How I Wrote My Catalog

Books and catalogues

WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO WRITE A CATALOG? There is no profit! There is no instant gratification and the time and money spent can never be recovered. Egotism? I think not. My reason is basic: sharing what I have learned with other collectors. There are other factors, such as the chase for elusive material, collating available sources, and searching in the archives. What motivates an individual to write a philatelic catalog? Since this was my second catalog I can only relate my own reasons. 

The literature to support revenue collecting has been wanting. Only in the past several years have individual country catalogs been appearing. I can think of several countries in which nothing has been cataloged in over 85 years; to name only a few: Iran, Honduras, Panama, Uruguay, Venezuela. Perhaps these are not the hottest countries to collect. Only recently has some of the revenue literature been updated. Many areas have not been touched since Forbin’s Catalogue de Timbres Fiscaux was published in 1915.

Many countries have been formed and disappeared since 1915. While there has been a dramatic increase in literature for revenue collectors written in the last few years, large gaps still remain. Even where revenue catalogs exist most have not covered several aspects of a country’s revenues; e.g., tobacco, wine, municipals, and, especially lacking, the imprinted revenues. If a country came into being since 1915, chances are that little has been written about the revenues and revenue catalogs probably do not exist. Several catalogs currently in preparation include: Argentina, Colombia, Indonesia, Japanese Occupation issues, Italian Municipal revenues, Iran, and Panama. It is my desire to write catalogs where none exists. Hopefully they will provide some knowledge with which others may follow and improve upon.

Sample page from Joe Ross’ Costa Rica revenue stamp catalog.

I traveled extensively for a large company. In order to increase our productivity, the company, in 1987 introduced lap top computers that at that time weighed in at 65 pounds and fit like a suitcase in the trunk of a car. In the evenings, after my office work was completed, I began to learn about cataloging. Basically I produced a sequential listing of my own specialized material and used floppy diskettes to record the printed word. At this time I was developing a listing of the Feed Tax Indicia on feed tags from the state of California (still in preparation). The printer was a tractor feed and printed 45 lines per minute (I was amazed at its speed for an ink jet printer). In order for me to provide pictures between the text I left blank space and went to the local print shop and used their copy machine to insert photocopies of the stamps.
I tried photos but I was not a photographer and having someone do it for me was prohibitively expensive. My first catalog was a black and white with black and white scans to match. The text and graphics were done by a computer operator at the copy shop. It was a laborious task for the both of us, I teaching him about stamp catalogs and he teaching me about computers and their various peripherals. At best it was a kludge, which I did not care to repeat.

At about the same time I began to expand my collection of the revenue stamps of Iraq. I even exhibited them at several local shows. It was shortly after one of these shows that I announced I would write a catalog on the revenues of Iraq. John Powell from Canada wrote a letter to me and offered to assist. He had shown his Iraq revenue collection in Turkey at the international level. This is where the work began. I told him of my handwritten draft that I would turn into a typed manuscript within a couple of weeks. Six weeks later I mailed to him the first draft with black and white copies of the various revenues copied above the text. He photocopied his collection and several other persons’ holdings. Meanwhile, I obtained new acquisitions through various auction houses. The hunt was on, not only for unlisted items, but items to fill in the gaps. By this time the Gulf War was a fait accompli and the Iraqi contacts were no longer able to help. Powell and I pored over the Bradbury, Wilkinson archival material, much of which had been recorded by Robeson Lowe. We searched out various revenue auctions that had listed Iraq revenue material. We contacted many known collectors of this material and scoured all related revenue literature. Basically we collected, searched, researched, and recorded what we had learned which is very basic but what one must.

Trial and error, it was at this point that I made the mistake of having someone photograph various stamps with the intention of somehow putting them into text this is what I refer to as the auction approach. Glue, black paper and text all supposed to fit together. It didn’t look right. Trash file. At this point I decided to be deliberate about what my catalog should look like. I took a look at my library, what did I like about what was available to me. I realized that my preference was for 8 ½ by 11-inch page size. I also like the pages to lay flat when the catalog is open. No coffee cups holding down one side and an album the other side. This was my first decision. I also considered text formatting. My first catalog had been multiple columns (44M’s) with the eye following the text very nicely. This was not what I wanted for a catalog with color scans. I opted for a single column with wide open spaces where one could write notes, etc. Onward with text and color copies inserted at the copy shop.

One of my ideas for the catalog was to have the stamps reproduced in color. Initially I thought that I could insert actual stamps on the pages of text and then have color copies made. Sounds simple but somewhat costly around 95 cents per page. In addition copy shops, for whatever reason began refusing to print color copies of stamps. I was at an impasse. In October 1997 I decided that I would have to either learn how to make color scans and print color copies or give up one of my key objectives.

Sample page from Joe Ross’ Uruguay revenue stamp catalog.

Equipment up until this point had been prohibitively expensive especially to a computer novice. This was just when Hewlett Packard released its three-in one Office Jet Pro. Scans and prints in color and has the added feature of being a color copier. Oh yes you need the computer and software to go along with this tool. It was a modest investment but one that I would never recoup its cost. I also am thrilled with its versatility. I bought the whole smear, computer, 17-inch screen monitor and the scanner/printer/ color copier. I almost forgot, I didn’t know the foggiest about how I was going to use the scanner/printer but I did know I would not have to argue anymore with store managers about color copying stamps.

Trial and error. Several reams of paper later I could insert color scans into text. Oops, I lost twelve scans one evening. You can only put so many in a file. Oh yes, I was saving onto floppy discs, which would only take five or six color scans. I think it was about midway in creating the catalog that something began to go wrong with my computer. It would no longer access the Internet or the phone system and kept giving me error messages that I did not understand but they struck terror into me. Racing down to the nearest computer store “backup” kept flashing before my eyes.

The computer salesman agreed that I could use any type of external backup system. I chose a ZIP drive and went home to install. That’s another story of trial and error like whoops did I save or did I lose all my data. Short story, data saved, computer motherboard died. Got it replaced six weeks later. Reinstall all programs and ZIP drive and “the data was not lost” I did not lose six months of keypunching and scanning. The project could begin once again to move forward.

Binding. With thirty or forty pages of colorized draft I wanted to bind it and ship copies off to several people and enlist their help. It turns out that I was forced to purchase my own binding equipment. It started with a simple request at the copy shop: “Please comb bind this draft manuscript.” One of the clerks, in an attempt to do the comb binding, insisted that a three-hole punch was in order. Before I could get her to stop there were 25 color copies each punched with three holes, I managed to wrestle the rest of the pile away from her intent grasp. By this time I was mildly agitated and probably shouted at her. It was at this point that they requested me to leave the store.

Paper, what weight, what coating, what whiteness etc. with experimenting, I learned what I preferred, to include the thickness (32-lb) necessary to resist bleed through of colors and light enough to carry around. There are several crucial elements that must be considered. Ink, the higher the resolution (dpi) of the color scan the more ink and the longer it takes to print a page. The more ink you use the higher your costs, basic enough, time and materials.

At this point I began to do a cost analysis of the product I would use and determine a fair market price for the catalog. My material costs, how much would the collector pay, what was the cost of comparable catalogs and would I need to charge in order that book retailers would get their 40% discount while still paying for production costs.

Next came marketing. How many would buy? Who would be willing to sell your catalog? Whom should I contact? Minimum order size for discount. How many will you sell in a very small market so how many should be printed. One pitfall to avoid is sending catalogs expecting a check by return mail. NO, no, no! Check first, then delivery of merchandise. I opted for what is known as print on demand. I printed several copies when I had orders. My basic print run was 10 copies.

Advertise, as inexpensively as possible in specialty journals, carrying copies to local and regional shows, contacting dealers that specialized in revenues. Selling to known philatelic libraries. Oh yes, what should the advertisement look like? I used my cover with the name, address, and cost.

There is one area that I have not really resolved in my mind: ISBN―why does one need this number? It costs a couple of hundred dollars and does not provide the publisher with any remuneration. This expense I eliminated. Copyright―this is another area that my approach was―sure go ahead and make copies, find out that black and white doesn’t really look very good and copies in color will cost more than if you bought the catalog from me. It must be remembered that this is a very limited edition catalog for a very specialized market. I deliberately did not send copies to philatelic institutions for review where I suspected that bootleg copies would be made.

Test of willpower, one of several dealers that I know wanted a free advance copy and he said that it would lead to a potential of 20 or so copies from his customers at a later date. I kept to my rule of check first. He was also offended that I wouldn’t print up an advertising brochure for his stamp shop and include his advertising in my catalog for free. Several letters later he offered to pay for one copy, gladly sent but the 20 potential sales disappeared. I also had a verbal order for twenty copies from another overseas dealer. He did not respond to my request for funds. Several months later, at a show, he maintained that he never received my request and reluctantly paid cash for five copies and only then because I pointed out that he wouldn’t have to pay shipping. Somewhere I had learned that if you can’t ask for money you shouldn’t be in business and that applies to catalog writers as well. In ten months more than 150 catalogs have been sold. This is very close to my original estimate of 150 to 200.

So what did I get out of writing this catalog? A great deal and so much that I am currently in the process of writing my third on The Revenue Stamps of Panama. Anyone care to help?

The author, Joe Ross can be contacted at 8036 Rio Linda Blvd., Elverta, CA 95626.

(Published in: The Philatelic Communicator, A.P.S Writers unit 30, Second Quarter 1999, Volume 33, No. 2, Whole No. 124.) 


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