Booksellers make mistakes. Everyone does. I’ve made some beauts in my day. Some are forgivable. Some are less forgivable. A lot of the latter variety are the result of copying someone else’s error. For example, let’s say you are a bookseller who acquires a book through whatever means, and it’s a book not terribly familiar to you. The likelihood is that you would try to find the book via a listing service like Advanced Book Exchange, commonly referred to as ABE or Abebooks. If several of the listings indicated that the book in question is the author’s first book, you are likely to describe your copy the same way.
One way in which this is forgivable is if you just don’t know and if there isn’t a sufficient bibliography or reference work to correct your wrong assumption. For example, I’ve been a Wallace Stegner guy for years. I’ve stocked the works of Stegner, dean of Western writers, since the early 1980s. In fact, I can trace my interest in Stegner to my acquiring a beautiful copy of what I thought was his first book, Remembering Laughter, which Little, Brown published in 1937. Very, very few people knew then that Remembering Laughter is not Stegner’s first book. It’s his first novel. It was until The Confluence Press published Nancy Colberg’s bibliography of Stegner’s works that we all learned that his true first book is Clarence Edward Dutton An Appraisal, a pamphlet published by the University of Utah Press.
Well, I shouldn’t say that “we all learned.” Try this for yourself. Go to www.abebooks.com, click on Advanced Search, type in Stegner’s name in the author field, type in Remembering Laughter in the title field, then click on “highest price” under “Sort Results By.” You would figure that by finding the most expensive copies that you would also find the most knowledgeable booksellers. You would be mostly right, but also partially wrong. I did this myself as I’m writing this (May 10, 2013). Three of the first 10 listings describe Remembering Laughter as Author’s First book. An author’s first book is always one of his most desired books, so this notation is important, but how can 30% of the listings, an astounding number, get this wrong? The bibliography was published 23 years ago.
Let’s try another one that I see all too often. In an earlier blog, I wrote about The Forms of Fiction by John Gardner and Lennis Dunlap. This truly is Gardner’s first book, but some booksellers still insist on calling The Resurrection his first book. It’s not. It’s his first novel, published four years after The Forms of Fiction. I tried the same experiment with ABE as above. I typed in Gardner’s name and typed in The Resurrection as the title, selected highest price and then searched. Two of the first 10 listings swear that The Resurrection is Gardner’s first book. Yikes! 20% got it wrong despite the fact that Southern Illinois University Press published John Gardner A Bibliographical Profile by John M. Howell 33 years ago in 1980.
Shall we try another? Okay, Thomas Wolfe’s first book is Look Homeward, Angel. Right? Uh, no. Again, it’s his first novel. Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929, but the University of North Carolina published a 200-copy pamphlet titled The Crisis in Industry by Wolfe 10 years earlier. Three of the first 15 listings on ABE clearly state that Look Homeward, Angel is Wolfe’s first book, and that 20% is also clearly wrong.
Let’s try one more. Ivan Doig is a talented writer. His memoir, This House of Sky, was published in 1978 as a hardcover to much acclaim. It’s his first book, right? You already know the answer. Of the first 15 listings on ABE, again sorting by the highest-price listings, three booksellers say This House of Sky is Doig’s first book. Another says it’s his second book. All four are wrong, depending on how you view it. It clearly is not his first book. His first book is News: A Consumer’s Guide which he co-authored with his wife, Carol, in 1972. It is a paperback original. Doig and his wife also edited two other paperback originals that precede This House of Sky. One is Streets We Have Come Down in 1975, followed by Utopian America in 1976.
Okay, I can’t resist. Just one more? Doubleday published Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins in 1971. It’s a cult classic and a great read. Very funny. It’s his first book, right? You already know where I’m going with this. Twenty per cent of the first 10 listings on ABE describe it as his first book, and 100% of those describers would be wrong. Another Roadside Attraction is his first novel. Gear Works Press published his first book, Guy Anderson, some six years earlier.
What’s it all mean? You tell me.