In my last blog I outlined the obvious when it came to the valuation of ‘collectable’ books. Scarcity, demand and condition are the three mainstays in how much a book will cost the collector. I also encouraged anyone who wants to collect ‘first editions’ to do some careful research before purchasing. Part of the research is aimed at assuring yourself that you are actually purchasing a real ‘first edition’. The market place abounds with those who make claims without any real knowledge of what they have on offer.
In more contemporary books, most publishers put codes on the copyright page of their books that reveal the printing. Often these take the form of ‘number lines’ where the lowest in a series of numbers indicates the print run. If a book has 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 – then it is a 4th printing and one that has 1, 2, 3, 5 – is a first print. Collectors will be looking for a number line that contains the whole set, especially the number 1. Regretfully this was not always the case and, with many older collectable books, one has to be a sleuth to determine a first from a later print.
I developed a great deal of expertise over the years with my interest in the first editions of Roald Dahl. Most of his later books have number lines, but none of his earlier books have them. A first print of his ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, for instance, can only be identified by a statement found in the colophon on the last printed page. If you don’t know what a colophon is, you are not alone! It’s a group of sentences that lists printing information. It might be found somewhere near the beginning of a book or at the end. It might include what kind and size of type set was used, the company that bound the book, the printer, the details about the paper or other such information useful to heaven knows who. Regretfully many people confuse the colophon with the publisher’s information, which is a group of sentences, usually near the beginning of the book, that outlines things like the copyright date, the reproduction rights, the country of manufacture and the distribution company. A first print ‘Charlie’ has six lines in the colophon, the fifth line states the paper manufacturer, S.D. Warren Co.
In our example of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, you will often therefore find those who reference a six line colophon as being the first print. BUT, ‘Charlie’ has six lines of publishing information in the front, a six line biography of Dahl at the back and a six line colophon under the biography. If you’re unsure what a six line colophon is, I wouldn’t recommend you purchasing a ‘first edition’. As mentioned in my last blog, lots of people now use the term ‘first edition’ without meaning the first print. On top of the confusion this engenders, I’ve also seen lots of mistaken advertisements for ‘six line first editions’. They usually picture the six lines of publisher’s information at the beginning.
As you continue your research, you might have also found out that the color of the boards on a first print is a dark, brick red (sometimes referred to as maroon). It has the top of the pages (called the ‘head’ of the book) colored a chocolate brown and uses golden/mustard colored endpapers. If you’re wary, you may have noticed that there’s an edition that has red boards, a colored top (looks more red than chocolate) and there’s no colophon at the end. If it had it’s original jacket you would see ‘BOOK CLUB’ printed on the flap. You’re right to be cautious; book club editions are almost never worth anything in the used market.
To compound matters there’s also the issue of dust jackets. The value of a ‘collectable’ book can often vary wildly depending on whether the book has it’s ‘first state’ jacket. That means you have to know what differences there are between a ‘first’ jacket and later jackets. It is not uncommon to see copies of a real ‘first print’ book wrapped in a later jacket. There’s no inherent problem with this if you’re told up front that it’s a later jacket and the pricing is adjusted accordingly. A first state ‘Charlie’ jacket is priced at $3.95 and has no SBN numbers on the bottom of the rear panel (SBN numbers didn’t come into use until 1968). The condition of a jacket has become really critical to value these days. It didn’t use to be so. Sometime prior to my interest in collecting books, condition of the book was paramount and a jacket might only merit a casual note that it was there. The premium on the quality of the jacket is so pronounced these days that I would recommend grading the book separately from the jacket (e.g. ‘Fine in VG jacket’ might be a good start prior to listing any faults in either).
So now you know about the colophon, you’re keeping in mind the lack of SBN numbers on the jacket, you’ve got the problem with the book club edition sorted out and your fussy about details related to the condition of both the book and the jacket – you’re all set to lay out cash for a copy, right? You might still be stumped if you came across a copy that has the six line colophon, the chocolate ‘head’, the mustard endpapers – in fact everything listed above except that the boards are a lovely blue color. “What in heaven’s name is that?” I hear you cry.
Good question! As someone who’s spent over forty years researching Dahl editions, I can only give a best guess. ‘Variant’ is the name used to describe unusual copies that contain all the critical points found in a first print but differ (vary) in some way – often in the board coloring. No one can be absolutely sure if the red board or the blue board takes precedent in the publishing queue. In some instances publishers can make a few ‘mock’ copies prior to a first print fun to test how well something catches the eye. If this were the case, there would be very few copies and they would take some precedent over the red boards. In some cases a binder runs out of one color and uses another to finish their print run, in which case both would be considered equal ‘first prints’. Both these theories could explain the blue boarded ‘Charlie’ but thankfully, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll encounter this near legendary ‘blue’ as copies are staggeringly rare.
You may begin to see why collecting first editions can be fraught with danger for novice collectors, not to mention experts (and no one is an expert on every author or title). Our example highlights how much you need to know in order to spend your money wisely, and that doesn’t include the wide range of pricing you might encounter in your search. The best bargains are often found on Ebay. On recent searches I could find a copy in relatively decent condition for under $500. If you check the prestigious shops on the abebooks.com website, you can find copies ranging from $1500 to $20,000. The closer the book gets to being in ‘perfect’ condition, the greater you could expect to pay. But $20,000?
I had a friend once that summed up offerings like these. He called them ‘trophy prices’ and I thought it a good description. They’re the prices that a shop has for books they personally love and don’t care if they ever sell. They’re a collectable ‘trophy’ – for those who want to announce to the world that they own a copy. And yet, a year or so ago I saw ABEbooks list a signed ‘Charlie’, in wonderful condition, sell for $16,000. Since I’d seen others in the year prior offered between $6,000 and $8,000 I couldn’t help wondering if the purchaser had done sufficient homework…although I did admire the chutzpah of the dealer that offered it at such an exalted price in the first place. The spirit of P.T. Barnum lives on!