If every book tells a story, every book has a story, bibliography tells the story of the book, and cataloging a rare book tells the story of that particular copy.
But there is a fundamental difference between cataloging for the trade and cataloging for an institution: rare book dealers have to sell the books they catalogue. How you tell the story of your copy can be the difference between a sale and a shelf-puppy.
Presuming that you know the fundamentals of collation, including collation by signature if you have an antiquarian book before you, physical description, and have marshaled your research and reference citations, you are ready to begin.
Researchers at MIT have calculated that each year a forest is slain so that rare book catalogues may live. Due to the increasing volume of catalogues issued by dealers throughout the world, it is likely that the recipients never read them all, or if they do, don’t read them from beginning to end simply because the overwhelming majority of them are so dryly written or scribed with such boring ink that they are difficult to read much less plow through. Many readers' first impulse is to scream.
The challenge in cataloging rare books for the trade is that of grabbing eyeballs and mindshare from a mountain of competing catalogues so that your catalogue descriptions stand out from the crowd in a manner that is informative, scholastically sound, and, yes, entertaining. Entertaining because you want people to read, enjoy, and buy, which people are more likely to do when, after reading your description, they are in a pleasant frame of mind rather than fatigued by ponderous, academic over-writing.
The fundamentals of journalism and advertising copy writing need to be brought to bear.
First, organize your story: The who, what, when, and how. What are the key sales points? Get this info to the reader at the very beginning. If, for instance, you’ve done due diligence and have discovered that only four copies of the book are found within institutional holdings, state that fact right at the beginning before anything else. Same with auction records. Only two copies at auction within the last thirty-five years? Only four known signed copies? Tell it upfront. You want potential buyers to know just how rare or special your copy is; don’t make them wait: you’re not writing a suspense thriller. You’re leading them into temptation, you want to keep them on that path, and you want to close the sale.
In short, immediately grab attention and give readers the goodies first, don’t bury them at the end or somewhere in the body of your description where they will be glossed over or potentially unnoticed.
What is so special about the book? Here is where research can be so enjoyable. Find a fun factoid, something unusual and little known about the book, the original owner of your copy (if provenance is known). Find an eye-opening piece of info; a jolt will keep eyes on the page and mind at attention.
I know a rare book cataloger, well respected, formally trained as a librarian, and who worked at one of the nation’s finest libraries. This person moved over into the trade, cataloging for a major rare book dealer. And wrote the longest, most difficult to plow through, and boring descriptions imaginable. This person insisted on purity and didn’t wish to sully their pen by injecting anything that might be construed as salesmanship.
Long descriptions are not a crime as long as they are readable and - most important - are not an excuse for the cataloger to impress by their superior knowledge. The point is to sell the book, not yourself. There is no conflict between sales and scholarship as long as they are balanced.
“You’ve got to have this book! It’s the greatest copy since books have been printed! Buy now, don’t delay or this copy will be gone!” No. We’re selling rare books, not used cars.
“The only first edition copy of Ptolemy’s Geografica in contemporary original vellum to come to market in forty years. A rare and excellent opportunity for the discerning collector.” Yes.
It is not necessary, or desirable, to tell everything there is to know about the book you are cataloging. At a certain point, reached fast, it all becomes palaver and you risk losing the reader. Chances are, collectors already are aware of this stuff. Tell them something they are unlikely to know.
Rare book dealer Michael Horowitz began his career working for Howell’s in San Francisco, and developed a reputation for writing some of the best, most succinct descriptions around. He can distill a book into three sentences that capture the essence, importance, and “oomph” of the copy before him. That’s a gift. But readers may want more. The other extreme is a ponderous and lengthy description. Stay on point, don’t drift. Really, if you’ve written well your description should be no longer than one or one and a half pages, tops. Thomas Jefferson got the Declaration of Independence down in a single page. Follow his lead.
Remember, too, that attention spans have shortened. Don’t challenge them, no matter how well you may write.
Keep paragraphs short. Long text blocks are difficult enough to read in print; now that most rare book dealers have websites, reading long text blocks on a computer screen is even more challenging - if the reader looks away from the screen for a moment they may lose their place. Format text in chunks.
Writing for the Internet poses its own challenges. and opportunities. These days, collectors are more likely to be exposed to your online description before seeing it in print but I've yet to see a rare book description online that integrates hyperlinks. This is a major way to add interesting and expansive footnote content without adding to the length of the description.
Be good to the reader. Put yourself in the collector's shoes. When you get out of them remember to write from the collector's perspective; what is going to be most important to them? Here's an interesting experiment in market research: Ask a few key clients what they look for in a catalogue description. What bores them? Excites them?
A few words about headlines. The purpose of a headline is to grab attention. A good headline should have one of three (or a combination of these) factors going for it: Huh? Wow! Oh! “One of Only Three Existing Presentation Copies.” “The Most Distinguished Copy of the Most Important Book By [...]." “The Copy That Twain Gave To His Best Friend.” "Scarce In Its Original Binding.” “Is This the Finest Copy Extant? These are headlines.
“First Edition, First Printing” is not a headline, it’s a lazy, simple statement of fact that does nothing to make your copy special unless a first printing of the first edition is truly a rarity. If that’s the case, say so in the headline: “A Very Good Copy of the Exceedingly Rare First Edition, First Printing.”
In the end, your description must tell a compelling story, tell it well and economically, and leave the reader in a frame of mind to buy.
Never forget that writing - no matter what form - is an act of seduction. Entice, tempt, bait, and conquer.
The principles of writing good catalog descriptions for the trade are summed up by one of the key principles of journalism. I’ve known this instinctively but it was recently - and delightfully - expressed to me by Cokie Anderson, head cataloger for Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books and Manuscripts and Booktryst contributor, in a form not likely used by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger but quite possibly by William Randolph Hearst. Phil, a former journalist, confirmed it to me in Cokie’s exact words as today’s headline, which is vernacular straight from the newsroom floor that marries the Huh? Wow! Oh! all in one very tidy - and attention-grabbing, indeed! - line that clearly sets priorities when writing rare book descriptions.
It got your attention, didn't it?