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What is a professional bookseller, and how do I become one?

What is a professional bookseller, and how do I become one?


Almost every book lover has at some point pondered the thought that they would love to find a way of turning their passion for books into a livelihood. Many have successfully achieved this, but it's not an easy course to take.

The view from the other side of the bookstore counter is very different. The professional bookseller's relationship to the book is changed. It's not entirely different than transitioning from reader to author; it seems like a natural transition but it's much harder than it seems to be successful.

Becoming a professional bookseller requires specialized knowledge, access to inventory, access to potential customers, some basic business sense and acumen, and lots of patience.  Inventory is often where casual booksellers get started.  The rest of those components take years and hard work to acquire.

Becoming a bookseller

Historically,  bookselling was very often a tradition passed down by hand.  Aspiring booksellers would work in a bookstore for years to gain experience before starting out on their own.  Working for an experienced bookseller provided a practical apprenticeship in the many disciplines the business encompasses, including identifying rare and valuable books, handling and repairing them, and marketing them to customers along with the daily operations of a business. 

While many still follow the traditional path into the business by working in a shop for someone else, recent years have introduced many changes to the business.  The internet has allowed for a low-overhead option for both full-time and part-time professional booksellers.  For the self-taught, there are some fantastic books on the finer points of identifying and caring for books, but experience is still the greatest teacher. Talking to other sellers in person at bookshops and book shows as well as on internet forums can help enormously in learning what has worked for others and avoiding some of the mistakes that others have made.

The typology of bookselling

Most professional booksellers can either be described as generalists or specialists.  A generalist bookseller might run your neighborhood second-hand bookstore, selecting a wide variety of books on varying topics that run the gamut of price and age. While still observing a careful process of selection for quality and content, a generalist focuses their offerings to appeal to a wide range of readers and collectors.  

Specialist booksellers tend to focus on a few categories, building a large depth of inventory and knowledge around a narrow focus. That focus may be a type of binding, an era of publishing, the works of a particular author or publisher or any other specific niche of the history of publishing.  Becoming a specialist requires a vast amount of knowledge in a single area and access to a list of collectors in that genre.  

The majority of used, rare, and antiquarian booksellers fall into the generalist category, but they often have specialties still. A bookseller's specialties often convey their own personal interests in reading and collecting, or they may be informed by their buying audience or location, focusing on what they know they have a customer base for, such as a Florida-based shop keeping a large selection of books about Disney.

Specialists tend to start out as generalists, taking their time making contacts in the collecting world and acquiring enough inventory in their specialty to be able to transition to that one subject.  The other traditional way into specialization is the path from collector to bookseller with a dedicated book collector eventually deciding to sell off part or all of their collection.  Their years of buying and building a large collection of books on their specific area of interest provide them with the inventory, knowledge, and often the personal contacts in that field of collecting.

What makes a bookseller 'professional'?

The difference between someone who sells books and a professional bookseller isn't a clear line in the sand.  At one time, a professional bookseller might have been defined as someone whose primary occupation was selling books.  Changes in both technology and the market in recent years has blurred that a little, with internet venues allowing anyone to list books for sale. 

A professional bookseller, either full or part-time, is an individual who has thoroughly studied how to identify books and accurately describe their condition and specific merits.  

That knowledge can be gained by years of experience working for another bookseller, by years of experience as a buyer and collector, or by undertaking a thorough study of the industry.  Individuals can gain a wealth of knowledge from books and formalized programs.  

The Rare Book School at the University of Virginia provides one of the most comprehensive programs on this discipline anywhere in the world.  

The venerable Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar offers sellers of all levels of experience a highly concentrated one-week education on almost every aspect of selling used and rare books.

A professional bookseller values their customers even more than individual sales.

The professional is in the business for the long term. Individual books in their inventory come and go, but the relationship with their customers endures.  The professional bookseller is able to intuit the tastes and needs of their regular customers. Through personalized recommendations and sharing knowledge, a professional bookseller becomes a trusted advisor to customers.  Each new order for a professional bookseller is an opportunity to both sell a book and to gain a new client who might come back to buy more books year after year.  

A professional bookseller pairs their knowledge of books with salesmanship, helping convey the value of a book to potential customers.

The ideal description of a book combines an accurate list of important bibliographic features (publisher, publication date, edition, etc.) along with a detailed description of the condition of the individual copy, noting any specifics on the book, including the binding, text block and dust jacket.  There's plenty of room in an online book description for a professional bookseller to add editorial notes about the importance or merits of a particular work or that specific copy. 

A professional bookseller bases pricing on an understanding of market demand, both historically and currently, as compared with availability.

Book values change in a pretty short course of time. Sudden changes in market demand, such as a movie adaptation of a book, an author winning a major literary award, or an author passing away can create a sudden interest among buyers.  Some of those events are hard to predict, but understanding market trends can help sellers know the right pricing for the current market.  Prices also sometimes change.  Most professional booksellers will base their pricing, at least in part, on an appraisal of the number of similar copies of a work are currently on the market.  As those other copies are sold or new ones are added, the relative scarcity changes.  

Here are some useful reference books for those wishing to delve into the world of professional bookselling:

Complete Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore: Old Books into Gold by Dale L. Gilbert 
An older classic with some good practical advice geared around opening a brick and mortar shop.

Book Collecting by Allen Ahearn 

Written by the co-founder of very highly regarded Quill and Brush bookshop, this volume is expert advice on buying and handling rare books from one of the business' most experienced members.

Collected Books by Allen and Patricia Ahearn    

The founders of Quill and Brush bookshop compiled a list of some of the most valuable and desirable books.  The prices they set in this work were once an industry standard. Book prices have changed somewhat since 1998, but the details of important works and how to identify they are as current today as ever. 

The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New: A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers by Margot Rosenberg and Bern Marcowitz 

These veteran professional booksellers provide tips and techniques for handling, conserving and repairing old and rare books.

Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride 

Points of Issue A Compendium of Points of Issue of Books by 19Th-20th Century Authors by Bill McBride 

These two very slim volumes are invaluable resources for helping scout out new material or correctly identify what you have. Identification of First Editions is a comprehensive list of the varied and complicated methods that different publishers have used to tell the first edition of a book. Points of Issue goes into the specific typographic errors, binding color and other nuances that distinguish the earliest releases of important works.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

A highly anecdotal story of these authors' introduction to the world of rare books, sharing particular tips and stories of their education. Great for the beginner and good fun for the more experienced in the field.

Slightly Foxed but Still Desirable: Ronald Searle's Wicked World of Book Collecting by Ronald Searle 

A cult classic for used and rare booksellers, this collection of cartoons gives witty if not terribly informative illustration to some of rare booksellers' traditional, highly specialized vocabulary for describing books.


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