A Little for the Book Collector

I mentioned in a previous blog that one of my long term hobbies is collecting children’s books in their first prints. For many years I researched the books of the English author Roald Dahl. I wrote several articles on collecting his books and have an unpublished book on the topic. A rather condensed version of my Dahl bibliography can be accessed on-line via Justin, a friend of mine who runs ‘BigKidsBooks’, an on-line bookshop.

(Here’s a handy link if you’re someone interested in collecting Dahl books: http://www.rarefirsteditionbooks.com/

You may need to register with the site to use the ‘Resources’ tab where my article is found, but if you need the real scoop on Dahl’s books prior to a purchase, I will modestly confess that you can’t do better.

In the many years I spent collecting Dahl editions I learned a great deal about collecting books in general. While I think book collecting for profit is best left to the people who run bookshops, the hobby collector should always keep in mind the potential resale value of the items he/she buys. The best advice I have for anyone thinking of buying (a) first edition(s) is to do your homework before purchasing. You should know the ‘points’ that identify the first printing of a book and any differences between this print and any subsequent printings. You should have checked to see if there are other copies on-line and what sort of pricing the bookshops are asking. In general places like http://www.abebooks.com or http://www.AddAll.com (then using their ‘used book’ tab) will steer you to any on-line copies and, if there are lots of copies, a fair representation of pricing. Ebay is usually (but not always) the place to find the best bargains, especially if you’re a patient collector.

Condition is paramount. You can expect to pay far more for a pristine copy than one the dog has chewed or done something else that’s unmentionable. The dust jackets on children’s books add enormously to their value, especially on highly desirable titles. This is because the usual first recipients of these books are the little darlings who give scant thought to the book’s future collectibility. They love to color in pictures with crayons or scribble on the clean pages or compete with the dog in leaving pablum and drool stains throughout the pages. Dust jackets are often missing or in tatters, making copies that still have nice jackets rather scarce. Dr. Seuss books provide good examples of this. A first print of ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’, for instance, is one of his earliest books (the 4th book he both wrote and illustrated) and possibly the most collectible of all his books at this time. It is not likely to fetch much more than a couple of hundred dollars, even in excellent condition, without its original jacket. With a lovely jacket, however, I’ve seen a copy sell on Ebay for over $7,000 and copies in the prestigious shops offered between $6,000 and $18,000.

But like many other popular authors, the first printing ‘points’ are very obscure on most Seuss titles. If you wanted to collect this author you would need access to the ‘Younger and Hirsch Guide’ to Dr. Seuss first editions. It’s an expensive resource book (and, like every other guide, not without a few errors) but indispensable for anyone wanting to collect this author.

There are other pitfalls in collecting, the most notable being that many authors have their time, are wildly collectible and expensive in their season, and then fall out of favor – with prices then plunging on the used market. The prices for Dr. Seuss editions seem to be under a lot of downward pressure right now after several decades of growth.

So what does one collect? I think you should aim for buying only the books that you personally like. It hurts less when these take a dive in value than something you’ve ‘invested’ in, hoping for some kind of future profit.

Another interesting resource comes from Publishers’ Weekly, a company that not only reviews new books but keeps tabs on the number of books sold in America over the years. It at least can tell you if there are lots of other people that like your potential purchase. For a children’s book to get on their ‘All Time Best Selling’ list, it has to have sold a cumulative minimum of 750,000 hard back copies, or a million plus if it’s a paperback. If you combine all the Dr. Seuss books that made it onto their hardback list, you find a staggering 89,313,220 copies sold. His best selling book is ‘Green Eggs and Ham’. By comparison, the only Dahl hardback book to make it on the list is ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, which sold about 800,000 copies in hardback.

Keeping in mind that the list is for sales restricted to books sold in America, the top ten sellers of all time have a more than a few surprises. The number one book, selling a boggling 15 million copies is by Janette Sebring Lowrey. WHO?? I hear you cry. Yes, the author of a ‘Little Golden Book’ entitled ‘The Poky Little Puppy’. In fact, there are five Little Golden Books on the top ten all time best sellers (The Puppy is 1st, ‘Tootle’ by Crampton is in 3rd place, ‘Pat the Bunny’ by Kunhardt is 6th, ‘The Saggy Baggy Elephant is 7th, and ‘Scuffy the Tugboat’ is 8th. The second Harry Potter book (‘The Chamber of Secrets’) is her best selling book in America and made 10th on the list. Dr. Seuss made the top ten twice with ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ coming in fourth place and ‘The Cat in the Hat’ coming in 9th place. Second place went to Beatrix Potter and her ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’.

You would think that with evidence of these kinds of sales, the first prints of the top ‘Little Golden Books’ would command high prices. Not so, at least at this point in time. In fact the only one where you can find listings that are in the thousands of dollars is ‘Pat the Bunny’.

Pricing has a lot to do with planning, preparation, patience and voodoo, especially when selling on Ebay. I saw the Seuss ‘Thidwick’ book listed on a ‘Buy it Now’ (i.e. not their auction style) for $900. I was flush at the time and actually had $600, which I offered. It was turned down and sat languishing until three months later it went to an auction style with $600 as the starting price. My funds had evaporated so I watched as it went to the end of the week without selling. It started again the next week, again with a starting bid of $600. It sold at the end of the week for $1400. Go figure!

But enough of books today, tomorrow I’m back in Kanadoodle.

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