. Descriptions truncated for the printed version can be elaborated online. Color images can be added and for serious sellers, footnote files attached. Links to related articles can be included. In other words, what is a straightforward traditional description in print becomes the starting point for more elaborate presentation on line. The next generation of book collectors understands this. In Tom's case this is born out in his elaborated online presentation.
It comes down to this. There are three reasons to make this effort. The first is that a dealer's expense is primarily in cost of acquisition. What the dealer then spends cataloguing is amortized over all forms of presentation and the incremental cost to create elaborate online catalogues very small, in fact deminimus. The second reason is that online presentations are easy to create - a day at most to create an online catalogue with images and footnotes. The third reason is to enhance the opportunity to connect with the new collector. If they don't fish in your pond fish in theirs.
Now let's take a look at Tom's effort. I already have and I've purchased several items.
The Rockland Bookman Catalogue No. 45.
The Magnus Images.
AE's review of his printed catalogue.