Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Kathy and Dan Leab

[Individual Questions Cheerfully Answered]

When I met Dan, he was working as an encyclopedia editor at Columbia University Press. When he left the Press to finish his PhD, I took on the same job for two-thirds of his salary, which seemed normal in the 1960s. In time, my specialty became rescuing beleaguered reference projects, including the Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. I was really a reference book troubleshooter: If a project had taken up several years of, say, Ford Foundation money, I would put together a group of graduate students and work with them to finish it. Thus the first bibliography I helped create was in Chinese.

Columbia University Press had acquired ABPC from Edward Lazare , who had worked on it since before World War II, in 1966. But it was not the sort of project that truly flourished in an institutional atmosphere. When the Press assigned me to it, ABPC had got very behind, and my first task was to bring the backlog of autograph and manuscript material up-to-date. I was given a month to do it, which was an absurdly short time. But I loved the material - always unique, often fascinating and sometimes funny.

I returned to my other projects at Columbia, but gradually got more involved in ABPC. I was about to have our first child, and needed work that I could take home with me so that I would not become the world's worst mother - an inevitability if I had stopped work completely. In 1971 Dan and I went to the director of Columbia University Press to ask if we could buy ABPC. I don't think they believed that we could afford it and, at the moment when we were signing the contract, the director of the Press went across the street to the bank to make sure that we had the cash. 

ABPC was close to five years behind when we took over. But we had several eager people who came with us from Columbia, and we were all very honed in on catching up as quickly as possible. But not just doing a scissors-and-paste job. All the details in auction catalogue descriptions had to be checked, and the lists of prices and buyers' names - even if it meant calling them up. Within a couple of years, we had produced four annual volumes and an Index and were up-to-date.

ABPC is now in its 106th year. It was started by Luther S. Livingston, dealer, orchid fancier, and the Widener's first librarian at Harvard. The first volume covered sales from September 1894 to August 1895 and was modelled on the English publication, Book Prices Current. The American book market was considered, from a European perspective, as very small-time - which had its advantages. If you were T.J. Wise , you might send America some of your forgeries, because collectors there might be a little dumb. A fair number of Wise forgeries went across the Ocean, as you will see if you read the Barker-Collins recension of the Carter-Pollard Enquiry.

In 1940 Edward Lazare's name appeared on the title page of ABPC, first as an editor and later also as the publisher. In 1958 Lazare decided to include British auction records. The title ABPC remained the same because serials librarians would rather cancel a serial than change its name, but the contents reflected the international aspect of the book market. Eventually, Lazare got tired and sold the book to Columbia University Press in 1966.

Since Livingston's time, copy for the printer had been prepared on 3x5 cards. Try to imagine around 35,000 cards, with cross-references clipped to them, and no back-up when they went down to the printers in Pennsylvania. We soon got sick of doing things this way and computerised in 1975. The software was designed by Inforonics, who were working on Terry Belanger's Eighteenth Century STC pilot project at the New York Public Library. Jane Douglas, now a successful lawyer in London but then part of Robin Alston’s ESTC team in London, spent several weeks in the summer of 1975 living with us, while we all computerized at our various locations. At that time, if you wanted a modem program, you wrote it; you absolutely had to know how to use a soldering iron; and there were no word processors as yet. We thought we were early, but you have to remember that Larry Buckland, the genius head of Inforonics and one of the designers of the MARC record for libraries, had computerized the American Heritage Dictionary in the 1960s.

The main part of the computer was in the basement of our brownstone in New York City. It was pretty primitive. You had to type with a special character ball, and floppy disks were the size of a dinner plate. For many years, I was the techie and Dan was the Luddite. I say that’s because I wanted to build the best possible mousetrap, and he says that he was merely anxious to keep costs down, but in truth we were just the Techie and the Luddite. And here is Daniel J. Leab, Professor of History at Seton Hall University, Managing Editor of Labor History, Treasurer of the International Association for the Study of Media History, author of several books including the brand-new I was a Communist for the FBI, just out from Penn State University Press and a great read about Matt Cvetic, who was played by Frank Lovejoy in a Cold-War movie of the same title. How does Dan Leab do all this? The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is that he does it all on quantities of Diet Coke.

One of the advantages of being a historian is that I have colleagues in a number of European centres of learning, and some of them have wives who have PhD’s and would like to work, but who don’t seem to get tenure no matter how good they are, or who suffer from outdated nepotism rules. From time to time we have employed these beautifully educated people on ABPC. We send them catalogues and price lists and they send us disks with the data checked, corrected if need be, and in our format.

As with much reference material, CD-ROM is an ideal format for ABPC. In 1994, Kathy released our first CD-ROM. It was a tremendous task, but Kathy made it work, where Book Auction Records failed and Jahrbuch der Auktionspreise had its troubles. I don't say this invidiously because BAR no longer exists, and we tried to help the guys at Jahrbuch. But our CD-ROM is elegant in a way that hasn’t been matched by anybody in the book or fine-arts fields. Every word is indexed for all the volumes from 1975 on, and the controlling intelligences have been the same for the entire period in terms of content, editing, and database management. That’s unique.

What took the longest time when we were getting ready to release the CD-ROM was going through and erasing the rude comments that we had put into the bibliography fields for years. And we certainly didn’t get them all the first time ­ some are still there, we are told.

The new technology has many advantages. For example, Kathy can correct errors in earlier years and keep up with advances in scholarship. When, for instance, Hugh Amory had something new to say about the issues of Paradise Lost, Kathy could update the records to reflect this information -- so the product is improving all the time. The CD is also very useful for dealers who do appraisals. They take their laptops loaded with ABPC along to their clients, and we know that some of them like to say, 'And here is my database'. Also you may see bidders at auction using their laptops during a sale, or librarians in the stacks checking to see if books should be moved to special collections.

As for putting ABPC online, what is the advantage? The book version still works very well for people over a certain age; it also works well in a library situation where they still make information available without charge; many people don't like computers, can't afford them, or never learnt to type. We may do it (the work has been done) for libraries on a subscription basis, but that remains to be seen.

ABPC is used both by the Internal Revenue Service and other tax authorities as it is accepted as giving fair market value. We have some rules for the material we include: we will not include anything that has been sold after the sale. We receive copies of clerks' sheets from some auction houses so that we know what has been going on. Although Kathy originally encouraged Columbia to cover sales outside the English-speaking world, we tend not to include French auctions because they don't like to tell you very much about what may not have sold.

In 1976-77 I had a Fulbright Scholarship and basically commuted back and forth from Cologne where my research was based. It gave me the chance to visit German auctioneers, such as Hauswedell, Dörling, and Felix Hartung, who was then a bright young man with wonderful girlfriends and a Pontiac Firebird. On my trips home I would stop in London and hand-deliver orders for ABPC - a tradition that Kathy and I continue to this day. At the time it got us a certain amount of attention and made it possible to sell more copies in the UK.

ABPC doesn't cover postal or online auctions - it has to be a live event or at least have a live component to meet the tests for fair market value. As yet there is no clear picture of how successful online auctions will be. For auctioneering you ultimately need to have a live component, as one of the most important factors is the psychological effect of seeing other people buy. And if something very expensive is changing hands, either the new owner or the dealer wants to be seen buying it. Right now there are no live auctions on your computer, which gives you time for better judgment.

The net is obviously good for the bottom part of the market for books. Because of the overheads involved nowadays, books sold at auction in individual lots tend to be expensive items. Cheaper items migrate to the net and, in a way, the 'tea chest' days at places like Hodgson's are coming back in online auctions. Interestingly enough, when cheaper items are sold at auction, the prices tend to be well below what is being charged on the net, perhaps signaling a return to the regional auction house as wholesale supplier for dealers.

Kathy sold a large quantity of used shopping bags on eBay to demonstrate that you could sell anything on the net if you presented it. For years I've been shoving into a closet plastic bags from my travels. One day Kathy found that there were 400 bags in the closet, some of them quite decorative, one with a Ronald Searle cartoon, and so on. She wrote them up for eBay as though she were cataloguing African masks - they have to have been danced in; shopping bags have to have been shopped in. Someone bid US$225 for our old bags.

This is not unlike what I call 'matrix' or theme sales, where you present books about the American West along with an old saddle and a whisky flask. Nowadays exploration books tend to be presented with all kinds of mittens and boots and other items. This is so that the marketing people and the new owners can make the most of the photo-op' sound bite opportunities inherent in such sales. Some years ago Kathy had a visit from a young man from the New York financial firm, Salomon Brothers. He wanted to report on prices based on an index that we would set up. Because we have a strong sense of parody, we set up the “ABPC 20”, which featured Fanny Hill, the Nuremberg Chronicle and The Wealth of Nations. He took it seriously and kept updating this really stupid index. Wall Street jumps into the book market every once-in-a-while, usually when there is something huge, like a Gutenberg Bible, for sale, or in the aftermath of a purchase like Bill Gates’s in buying the Leonardo Codex. Gates is smart, but most of the Wall Street people seem to go blind when they are buying books and manuscripts and overpay in a way that they never would for a stock or something like that. It’s a bizarre form of blindness.

In earlier times every cultivated person would have had a library. In our century it is not such a distinguishing factor. The emphases in education today are not on reading and writing; they are much more on vocational skills. In the United States, it's so expensive to go to college, and a college education has to have a pay-off - and the pay-off is that you get a job. When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, there was a prize for the student with the best library. That would simply not hold up today.

Few of Dan's colleagues know he does ABPC. But we have to do it, if only because he keeps buying books. We are probably the only people you will ever meet who keep books across the street at their neighbour’s house, as well as in the establishments that we may have at any time. Of the two of us, Dan is the one who collects. He needs to own books. I am content to visit them.

What worries me most about the book trade at the moment is that there is not much apprenticeship going on. How is the next generation going to learn the trade if everybody is too busy to teach? You have to spend some time doing things you don’t get paid for. On our website, we have an announcement, 'Individual Questions Cheerfully Answered'. Some people think we're stupid not to charge for this service - and that's what's wrong with this world. We spend a fair amount of time directing people to their local library - and many of them have never been there before. When they finally make it, they rather like it there. But somebody's got to send them. And there is a dividend for us in this free service ­ we learn a great deal about people’s knowledge and interests, and some of the inquirers become collectors.

Younger dealers (the older ones did and do this) could also try to expand their horizon in working with people who are collecting in new fields. I well remember an investment banker who called me and asked what I thought about his starting to collect bird books. Dealers had told him that they were 'a good thing'. I told him that bird books were pricey and some were very nice, though not as many as were pricey. But was he interested in birds? No, he said, black holes and parallel universes were his real interest. When I suggested that he collect Heisenberg and similar, he said in utter amazement, 'Could I ?' Nobody had told him that he could, for nobody had gone to the effort of finding out what his interests were ­ what would make him a long-time client rather than a short-term buyer. There are potential collectors out there to be developed, but we all need to give some time to developing them.

Published in the Bookdealer magazine in December 2000

A Poland & Steery Co-production