Whether you’re looking for inspiration, entertainment, knowledge or a collectable object, books have had the ability to gratify our desires since the days when monks illuminated manuscripts. So when it comes to collecting books, how does one put a value on any given book? This is an easier task for the publishers of new books than for those who toil in the used book trade, where values of some books can fluctuate wildly over a relatively short period of time.
There are a couple of factors that drive the prices of collectable books. Scarcity has to go hand in hand with desirability. It’s obvious that, no matter how rare book a book may be, if it generates little interest it will have no value. The most valuable books are the ones where large numbers of people want a copy and few are available.
Most books have a degree of scarcity built into their publication. Unless the author is already well established and popular, a publisher will keep the initial print run low to see how well it sells. In the used book trade this first print used to be called the ‘first edition’. If a book became popular, many further print runs would be produced but collectors would be interested in a copy of the small first print run. That’s where scarcity in the used book trade occurs. It doesn’t matter if there are millions of copies of a book from later printings, the number of ‘first prints’ is finite.
At this point in time the term ‘first edition’ has lost its meaning as the first print. We seem to be at a transition point when there are some dealers who still use ‘first edition’ in the old ‘first print’ sense, and many who do not. This can be very frustrating for the novice or even knowledgeable collector when seeking a copy to purchase. It would be very helpful if everyone who abandoned the old meaning added either ‘first print’ or ‘later print’ to their ‘first edition’ statement.
The next most important factor in the value of a book is its condition. There is no doubt that, if given a choice and with enough money available, any collector would want a perfect copy, but the older the book is the less likely copies of this condition can be found. Booksellers have a generally agreed upon set of terms for the condition of a book. ‘Mint’ or ‘As New’ denote the perfect copy, although some dealers use ‘Fine’ as their top grade. ‘Very Good’ comes next with ‘Good’, ‘Fair’, ‘Poor’ and ‘Reading Copy’. All of these are subjective and many variations of opinion can occur when it comes to grading a given book. One surprise to the novice is that almost all dealers will agree that ‘good’ isn’t ‘good’ in the literal sense of the word. A book described as ‘good’ will show a lot of signs of usage.
The collectable book market has a significant prejudice against ‘ex-libris’ (former library) books, considering them not collectable in almost all circumstances. Traditionally, this market also has a horror of books that have had any repairs. There are collectors who would rather have a rather poor copy that’s ‘untouched’ rather than a wonderful looking copy, made so by the efforts of repair. I confess that I don’t share this point of view. To me, it’s rather like not fixing the roof of your house because it’s inherently better to leave it in its original condition.
One of the great things about writing your own blog is that you can take whatever sidetracks you like. When it comes to repairing books, there are many binders who can do very credible work. On the other hand, there are a tiny few who really can ‘restore’ a book. I happen to live in the same community as Paul Tronson (check him out online). You’ve likely never heard of him but places like the British Museum have. They’ve sent him multi-million dollar books to work on, as his restorations are nothing short of miraculous. He can take foxing and stains out of paper as well as repairing chips and tears so that they can no longer be seen. As a self confessed ‘doesn’t get along well with others’ kind of guy, he has strong opinions on many subjects, not the least of which is his disquisition on why Shakespeare never wrote his plays. He spends most of his time working on his own bindings in a tiny shop. He’s the last book-binder that tans his own leather and has developed a wax process that allows astonishingly deep imprints into leather. His own bindings are truly works of art. Really! check him out.
So, if you ever get the bug to start collecting ‘first editions’ keep in mind that it’s always best to do a lot of research before you do any buying.