Selling What I Like

Jessica Amanda Salmonson


Binding detail from Romance of the Golden Star I am delighted that some people regard my annotated catalogs as "collectible" in & of themselves. My tastes & personality are stamped all over each issue, as I list predominantly books I personally believe are worthwhile. While many booksellers are thinking "some stupid donkey will pay a lot for this piece of crap" I am usually thinking something like "oo, kewl." In my catalogs I often provide capsule reviews & opinions of sundry authors' works & I identify, when I know, the specific supernatural tales in a "mixed" collection of tales -- so there is some long-term bibliographical value beyond mere stocklists.

There are some authors I never list, irrespective of their popularity, because they are bad writers, or I simply have no personal interest in them. This includes most modern horror novelists & the so-called "splatterpunks," as the majority seem to be writing unintentional parodies of better stories from the past. The splatterpunks in particular are about as sophisticated as "my new ghoul friend" puns on old bubblegum cards; they are entirely disconnected from the continuity of fine supernatural literature from LeFanu & Machen to Ramsey Campbell & Patrick McGrath. There are plenty of other dealers specializing in the latest releases by popular yawners, a niche they're welcome to. Nor do I like techy science fiction, so I list none, even though I'm sure I could sell a lot of it if I wanted to bother.

Conversely, there are many great authors who I know sell slowly, as they are underrated or utterly forgotten, or Bleiler's widely used but occasionally incorrect Guide to Supernatural Fiction gives something powerful a thumbs-down. I keep a wide array of neglected masters in stock & I am always happy to turn new readers onto them. Fantasy in translation is another example of fiction that does not sell as rapidly as native-grown stock; still, I regularly list translations from the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Yiddish, German, Swedish, all manner of fantastic literature from all corners of the globe. I am slowly turning more & more of my clients onto such brilliant fantasists as the Polish Bruno Schulz & Japan's Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

I don't regard my tastes as superior, however. Well, actually I do, emotionally at least; but my rational self knows I sell magic realists not because they're better than pulp writers but because their thematic material is so similar. And I sell pulpsters' adventure fantasies not because I've failed to recognize it as junkfood but because I find it delightful even so. It is the content that delights me & if it is sufficiently outre, being "good" or "bad" in some Literary Criticism sense is all but beside the point.

When I had the walk-in shop I was forced to sell what walk-in customers wanted -- which here in Seattle meant cheap used copies of Jance mysteries, Stephen King horrors, Gibson science fiction, or the regional humor book The Egg & I which practically symbolizes the antiquarian book trade in the Pacific Northwest though it's common as dirt & no great shakes.

And that's at the "high" end; some of the in-demand stuff a walk-in shop has to stock is just embarrassing rubbish but you gotta be able to say "yep, got that" when umpteen walk-ins ask for it every month. If I had my druthers, what would have sold best were the books on medieval mysticism, Victorian women writers, & PreRaphaelitism -- areas I stocked in depth & which sold okay but not as bread-&-butter, not the same way ordinary genre paperbacks & regional titles sold. Even in the area of fantastic literature, it was maddening to me that I could sell David Eddings hand-over-fist, but those great & very reasonably priced copies of James Branch Cabell just sat there & sat there. It is just a fact that old stuff, no matter how significant, will not be as well known by the general public as the latest big authors in each genre category, & it is bucking the system to expect random walk-ins & neighborhood regulars to be looking for rare old books. So though I always stocked a lot of "what I like" this did not become my most salable stock until I began to issue catalogs & began to find the far-scattered folks around the globe who shared my peculiar fascination for the fantastic in its vintage forms.

Sometimes when I'm proofing a catalog, or trying to better organize my stock, I am overwhelmed with such a grateful feeling toward a universe that has magically arranged for me to hide out among books & still make something of a living for myself. Other times I'm overwhelmed with a gloomy sense that everything I do is absurdly pointless & why do I (or anyone else) even bother.

For the most part I realize I've been darned lucky in this life because I am loved by someone dear; I am sheltered & a mite too well fed; I've buddies who care about me either in spite of or because I've a skewed soul; I don't have to be shoved around by any bosses; I am forever surrounded by books, rats, & salamanders (my pets); & whenever I get around to writing some piece of fiction or finishing a project of antiquarian interest (such as the complete weird shorts of whichever author I've fixed upon), it's usually quickly sold. Sure, I could ask for more, like a big rambling mansion & money coming out my ears, but for an abused kid from the wrong side of the tracks with too many relatives who drank themselves to death in their leaky clapboard houses, & possessing a couple working-class meaner-than-ratshit streaks of my own, it does seem I've been rewarded in this life with far more than I have merited & the Divine Shekhinah has amused herself by watching over me despite all folly.

It's my guess there's such a thing as karma &, having worked off my bad karma during the horrific first decade or two of my present existence, I'm now living off the good I did in former lives.

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Copyright 1998 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson