What Tony Hillerman Taught Me

Tony Hillerman taught me (or re-taught me) the value of a good description when selling my books.  And in this learning, or re-learning, I realized just how awful some bookseller descriptions are.  In short, they are so generic  and so minimalist as to be meaningless.

This all started with my acquisition of a large Hillerman collection.  It included all of his books, signed/limited editions, specialty publications, some anthologies, books about him, two bibliographies, and several periodical appearances.  The vast majority of this collection was signed by the great author, creator of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Navajo tribal police who solved his mystery/detective novels set in the Southwest.  And the majority of the books also included original art by Navajo artist Ernest Franklin.  Some of Franklin’s drawings were watercolors.  Other times he employed watercolor pencils.

Front of bibliography

Front of bibliography

The first thing I did when I acquired the books was to have the original owner write brief descriptions of the artwork and how Franklin’s images related to the book in question.  I knew Hillerman, and I was familiar with many of his titles, but I certainly hadn’t read all the books.  Therefore I couldn’t write my own description of how the art related to the book, and I didn’t want to write a generic description.  The collector from whom I purchased the books had read them all and was familiar with each book.

For example, one of the books is Fly on the Wall.  Within it is a full page Franklin drawing of a man fly-fishing.  Turns out that this book isn’t a Leaphorn or a Chee book.   It’s a political thriller in which the main character, John Cotton, is a political reporter who is also an avid fly fisherman.  Now the drawing makes sense.

I could have just written that the book included an original drawing by Ernest Franklin.  I might have added that it was a full page color drawing.  I could have said that it showed a man fly-fishing.  But my description was still incomplete until I tied the drawing to the story within the book.

What’s the difference?  Well, when I did my on-line research, it was clear that every other bookseller’s descriptions were indeed generic.  They apparently concluded that their minimalist description was all that was necessary.  It also appeared that one bookseller after another was simply copying someone else’s minimalist description.  But how does that distinguish their descriptions from all the rest?  It doesn’t.  In fact, I find them lacking in so many ways.

Think of it like this.  If you are looking to buy a book, whether you are a private book collector or a seasoned veteran bookseller looking to make an acquisition, what would your response be to one description that has a paucity of information when the next description is filled to the brim with specific information?  The former will appear to be arrogant in their belief that all they have to do is list their books and people will be beating their doors down to buy them all up.  The latter will appear to be a careful and knowledgeable bookseller in whom you have immediate trust.  The latter will appear to know what they’re talking about.  The former will look like a pretender.  From whom would you make your purchase?

The proof is in the pudding.  I owned that Hillerman collection for all of 12 days before I sold all 95 items.



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