Do you know how a bookworm might eat a conjugated leaf? Or what a stippled edge is? Or What cocked, shaken or starting books are? These are the sort of terms which litter descriptions of old, second hand and collectible books in booksellers’ catalogues and, of course, on on-line book-selling sites. Potential customers may ask, often in a sheepish or apologetic manner, what these terms mean. There’s no reason to be embarrassed at not knowing though- these are terms that have evolved through use, and sometimes misuse, over many years and in many different part of the world. It’s a language that can take a lifetime to become comfortable with and few genuinely master it. And yet, if you like to indulge in buying beautiful old books from auctions, booksellers’ catalogues or on line, it’s important to understand the descriptive terms used or you might end up disappointed, or paying way over the odds for something you didn’t really want in the first place, or so confused and put off that you miss out on a genuine bargain or that deeply desired book.
Most booksellers are steeped in such booklore and only too willing, indeed keen, to share their knowledge with others but it is a sad fact of modern secondhand and antiquarian bookselling that there also some, especially on-line, who only purport to professional standards and probably know less about the books they are selling than I do about particle physics. Understanding a little behind the language of booksellers will help book buyers spot the fly-by-night sellers who too often think because they have no evidence of an earlier printing, the book in hand must be a first edition. (If you want to try a little test, follow the link below to search results on ABEbooks (one of the best bookselling sites by the way) for first editions of Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter and the Blue Mauritius (chosen for no other reason than I happen to have a copy in front of me right now). Richards’ plummy adventure story for boys was published in its first edition by Charles Skilton Ltd in London in 1952, yet you will see among the results a number published by Hawk Books in 1992. Some of the sellers offering the Hawk Books edition give enough information in their detailed descriptions for the savvy buyer to spot that they are not first editions. At the time of writing however, only 9 of the 13 books returned in the search results appear to be genuine firsts.
Some of the terms we frequently use in our book descriptions here at BookAddiction appear in our Glossary of Book Description Terms which we’ve added to our blog today.