This is an article which was originally published in The Standard, the online journal of IOBA in 2013. It has been slightly revised and updated. I enjoyed writing it a lot!
Building the World’s Best Collection of _________ Using the Internet
1. How I Got Going.
- Let me begin with a confession that will surprise no one: like many booksellers, I have a strong collecting streak. I am first and foremost a voracious (even compulsive) reader, and I have always liked owning the books I read, so for as long as I can remember I’ve been a book accumulator. It was the Internet that set me on the path to full-time bookselling, but it also changed me from an accumulator to a collector (although I still do plenty of accumulating).
As a bookseller, I can’t collect everything — if I did I would never sell anything — so even though I’m susceptible to a lot of collecting temptations, for the most part I manage to resist them. Although they fascinate me, and their scarcity presents an appealing challenge, I am not going to build up a collection of first-person accounts of the westward voyage to California in the mid-19th century. And although many of them are very lovely, I am not going to go on a quest to obtain all the different editions of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.
Because I don’t resist every such temptation, however, I am now the proud owner of “The World’s Best Collection” of books by one of my favorite juvenile authors — developed over a mere dozen years, primarily through the use of the Internet, and (most significantly for a perennially cash-strapped bookseller) at a comparatively low cost. (“Comparatively” is the important word here: another bookseller, who has what is probably The World’s Second Best collection of this author’s books, had a good laugh when he found out how recently I started, and commented that I must have paid real money for the books. And I did, sometimes.)
(Just a quick note here: this essay is not meant to be about collecting any particular author, so to generalize my own experience I’ll refer to “my” author as Mrs. Freeman — which happens to have been her real name, but not the one she wrote under.)
My collection had an innocuous beginning, and an insidious growth. In the spring of 2001, we stopped at a library in a small remote Northern California town; there, on a shelf of books for sale, I spotted a book by Mrs. Freeman, and quickly bought it, with little more in mind than the fun of re-reading an old favorite. When I discovered the book was missing a couple of leaves, I went online looking for a better copy, and was surprised to discover that there was only one listed — for $150. So I shrugged and moved on; after all, a few missing pages can be easily skipped.
A month later, we were in Texas. In an antique shop, I ran across a copy of what had always been, since I was young, my favorite book by Mrs. Freeman. Everything was wrong with this book — it was battered and worn, and the price was outrageous for a book in that condition — but sentiment carried the day, and of course I bought it anyway. The third book in my not-yet collection also came into my hands during that same trip. In a small East Texas town, there is (or was) a bookseller who had a “store” in a trailer parked in his front yard. The books were all double-shelved, bags and boxes were crammed in everywhere, and every book was just $3. It was the kind of place you just know is filled with treasures — but the books were dusty and disordered, the day was miserably hot, the trailer wasn’t air-conditioned, and we were running late. All I could reasonably do was pick a bag at random to go through — and the second book in that bag was by Freeman! So there was a treasure, and for $3 I made it mine.
2. A Collection (and a Collector) is Born.
All I had at this point was my three serendipitous finds, but what happened next turned them into the beginnings of a collection: I got curious to know more about Mrs. Freeman herself, and did an Internet search, and came up with little more than information on a few copyright renewals. (Remember, this was 2001: Google was in its infancy, WorldCat was available only to libraries, AbeBooks was only 5 years old (and still called the Advanced Book Exchange), Amazon was even newer.) So I decided it would be a good idea to improve the state of available information on Mrs. Freeman by compiling a simple checklist of her books and posting it on our website.
But even that simple project wasn’t that easy: not even the Library of Congress had all of her books listed. I really needed to know more, and the only logical way I could think of to learn more about her book was to buy more of them. So I began both acquiring whatever copies I could afford and capturing information on other copies. I put up permanent want matches online, bought selected copies through the regular multi-dealer listing sites, and even found a few titles in open bookstores in various places across the country. But the best hunting ground proved to be eBay, then still in what we now think of as its “golden age,” through which the contents of America’s attics, closets and basements were flowing onto the Internet. At any given moment, there were at least three and often as many as ten auctions running for Freeman’s books. I soon overcame my aversion to “sniping,” and although I probably lost more auctions than I won (being usually cash-strapped and thus cost-conscious), I won enough, and my collection — because it was clearly that, by now — continued to grow.
My “checklist” idea began to take form as an annotated checklist, and it was about this time that I made what seemed, at first, like a mistake. Although my collection was far from complete, I pitched an article on Mrs. Freeman to Firsts magazine. Somewhat to my surprise, they accepted it, and suddenly the pressure to deliver the goods was on — made more intense when a last minute cancellation of another piece moved mine to an earlier issue than originally planned, and left me scrambling to meet the deadline. I managed somehow to get it together, and you can guess what happened after the article (with checklist) was published in December 2002: the prices of Mrs. Freeman’s books went up — in some cases, by a lot. And I wondered at that moment: have I just done the dumbest thing imaginable, by letting the whole world in on my hitherto under-the-radar collection and thereby sharply reducing my chances for future “bargain” acquisitions?
But this happened, too: we also posted a slightly revised version of the article on our website, and that is when the power of the Internet really made itself felt. Booksellers now began to get in touch, to offer an occasional “special” copy of one of Freeman’s books; a volunteer for a Friends group in New England offered me a very nice copy of one of the scarcest titles; a woman who had inherited her uncle’s collection contacted me, and when I made an offer her response was “Really? That much? These are just old kids’ books!”
Then I received this email:
“I found your website … in a Google search. I have an old collection of Mrs. Freeman’s books, about twenty-five or thirty of them, that I would like to have find a good home. … They were given to my family by my aunt. I believe her mother was Mr. Freeman’s sister, so many of the volumes are inscribed to members of that family. There are too many volumes to enumerate, but if there are any you are particularly interested in, I can let you know….” Was I interested?!? I wanted them all!
By then, it was obvious that far from being a mistake to let the whole world in on my collecting “secret,” the Firsts article and its Internet incarnation had made me a “go-to” person for all things related to Mrs. Freeman, and had connected me with fans and collectors all over the country. The ultimate result was the considerable enlargement and enhancement of my collection — not just with gems like these inscribed association copies, but also French and Norwegian editions, magazine appearances of Freeman’s work, etc. And my checklist was now taking on the proportions of a true bibliography.
One of the joys associated with building any such collection is finding that rare or extra-special item, something that’s considered even by specialists to be “impossible” to find. In Freeman’s case, there was one book, from 1919, that was never included in any of the lists of her published titles that appeared at the front of her other books. Her biographer even wondered if it really existed, but through WorldCat, I learned that there were at least two copies: one held by the Library of Congress, the other by the New York Public Library.
Naturally, the next time I had a chance to visit New York City, I rushed to the main library, had my photo taken to get a library card, put in my request, and the book was brought to me from the stacks. It was only 80 pages long, had been issued in plain brown paper wrappers, and the library had bound it with two other unrelated titles from the same era. Not the best way to treat a rare book, but then they didn’t know how rare it was.
I photocopied the title page and table of contents for my bibliography and left. But a thought soon began gnawing at me: it was only 80 pages, why hadn’t I copied the whole thing? I had a couple of free hours a few days later, just before my flight home, so I went back to the library, requested the book again, and waited. And waited. Eventually the librarian called me over and said that they couldn’t find the book! I explained the situation and they dispatched more searchers, to no avail: it appeared that one of the only two known library copies had been lost (and who knew if the other copy had been lost also). I was in despair, but fortunately it wasn’t permanent: several months later the book had once again been properly shelved at the library and I was able to obtain a photocopy of the entire thing. Not an original, of course, but better than nothing.
A few years later, I received an email from someone who had “acquired a copy” of this very same rarity, and was interested in selling it. Emails were exchanged; I made an offer; it wasn’t accepted. A few more emails passed over the next year or so, but the owner still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with it. More time passed, during which I broke my ankle very badly. The day I returned home from the hospital, I was lying on the couch feeling very sorry for myself when a package came in the mail. Mildly puzzled, since I wasn’t expecting anything, I opened it to find a book, nicely wrapped in colored tissue paper. Inside the tissue was THE book, and with it a card which said simply “this belongs to you.” So it was that a gift from a complete stranger, a gift that couldn’t have possibly appeared at a better time, made my collection indisputably “The World’s Best.”
Does that mean it’s finished, though? Not at all — although there’s no question that it’s gotten more difficult to find quality material in recent times. There are twice as many copies of Freeman’s books listed on sites like AbeBooks than there used to be, but few bargains — and still no copies anywhere online of the scarcer titles. Good buys do still turn up, however, and I continue to tweak and monitor my want matches on AbeBooks and Biblio. The collection is still not finished, and probably never will be.
3. The Internet and the Collector.
Putting together a collection like I’ve just described in pre-internet days would have been almost impossible. The owner of The World’s Second Best Collection of Mrs. Freeman’s work is a children’s book specialist who has been collecting these books for over 40 years.
Although the Internet is a powerful tool, however, it doesn’t eliminate the need for one of those good old-fashioned virtues: patience. (About the only way you can be a successful collector without a good measure of patience is to have an even bigger measure of cash — and if you happen to be blessed with that, you can probably ignore a lot of the rest of this article, which is pitched to the more realistic financial situation of people like me.)
The Internet has changed a lot over the dozen years I’ve been building my Freeman collection. The attics seem to have been mostly emptied and dealers listing books at fixed prices now dominate eBay. There used to be four or five interesting auctions of these books every week; now months can go without any.
The Americana Exchange website recently ran a very interesting article called “A Hard Sell” by Bruce McKinney, in which he wrote about the difficulties of disposing of a collection of books by Joyce Carol Oates. There was one sentence in the article that really struck me. After commenting that a search on AbeBooks turned up over 22,000 items by Oates, McKinney said: “Her next great collection is already loaded on AbeBooks and waiting to be assembled.”
Well, sort of. A good collection can be assembled with relative ease, especially if money is no object; a great collection, however, will take more time and effort. The Internet gives, by making it easier than ever to develop a collection, but it also takes away, by devaluing many items in that collection. Not only is online pricing sometimes irrational (or truly insane), but the ‘net can also create a false sense of either scarcity or abundance. For instance, ten copies of a given book online can seem, from one perspective, like quite a few — but when you consider that there are perhaps 10,000 “real” booksellers online, that translates to visiting a thousand bookstores in the real world to find a single copy. And when there are no copies of a book online, it can be a trap to assume that it’s truly “rare,” especially when that assumption leads a seller to put an absurdly high pricetag on something, based on nothing more than the idea that it’s “the only copy in the world!” (The topic of Internet pricing of used and rare books, and the forces that drive it, is best left for another occasion.)
4. Doing It Yourself.
Let’s say you’d like to have a “World’s Best Collection” of your own. Like with most endeavors, there’s no single “right” way to go about it.
Although I’ve only set out to create a complete collection (including later printings, book club and reprint editions, magazine appearances and more) a couple of times, based on those experiences I’ve compiled the following list of guidelines and general principles, which includes some specific suggestions for using the Internet to pursue such a project:
1. Pick something you really love: an author, a subject area or genre, an era, a series, a publisher, an illustrator — the possibilities are endless. Chances are very good, if you’re anything like me, that you’ll already have at least a few related books on your shelves, and that you’ll have read them. These books, and the existing knowledge you’ve gotten from them, are more than enough of a foundation on which to begin building a collection. (And as you gather more, try to read them, too. The more you know about your chosen topic, the better collector you’ll be.) Remember, the most important driving force for the assembly of any collection isn’t money — it’s passion. And if you lose interest in the topic, it’s okay to move on to another one; in fact, if that happens, you probably should.
2. Define what you want to collect related to your chosen subject. First editions only, or also variants (later printings, paperbacks, book club editions, etc.)? Books only, or also magazines and/or related ephemera? Here, too, there are many options. My suggestion is to be realistic at the beginning, but try to stay open to other possibilities, and see where your collection takes you.
3. Do some research. The Internet has made this amazingly easy, but you might still find that you need some books: reference books about your subject, related biographies or histories, or critical works. Bibliographies are especially crucial resources — not just formal bibliographies, but also those included in the back of most nonfiction works.
4. Use your research to build a list of desired acquisitions; then run a quick online search for the titles referenced. For the common and cheap books, buy a copy (or two) of anything that meets your criteria; there is a certain satisfaction that comes with filling up a shelf or two, and you can work on quality later. For the more uncommon items — which you might not find listed online at all — create “wants” (see below). And be patient.
5. Take advantage of all the various “wants” you can create online: AbeBooks, Alibris, Biblio and viaLibri all have this option, and eBay allows you to save searches, which helps to take the tedium out of looking for the same things again and again. You will inevitably get a lot of false hits from both want matches and eBay searches, and you’ll get used to seeing the “same old same old” items time after time, but there’s value in that, too: you will quickly learn to recognize the more common items in your field, and this will enhance your ability to spot the truly uncommon things when they show up, and to act quickly to acquire them. You’ll also develop your own “tricks” to reduce your useless want matches and improve your search results. (Examples: on AbeBooks, check the “not print on demand” box; if you’re focused on an author, be sure to perform occasional searches (or even enter separate wants) for common misspellings of his or her name.) Scanning through dozens of want-match emails can be tedious (be prepared to use your “delete” key at lot), but it’s also important to try and keep up with them, because when a truly scarce and desirable item is listed, especially at a bargain price, it will often be snapped up right away. Remember that you probably aren’t the only person receiving a want-match email on it!
6. Don’t overlook the power of keyword searches, which can lead you to things you didn’t know existed, or hadn’t thought to look for. The more such “offbeat” things your collection contains, the more interesting it will be. If you’re basing your collection on a specific, recognized bibliography, one of the most exciting things is to discover a book that the “authorities” overlooked: the most exciting words for any mystery fiction collector, for instance, are “not in Hubin.”
7. Get the word out about your collection. Let dealers know of your interest; post on blogs, Facebook and elsewhere; find Internet sites for those with similar interests; join your local book-collecting group, if there is one. If you don’t already have a website, set up a simple one talking about your interests. The Internet is truly fantastic for this kind of thing, and you shouldn’t underestimate the value of the contacts you will make there. A couple more examples from my Mrs. Freeman collecting: a historical society in New Jersey sent me copies of a fanzine that included the only significant biographical information on the author; and I once received a phone call from a woman who shared with me her fond memories of a long-ago 6th-grade class trip to visit Mrs. Freeman herself. You’ll have to be patient, but getting the word out on the ‘net will almost invariably yield fruit.
8. Don’t even think about the “investment value” of your collection. Regardless of what the resale value might ultimately turn out to be, if you are collecting something that you find interesting, you will be rewarded many times over the value of the money you actually spent.
9. Don’t forget the “real world” of bookstores, book fairs, library sales, or anywhere else books might be found. With tens of thousands of online sellers of all sizes listing millions of books, it’s easy to forget that there are still untold millions of books that are not listed online. These can only be found the old-fashioned way: by going out and looking for them.
* * *
“Mrs. Freeman,” by the way, published her many books — the books that now populate The World’s Best Collection of her work — under the name of Augusta Hueill Seaman. While she might not be well known today, in her time (1913 to 1949) she was both popular and influential. She was the first American to write mysteries for young girls, and no less a figure in that field than Mildred Wirt Benson, the original author of the Nancy Drew series, once mentioned in an interview how as a young girl she had eagerly awaited Seaman’s serialized mysteries in the St. Nicholas magazine. Librarians also loved her books, and included her on their list of the most popular authors of the 1930s.
And having more or less completed my Seaman collection, I have moved on, and am currently working on two other author collections. Although I’m not quite ready to divulge their names, I can give you a few hints: they are both women, they both wrote mostly around the early to middle 20th century, and while neither has been quite as forgotten as Seaman, you might still say “who?” if you heard their names.
So why, after extolling the virtues of sharing one’s collecting quests with the world via the Internet, am I suddenly turning a bit cagey? It’s because I also recognize, as you should, that there’s a delicate balance at play here — between the advantages that come from being quiet about a collection in the early stages of building it, and the benefits to be had from going public at the appropriate time. Without meaning to sound too calculating about it, let’s just say that by the time I’m ready to reveal the identities of my two most recent collecting interests, most of the “bargain” copies of their books will already be safely at rest, on my shelves.