Modern First Editions
November 25, 2002 1:25 AM   Subscribe

If You Were Rich Would You Collect Modern First Editions? Well, it's difficult to browse Christie's upcoming auction of 20th century books and manuscripts; the stock of a well-known bookseller such as Ken Lopez or even go "bargain-hunting" at Amazon without understanding their appeal... [More inside.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (21 comments total)
Traditionally, bibliophiles and book collectors aren't big readers and these, in turn, have little regard or money for glorified editions (much less the all-important condition of dustjackets) of what is essentially the same text you can buy much, much cheaper.

But the current craze for modern first editions seems to be changing all that, as very recent first editions (such as the Harry Potter books) begin to fetch amazing prices. This means, if you're astute, you can actually buy, for cost price, a first edition of your favourite contemporary authors (preferably before they become famous), cross your fingers and sit back and wait for them to become valuable.

Add E-Bay , abebooks, alibris and other online booksellers to the equation and the case could be made that serious book-collecting is now open to all and sundry.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:26 AM on November 25, 2002

Dammit, I forgot Sotheby's, important, of course, because of their close association with E-Bay.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:32 AM on November 25, 2002

If it's open to all and sundry, is it still worth collecting? I'm frankly baffled by whatever instinct it is that makes people collect things, but I wonder if exclusivity isn't a big part of it.

Nice observation that people who care about writing and people who care about books as objects are two distinct groups.
posted by fuzz at 5:36 AM on November 25, 2002

Fuzz, it's about the allure of prestige. If the number of published copies of a work are equal to X+Y+Z, yet only X+Y are first editions, there will be less available copies for anyone who wanted to be the "first kid on the block" to own their favored work. Since X in this case can represent the number of first-run copies which will later become lost, damaged, or horded to the point where they'll never be available to the public, the bragging rights over a copy from the Y quotient are increased.

This has been well documented within the comic book industry, as well as certain stamp-collecting circles.

It should also be noted that uncorrected proofs of bestsellers will occasionally gain more cachet than a first edition. Such galleys may include presskits, while others may have been "rebranded editions" which were only publically available under a different branch of the same publisher.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:57 AM on November 25, 2002

I forgot to mention the cruellest irony of collecting; nearly everyone who desires a "rare" edition is going by preceived redeemable value of the object in question. This is almost always based upon the overall dealer value of said item.

Unctuous collectors will fail to understand that redeemable value is inequal to dealer value, since the dealer includes a markup precentage to cover overhead.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:05 AM on November 25, 2002

"WHEN a man has more money than he needs for his daily wants he either saves it like a miser, dissipates it as a spendthrift, or becomes a collector and lover of beautiful objects that are not necessities but which nevertheless afford him great amusement and interest in life." - This is an interesting expose of book collecting & collectors in early 1920s.

First editions have long been sought after by book collectors. We are told they are more likely to be men of means who "occasionally" enjoy reading the books they acquire ("Great book collectors, as a rule, are not great readers, but the reading of books dealing with particular lines of study is often the prelude to this hobby, because all expert knowledge must start by knowing what has been already written upon any particular subject." - above link) .

Unlike the old days , book collection is now available to wealthy amateurs who can seek professional advice before making their "investment" with some degree of confidence that their acquisition will not sit "on his shelf a useless incumbrance".
posted by taratan at 6:06 AM on November 25, 2002

There were actually even fewer copies of The Philosopher Stone than the article claims, Miguel. I thought it was 300. Simon Finch says 350.

That said, trying to make money by speculating on modern firsts--also called hypermoderns--is like trying to get rich by speculating on comic books. It can be done, but you're better off in the stock market if you just want a good return on your investment. True collectors, do it for the love, baby, and the finest collections frequently document some facet of material book history, as well as being beautiful or rare. (Btw, if you're new to it all, the ABAA's Collector's corner is a good place to start.)
posted by octobersurprise at 6:09 AM on November 25, 2002

I've not heard of bibliophiles who aren't avid readers. Indeed, that seems most odd - like a blind person collecting paintings.

That said, I have to agree with october: Collecting books is about the love of the printed word, not the desire for a return on investment.

At an estate sale recently, I came across a first printing of the official guidebook/souvenier for Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Though quite old, it's not in the best of shape. What's more, thousands upon thousands of them were printed. So the value isn't that great. Nonetheless, if I wanted to, I could probably fetch a few hundred dollars for it (were I fortunate). But to someone with a fondness for books, and for Chicago, it's value is inestimable.

Oh, and lest I forget, David Lovibond recently wrote an article about consuming passion for books in The Spectator.
posted by aladfar at 6:26 AM on November 25, 2002

When it comes to books, unlike many other things, I prefer to set my own value to a given volume, rather than letting the marketplace do it for me. Therefore, I collect books that meet MY criteria, rendering my collection priceless to me but of marginal value to anyone else.
posted by rushmc at 6:34 AM on November 25, 2002

The appeal of original prints/editions have always eluded me. It's the data, not the storage medium that appeals to me.

Original art, now that's another story! If I were rich I'd be snapping up original George Herriman Krazy Kats and Windsor McKay Little Nemos.
posted by Scoo at 6:39 AM on November 25, 2002

A couple years ago, for my birthday, my wife found a first edition of Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat from 1889, which first belonged to Dora Stephens, who wrote her name in delicate spidery cursive on the fly leaf. TMiaB was the inspiration for one of my all-time favorite books, Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog (and, now that I've read it, Three Men in a Boat is a great book itself). I was astounded at how excited I was to get this book. I'm not a collector of things, and I think it was the first time I've actually felt the feeling that makes people collect things.

My collecton has since doubled in size, now including also a first edition of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (along with a program and cast list from the first performance). R&G has special meaning for my wife and I, since it was the subject of our first conversation ever.

In both cases, though, I don't care at all what the exchange value of these things is. My pleasure in having them comes partly from their value to me personally as works of art, and partly from some kind of feeling of being connected to the specific circumstances in which they were first produced. Dora Stephens had no idea, 112 years ago, that Mr. Jerome's new book would take on this twisting life, influencing a science-fiction author to write something that influenced me. I wonder what her life was like. Was she rich? Poor? Stolidly middle-class and utterly tasteless? Did she like the story? Did she live through the War twenty five years later? All I have is a name and a year.

Anyway, I'd like to stand up for those of us who are readers, and would be collectors if we had the means. We do exist. :-)
posted by rusty at 9:19 AM on November 25, 2002

Traditionally, bibliophiles and book collectors aren't big readers - MiguelCardoso

I have to disagree with you there. Every book collector I know, including myself, collects books for their own collections. For instance, I adore Don Quixote by Cervantes. I have editions of it in it's original Spanish, the first English edition ever printed...with hand engraved woodcut illustrations throughout all 4 volumes, 3 different paperback English translations...and a few ancient copies that friends have given me over the years when they've run across old editions. Now, granted, we're talking about a book written in Spanish, English editions can differ due to translation, and therefore, each edition is unique...making collecting multiple editions of the same book a tiny bit less weird... I recognize that having an entire shelf of the same book might seem a bit eclectic to the average non-collector.

I have multiple copies of many of the books that were not written in my native lounge, because of the translation issues. But, the point is, I collect books to read them, not because they have a salable value.
posted by dejah420 at 11:08 AM on November 25, 2002

lounge = tongue

doh. ;)
posted by dejah420 at 11:11 AM on November 25, 2002

I'm one of the ones who collect in order to read, rather than to possess. My library is eclectic, its only specializations being in a few particular authors and subjects and in children's books. Any edition will do, but I do have a couple of first or second editions and it's so neat to see the original illustrations and breathe in that nice musky old book scent. If I can get the book more cheaply in another edition, I will, but now and then I can't and will pay the extra just to get my hands on a copy.

The idea of owning things just for the sake of owning them seems an empty pleasure to me, but hey, if it weren't for collectors, who would drive up the value of things? It falls into the category of things I won't do but am very glad other people will do. If I did come to the point of deciding to sell my first editions there'd be market value and buyers, thanks to these collectors.
posted by orange swan at 11:28 AM on November 25, 2002

I'd also like to chime in as somebody who is an avid reader who also collects books. I can't afford to spend much more then 50 - 100 bucks on a book, and only collect items by a few authors -- William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and occasionally Raymond Carver. Luckily, for the most part, first and limited editions by these authors aren't usually out of that range, and are often much cheaper.
posted by drobot at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2002

Mmm...Donald Barthelme. His first editions are still relatively cheap and, for those like me who reckon he was one of the 20th century's greatest writers but still awaits the recognition he deserves, he's got to be a great investment.

My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were book collectors (we have an important library, around 80,000 books, mostly 16th century exploration and maps) and, although they were all readaholics, 99% of the money they spent was on rare books which were only glanced at and handled with enormous care. That's what I meant - that collectors put the condition and rarity of books above all other considerations.

When I was a student and had a lot of time I made a lot of money buying first editions in Lisbon and Paris (which required a lot of sifting through secondhand bookshops and buying whole auction lots because I'd spotted one) and then selling them in one of the book shops in Cecil Court, London. I'd walk in with, say, a first of Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, a proof copy of one of Anthony Burgess's Enderby novels; a first of Evelyn Waugh's Helena - non-spectacular stuff like that - and walk out with £500 which I'd instantly blow on a hundred brand new books in the Charing Cross Road.

That was so invigorating and, funnily enough, some of those books I bought in the 80s would be worth a lot now - if I hadn't thoroughly read and annotated and coffee-spilt them, that is. But that's how books should be treated - with glee and abandon. In the few cases where I haven't written in the margins of books, because they're beautiful editions or something, I've regretted it. It's as if I haven't read them and that first, exciting conversation with it has been forever lost.

Anyway - a wonderful thread. Thanks very much!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:46 PM on November 25, 2002

if I hadn't thoroughly read and annotated and coffee-spilt them, that is.!?

Vulgar heretic!!!
posted by rushmc at 5:29 PM on November 25, 2002

Yeah, Barthelme is awesome. It's fun to look for his books because most of them are out of print, although many of the stories show up in Forty Stories and Sixty Stories. His brother Frederick writes pretty good stuff, too.
posted by drobot at 6:42 PM on November 25, 2002

Here's a Donald Barthelme thread, drobot.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:59 PM on November 25, 2002

...rare books which were only glanced at and handled with enormous care.....

Ok, I will grant you that I keep surgical gloves in the library for handling the really old and rare books.

Paperback versions are the only ones that have been sullied by pens, pencils and highlighters. As we've been converting the library into a nursery, I've been finding new and interesting places to store the books that I don't want to end up with crayon mustaches. ;)
posted by dejah420 at 10:00 AM on November 26, 2002

Thanks Miguel!
posted by drobot at 1:23 PM on November 26, 2002

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