First Efforts: Yet More Mistakes

My first catalogue had only forty items in it, but was still two years in the making. Most of that time was used gathering the material. But a sizable portion, perhaps six months, was spent in the writing, research, and design of the catalogue itself. First catalogues are intimidating things, as you are introducing yourself to the bookselling world: your fellow dealers, serious collectors, institutions and librarians. All the more intimidating is that you are doing this in something that announces that it’s your first effort, thereby – to my mind at least – inviting even closer scrutiny. So you truly want to present the best image of yourself that you can.

My debut had one key item that for me was the catalogue’s jewel: a letter from William S. Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg, together with an original typescript of an essay by Burroughs. It was to be easily the rarest, most important, and most expensive item in the catalogue (let’s ignore for the moment that I grossly over-priced the item, a mistake of another kind and for another time). It would not be too much to say that, for me, the Burroughs piece was the catalogue’s raison d’être.

I spent weeks researching, and days writing the catalogue description. When it was done, the copy ran four columns over two pages, more than 1200 words. I not only described the piece and explained its rarity, but sought to put it into the wider context of both Burroughs’ career and the Beat movement at large. (The complete description can be read here.) I worked hard on the entire catalogue, but I toiled on that description.

When the catalogue was finished, I had my wife proofread it (I’m a terrible speller and often miss typos). I also sent to several friends in the book trade. Soon, the catalogue was off to the printer.

I was thrilled when the finished product arrived. It was not a lavish production by any means. It was entirely back-and-white. I’d designed it myself. The cover wasn’t even of a heavier stock than the rest of the pages. But I was proud of how it came out. It had a rough edge to it, not unlike much of the mimeo material described inside.

That evening, my wife, daughter, and I spread the catalogues out on our living room and made a mailing assembly line. I stuffed and sealed the envelopes, my wife addressed them, and my daughter put on the postage. It was exhilarating watching the manila envelopes pile up, about to make their way into the world.

Soon we took a break. I flopped onto the couch and flipped through the catalogue, admiring it. When I came to the Burroughs item I reread the description, still pleased with how it came out. Then I reached the final paragraph. The “sell.” It was intended to describe the rarity of important primary Burroughs material. It read:

Burroughs manuscript and typescript examples have long been uncommon in the marketplace. And with Burroughs’ archives now at the New York Public Library (and Arizona), increasingly scarce.

I read it again. I stared at it in disbelief. I groaned. Here’s what it should have read, emphasis mine:

Burroughs manuscript and typescript examples have long been uncommon in the marketplace. And with Burroughs’ archives now at the New York Public Library (and Ohio), increasingly scarce.

Arizona??? What? I felt dizzy. As soon as I read it I knew it was wrong, so I couldn’t fathom how it ever got in there in the first place. I tried to remain calm. I told myself I could probably count on my hands and toes the number of people who would even notice the error. But unfortunately these were the same dozen or so most likely to buy it.

I scrambled to think of a solution. Errata slip? Paste-in? Hand correct? None of them seemed acceptable. I wanted my first catalogue to be perfect. I could think of only one acceptable resolution: reprint. The only problem was I couldn’t afford another entire run. It would simply cost too much. I felt sick.

That night I barely slept.

But by the next morning, I’d struck upon a kind of solution. I would print as many corrected copies as I could. These would go to those on my mailing list upon whom I couldn’t afford to make a bad first impression. The remaining copies would go to dealers, friends, colleagues, and customers who either would be unlikely to notice the mistake, or who I could count on to be understanding and sympathetic if they did. It was not ideal, but no available solution was.

The catalogue was ultimately a success. I received lots of positive feedback, none of it pointing out my error (though of course that doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed). But if you’re reading this and have my first catalogue, might want to check to see if you have the “first state” or not. And if you do, please accept my apologies for feeling like you didn’t warrant a “corrected edition.”

Postscript: I’ve since gotten several catalogues with errata slips. Should a similar situation arise again, an errata is undoubtedly how I will handle it.