Image above: Antje Papenburg-Frey, Stephen Foster, Jonathan Kearns
ILAB YABS scholarship report
By Antje Papenburg-Frey
As an author who sells mainly ebooks, I live in a fast-evolving industry where writers can barely keep up with content. The online bookstore algorithms demand ever faster releases to be dropped into a growing ocean of books. Paperbacks can be produced by pressing the print-on-demand-button. It's no surprise that authors turn to AI tools to help them from drowning.
I love writing new stories, but I became more and more interested in already existing books. Books with a value beyond the story, maybe because they have stories of their own to tell. Books that are truly unique and rare, that have a role to play in history.
I decided I wanted to find and sell these books, too.
But who were those rare books sellers, and could I really become one of them?
I imagined knowledgeable curmudgeons with eons of experience, who would probably look down their distinguished noses at a mother of two young children, a writer of paranormal mysteries, to boot, embarking on a second career. Yes, I was more than a little intimidated by the rare book world of Germany and Switzerland. There weren't even any antiquarian bookshops near me where I could have gained practical experience, would I have dared to go in and ask the formidable owner for a job.
So instead of learning by doing, I tried learning by reading. I was well within my comfort zone. I would have loved to do a degree in rare books, but I already have a BA in English and American Literature and an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Going back to university for a full new degree wasn't really an option for me, even though a course on the History of the Book by Trinity College Dublin certainly whet my appetite.
I bought and sold a few books, and it soon became apparent that I had to leave the cosy bubble of autodidactic learning and gain knowledge about the nuts and bolts of the rare books business. The only place that seemed to offer what I was looking for was Rare Book School in the USA—too far away for me. I heard about CAPS, and then I saw that something similar was being offered in my former home country of England, in York.
When I read about the topics covered in the 2023 seminar, I got very excited. YABS promised to answer all my questions. Where do I find my stock? How do I catalogue books? How do I price them? How do I even make a profit? Who can I sell my books to?
On top of that, I would also learn about bindings, art, and so much more.
I found out about the numerous scholarship opportunities and applied for the ILAB scholarship. I couldn't believe it when I received the letter of acceptance. It dawned on me that I might have bought into stereotypes of gatekeepers of the rare book world that weren't really true.
It felt a little serendipitous, too. YABS was exactly what it was looking for, and it was in England, my second home. I was on the right path. I felt and still feel incredibly grateful to ILAB giving me this opportunity.
I'm happy to report that my expectations weren't too high.
I gained the sort of practical knowledge that I was looking for and broadened my horizon about rare books in general. But by far the most valuable aspect of YABS was to truly connect with the teachers and experts, as well as with other new and more experienced booksellers attending the seminar—who, by the way, were from all walks of life, and diverse in terms of age, gender, and nationality.
I was bowled over by how open everybody was, how generous with their knowledge and time, and how patient and encouraging. I found out that rare book dealers aren't intimidating at all, but the most collegial and welcoming people you'd ever meet. They were more than happy to invite new bibliophiles into their fold.
From Amanda Halls (awe)-inspiring keynote speech to Jonathan Kearns ruminations about what makes the soul of a rare bookseller sing … I connected with the passion these industry-experts have for what they do.
I feel tethered to that while I keep stepping out of my comfort zone. YABS convinced me that learning by doing will be the only way forward for me.