Apr 21, 2016

Language Reform: ffep sl mrkd VG+ ex lib

Mail order bookselling, just to remind us, used to be a paper-based business. Every month or two you would crank out a list of books, copy it, mimeograph it on the Gestetner and send it out to your band of trusted clients which made up your mailing list.

That kind of paper business has its own economy: There was the question of postage: How many pages can you squeeze into this envelope and still get away with the lower postage rate. Did you weigh the staple, and did you allow for the weight of the stamp itself? Most importantly: How many books can you get onto one page without insulting the eyes of your buyers?

The solution, over many years, was abbreviations. Some catalogues would explain them, most would presume you knew what they were talking about. There was VG for “very good”, 4to for a larger format, and pb for a paperback. Ex lib would denote a book which has served time in a library, and “good”, oh dear, “good” would designate a book that was mostly for reading only.

A whole culture of abbreviations grew around the book trade. This secret language gave us some professional status, and it also gave the collector a certain sense of being on the inside. The author of Driff's Guide to all the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain caught the importance (and the absurdity) of abbreviating when he coined lots of new abbreviations for his guide to bookshops: BSN = Bibliographically subnormal, ETGOW = Easy to get on with, FARTS = Follows you around recommending the stock, GOB =Grand old bore, KEENON = Keen on stocking if they could get it, etc.

Then the price for bandwidth went down and the price for postage went up, and bookselling migrated to the net. Lo and behold, the economy of paper, which once made abbreviations necessary, fell away. But the book trade took a long time to notice this. Today, Google carries the descriptions of our books into the farthest corners of the web. We can no longer count on the insider knowledge of the band of collectors who know the lingo. We need to be understood even by the person who has never before bought a book. Language Reform!

Updating the language of our book descriptions is now almost completed.  tp, sl, sm, pb, hb, VG, ex lib, 4to, dj, ed, engr, eps, fep, ffep and such are on their way out. We put the cards on the table and call our books no longer “ex lib”, but advertise them as “from a Cambridge college library”. It was surely an interesting experience to go through more than 50.000 records and recognize the various dialects our helpers have used in the past. Luckily, there was some consistency in the akwardnesses of wording and abbreviating. Once you understood the linguistic patterns, search and replace would run its magic.

Hopefully, this has produced more transparent descriptions for our books. It does not call for serious prose when you try to make the buyer aware of the benefits and shortcomings of a certain book, but there are some moments of hilarity and insight, as when the shortcomings of a book are defined as “not detracting from the enjoyment of the book” or when our cataloguer would describe the precise location of an ink stamp in the book. Plurabelle marches forward into the bright light of unabbreviated bookselling.