I am a rare-book dealer, but unlike my many colleagues I never advertise. In the few cases in which I have given in to the blandishments of someone selling space in a trade journal or newspaper – I feel sorry for them! - nothing has come of it. A nice little boxed advert in the Times Literary Supplement, the Jewish Chronicle, or one of the toney magazines? I've tried them all, without the slightest result other than a diminution in my bank balance. My colleagues seem to keep doing it, so perhaps they know something I don't, or perhaps they are just more optimistic than I am.
No, what you need, I'm told, is not self-promotion, but other-promotion. There is some truth in this. A short piece about my business in the Financial Times, many years ago, yielded an inquiry from a successful businessman who not only became a good customer but an even better friend. After all, a piece about you is more likely to be seen as disinterested – ungrasping, untainted by commerce – than any form of self-promotion, however restrained and elegant. So every now and again, if I get something in stock that is unusual and perhaps even newsworthy, I may try to get it into one of the papers. This isn't particularly difficult – newspapers are omnivores and incessantly in need of interesting copy. But I am beginning to wonder if this works very well either.
Two examples happened recently, when the arts journalist Dalya Alberge rang to ask me if I had anything "interesting". I had to think a bit, because a dealer gets so used to his stock, so inured to it, that it is difficult to see it with a fresh eye. So I invited her round to look at a couple of bits and pieces. And they struck her eye, forcibly.
First, she did a piece in the Observer about a small Ted Hughes ceramic sculpture of a jaguar, probably done in 1966, that I was trying to find a home for. Her article was accompanied by a full-sized picture of the black jaguar – very striking – and some quotes about it from Olwyn Hughes (Ted's sister), Jonathan Bate (who is writing a new biography of Ted Hughes), and me (keen to sell it). The article concluded by saying I had been asked to sell the piece by the Hughes family, as it is owned by Ted's elder brother Gerald, who is about to publish a memoir of their childhood in Yorkshire. Doubly desirable, then, to a potential buyer? An excellent object, and a chance to help a member of the late poet laureate's family?
The second item that struck Dalya as newsworthy, and which was also to feature in the Observer, was an original studio photograph of the perpetrators of the Dreadnought hoax in 1911, an event that, speculates Hermione Lee, might be regarded as the initiating moment of the Bloomsbury movement. Organised by that master prankster Horace de Vere Cole, a group of four, which included Virginia Woolf and Duncan Grant, blackened their faces, dressed up in beards and mock-authentic Arabian robes, and with the happy permission of the Foreign Office were officially greeted as "Abyssinian princes" on HMS Dreadnought, the pride of the naval fleet. In a letter that accompanied the photo, Cole described how howlingly funny the affair was, and how precarious. The boarding party had to decline tea – claiming it was a fasting day – for fear that their beards would come loose.
Both of Dalya's pieces were read by a large number of Observer readers, but also went viral on the internet, attracting an even larger audience. But how many of those readers were possible buyers? I had purposely left the prices out of the information so that anyone whose interest was piqued could get in touch to ask: "How much?"
How many people did so? The answer is each case was one – a hit-rate lower, I am informed, than if I had done a random email shot. Neither of them made the purchase.
Disappointing, but I'm told it is still a useful process, if only because it keeps my business in the eye line. Or does it? I'm by no means sure. A form of branding? Nah. If anything gets remembered from such articles it is surely the object and not its purveyor. Yet, every time something of ours gets in the papers, I feel hopeful that we can flush out a potential buyer. My colleague Peter Grogan, often more realistic than I am, is always happy to make a bet that the publicised item won't sell. He has taken his wife out for many dinners – well, OK, breakfasts – on the proceeds of his winnings.
It gets worse. Not only do articles extolling the excellence of your stock fail to attract buyers, they can also locate antagonists. In 1997, the journalist Jim McCue did a piece in the Times about some Philip Larkin letters I had offered for sale which were written to his friend and editor, the former managing director of Faber&Faber, Charles Monteith. Monteith was one of the great publishing figures of his time – editor also of Hughes, Beckett, Heaney and William Golding – an amiable man of considerable acuity and probity, with a wicked sense of humour and endless supply of anecdotes. He was a perfect companion for lunch at the Ivy.
The Larkin letters and postcards were written to Monteith at his home address in Little Venice, and, though short of content, were always pithy and iconoclastic, entirely characteristic of Larkin at his jauntiest. I bought them from Monteith, and he signed a letter saying that they were "his property and not that of Faber&Faber," and sold them to a collector in Philadelphia. Some years later I bought them back, and enlisted McCue's help in trying to find a buyer.
At 10 in the morning of the day the Times piece came out, I received a call from Toby Faber, scion of the family and at that time a senior employee of the publishers. He was most interested, he said, in these letters. Could he come round to have a look?
"I'll put the coffee on," I said.
Half an hour later he was in my office, reading through the letters, drinking his coffee. I may even have added a croissant.
"Thank you so very much," he said, "they are very interesting." Then he shook my hand and took his leave.
Three hours later an injunction from the high court was served to me in my office, restraining me from selling the letters, and asserting that they were the property of the publishers. (How such an injunction can be obtained so quickly is a mystery to me.)
I got on the phone to Faber, to inquire why he didn't simply tell me we had a problem.
"We were afraid that you would sell the letters and that we could not recover them," he said. "We are anxious to preserve the integrity of our archive."
According to Faber, as the letters were addressed to their employee, the firm rightly owned them. I maintained, as Monteith had, that they were personal letters, bearing on friendship and not business. Many months of litigation ensued, in which I broke two cardinal precepts. First, never engage in a lawsuit with someone (much) richer than you are. Second, if you are foolish enough to do so, make sure the figures add up. Because within a few months I had spent as much – with lots more to come – on legal fees than the letters were worth. I asked counsel from a worldly and rich friend, himself no stranger to the judicial system.
"You're an idiot, he said, "you're letting your ego get in the way."
I was, and continued to do so. It is, when in full flight, not an imperceptible object. Of course, in time, I would have backed down, but I had a firm sense of the rightness – the righteousness, even – of my position, and felt obscurely that I was also defending the judgment of my late friend Monteith.
One of us had to give it up – no sense spending £100,000 to decide the fate of less than £10,000 worth of letters – and it was Faber that initiated a settlement.
We eventually reached an amicable-ish one, but it had been a grindingly unpleasant experience, leavened only by the fact that it would eventually be a good source of anecdotes. I learned almost nothing from it, except, perhaps, that you are as likely to suffer as to profit when your name comes up in the press.
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