Paging through history – An introduction to book collecting

By Karen Knapstein

With in excess of 100 million books in existence, there are plenty of opportunities and avenues for bibliophiles to feed their enthusiasm and build a satisfying collection of noteworthy tomes without taking out a second mortgage or sacrificing their children’s college funds. With so many to choose from, the true challenge is limiting a collection to a manageable size and scale, adding only volumes that meet the requirements of bringing the collector pleasure and holding their values.

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Basil of Caesarea (330-379) Opera Omnia. Paris: Cramoisy, 1638.
Three folio volumes, all title pages printed in red and black, engraved frontispiece of Basil facing the title in volume one, text printed in parallel columns of Greek and Latin throughout, bound in uniform contemporary calf, decorated in blind with roll tools, spines with gilt lettering and tooling. $390. Photo courtesy Skinner, Inc., www.skinnerinc.com.

What collectors are really searching for when they refer to “first editions” are the first printings of first editions. Every book has a first edition, each of which is special in its own right. As Matthew Budman points out in “Collecting Books” (House of Collectibles, 2004): “A first represents the launching of a work into the world, with or without fanfare, to have a great impact, or no impact, immediately or decades later. … Holding a first edition puts you directly in contact with that moment of impact.”

Devon Gray, director of Fine Books and Manuscripts at Skinner, Inc., explains the fascination with collectible books. “Collectors are always interested in landmarks of human thought and culture, and important moments in the history of printing.”

What makes a first edition special enough to be considered collectible is rarity and demand; the number of people who want a book has to be greater than the number of books available. So, even if there are relatively few in existence, there has to be a demand for any particular first edition to be monetarily valuable.

Author Richard Russell has been collecting and selling books since 1973; in his book, “Antique Trader Book Collector’s Price Guide,” he explains that innovative (or perhaps even unpopular) books that are initially released in small printings “will eventually become some of the most sought after and expensive books in the collector’s market.” He gives as an example John Grisham’s “A Time To Kill,” (Wynwood Press, 1989), which had an initial print run of just 5,000 hardcover copies. The author bought 1,000 himself at wholesale with the plan to sell at retail and turn a bit of profit. When Grisham couldn’t sell them at $10 apiece, he was giving them away out of his law office.1 The book is valued at about $4,000 today.

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Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), “A Farewell to Arms.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929. First trade edition, first printing, without the legal disclaimer on page [x], publisher’s black cloth with gold paper labels, in the first issue dust jacket, with “Katharine Barclay” uncorrected on the front flap. Cloth intact, corners slightly soft, dust jacket faded and somewhat darkened, with a 2-in. piece missing from the dust jacket, at the foot of the spine. $1,200. Photo courtesy Skinner, Inc., www.skinnerinc.com.

Learning how to recognize first editions is a key to protecting yourself as a collector; a book collector can’t take it for granted that the person you are buying from (especially if they are not a professional bookseller) has identified the book properly. Entire volumes have been written on identifying first editions; different publishing houses use different means of identification, many utilizing differing methods and codes. However, according to the “Antique Trader Book Collector’s Price Guide,” there are several details that will identify a first edition:

  • The date on the title page matches the copyright date with no other printings listed on the copyright page (verso)
  • “First Edition,” “First Printing,” “First Issue” or something similar is listed on the copyright page


This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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  • A publisher’s seal or logo (colophon) is printed on the title page, copyright page or at the end of the text block
  • The printer’s code on the copyright page shows a “1” or an “A” at one end or the other (example: “9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1” would indicate first edition; “9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2” would indicate second edition).

As is the case with so many collectibles, condition is paramount. If a book was published with a dust jacket, it must be present and in great condition to assess the book’s maximum value. Gray uses an example to illustrate the importance of condition: “A book with a very large value basically has further to fall before it loses it all.

“A great example is the first edition of the printed account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition. In bad condition its value is in the four-figure range; in better condition, it gets up to five figures; and in excellent condition, six figures.”

She continues, “Another example: The 1920 first American edition of T.S. Eliot’s Poems sells for around $300 in poor condition, with no dust jacket; and $1,200 to $1,500 in good condition, in a good dust jacket; the copy that Eliot gave to Virginia Woolf sold for 90,000 British Pounds [approx. $136,000]; all the same edition.”

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Zane Grey, group of four first edition books, various publishers. Sold for $325 at Heritage Auction Galleries Feb. 28, 2013.
Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries

Signatures enhance book values because it often places the book into the author’s hands. Cut signatures add slightly to a book’s value because the author didn’t actually sign the book – they may have never even held the book with the added cut signature. When the book itself is signed, even if with a brief inscription, it holds a slightly higher value. If the author is known for making regular appearances and accommodating all signature requests, the signature adds little to the value of the book because the supply for signed examples is plentiful.

Gray explains, “Real value potential comes into play with association material. For example, a famous novelist’s Nobel-winning story is based on a tumultuous affair he had with a famous starlet under his heiress-wife’s nose, and you have the copy he presented to his wife, with her ‘notes.’”

Even a title that has been labeled as “great,” “important” or “essential” doesn’t mean a particular edition — even a first edition — is collectible or monetarily valuable. After all, if a much-anticipated book is released with an initial print run of 350,000, chances are there will be hundreds of thousands of “firsts” to choose from – even decades after publication. Supply far outweighs demand, diminishing value.

The overly abundant supply of book club editions (which can be reprinted indefinitely) is just one of the reasons they’re not valued by collectors. Some vintage book club editions were also made from inferior materials, such as high-acid paper using lower quality manufacturing processes.

Determining if a book is a book club edition is easier than determining if it is a first edition. Some of the giveaways that Matthew Budman lists in “Collecting Books:” include:

  • No price on dust jacket
  • Blind stamp on back cover (small impression on the back board under the dust jacket); can be as small as a pinprick hole
  • “Book Club Edition” (or similar notation) on dust jacket
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W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), “Cakes and Ale,” London: William Heinemann Ltd., [1930], chipped dust jacket, sold for $390 at Skinner, Inc. Nov. 18, 2012. Photo courtesy Skinner, Inc., www.skinnerinc.com.

  • Books published by the Literary Guild after World War II are smaller format, thinner and printed on cheap paper.

Fledgling book collectors should also be aware of companies that built a burgeoning business of publishing a copious number of “classic” and best-seller reprints; just a few of the long list are Grosset & Dunlap, Reader’s Digest, Modern Library, A.L. Burt, Collier, Tower and Triangle. Many of these companies’ editions are valued only as reading copies, not as collectibles worthy of investment.

Proper care should be implemented early on when building a collection to assure the books retain their condition and value. Books should be stored upright on shelves in climate-controlled environment out of direct (or even bright indirect) sunlight. Too much humidity will warp covers; high temperatures will break down glues. Arrange them so similar-sized books are side-by-side for maximum support, and use bookends so the books don’t lean, which will eventually cause the spines to shift and cause permanent damage.

A bookplate usually will reduce a book’s value, so keep that in mind when you’re thinking of adding a book with bookplate to your collection, and avoid adding bookplates to your own volumes. Also, don’t pack your volumes with high-acid paper such as newspaper clippings, and always be careful when placing or removing them from the shelf so you don’t tear the spine.

Building a book collection — or any collection, for that matter — on a budget involves knowing more about the subject than the seller. Learning everything possible about proper identification of coveted books and significant authors involves diligence and dedication, but the reward is maximum enjoyment of collecting at any level.

1John Grisham’s Favorite Mistake: Giving Away First Editions, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/04/01/john-grisham-s-favorite-mistake-giving-away-first-editions.html

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