Dealer Catalogues: Future Shock

- by Bruce E. McKinney

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The Rosenbach material was consistently exceptional.


By Bruce McKinney

The principal art form of dealer scholarship has been the book dealer’s catalogue and many of these catalogues are prized by the cognoscenti for their research and definitive explanations, not to mention their judgment of value expressed in dollars, pounds, francs and pesos. Such catalogues are time consuming labors and they are after all about converting copies to cash. So although they are, for many dealers, their lasting achievement in the field, they are also a luxury because the internet has made it possible to find buyers without the investment of time and money it takes to produce catalogues.

This is not to say, or to suggest, that libraries, collectors and of course other dealers are any less interested in reading dealer catalogues. It’s only that the economics less justify their creation. There may, from time to time, be revivals in catalogue production but it seems the genie is out of the bottle on this issue and the primary selling role of the printed catalogue in permanent decline.

It is the shifting economics of book selling that are undermining catalogue issuance rather than a decline in reader interest. This makes it appropriate to look for ways to reprise the strengths of traditional catalogues in formats and employing methodologies that infuse the catalogue concept with the abundant strengths of the internet. If we can’t go back, let’s look ahead.

The printed catalogue is, for those involved in and with the book trade, an almost sacred form but it has its limitations. Catalogue-size (number of pages and page size), binding, use of images in color and or black and white, colored inks and occasionally colored paper and print runs are part of the complex algebra of catalogue production. The value and quality of the material to be sold is of course the common denominator and the material must carry the prorated catalogue cost with no apparent struggle. One does not see H. P. Kraus quality presentations for $50 books for no reason.

If the future of traditional book dealer catalogues is uncertain the emerging prospects for electronic dealer catalogues are not. Such catalogues, only in their infancy, will emerge overtime as extraordinary documents with hundreds of images, extensive descriptions and links and footnotes to references in places as diverse as the Library of Congress, important past shows at the Grolier, and direct access to the ÆD to confirm importance, provenance, price and selling history. In short, the electronic catalogue will make it possible to deliver a complex array of information and images and to do so in an almost timeless fashion. For electronic catalogues have the capacity to reflect sales and to allow amendments when necessary. They will be searchable by keyword, author, title, place and date printed and virtually any other criteria a buyer may wish to use to vet material.