Thursday, December 22, 2005

Book Collecting Misconceptions

Some common book collecting misconceptions:

  • This book is old, so it must be valuable.” – An ‘old’ book is not necessarily a valuable book. Many novice collectors and on-line sellers assume that a book 100 years old or older is a rarity. In reality, the printed book began in the 1450’s, and many books produced in the last 200-300 years are not necessarily desirable to collectors. Further, many books printed in the late 1800’s were reprints of popular works, mass produced for public consumption – often without reference to earlier printings.
  • This book is old, so it must be rare.” – If I had a dollar for every book touted as rare on eBay, I’d be a millionaire. True rarity is a result of the size of a print run, and the number of books surviving from the run. For example, there are many anti-slavery books dating to the 1860’s that can be consistently found in an on-line search, whereas some books published in small print runs in recent years are much harder to come by. Geographic rarity is a form of rarity that has been diminished with the advent of online bookselling. In the past, a collector of Americana in the Midwestern US might have had much more difficulty finding desirable books than one in Philadelphia or New York. Today many booksellers list their inventory on the internet, easing some of the frustrations of geographic rarity.
  • This book contains a bookplate and signature of a previous collector – it must be worth less than a similar copy without them.” – Not always true. In fact, an association between the previous owner and the author or subject matter can boost a book’s value. Some collectors buy books for no other reason than an attractive bookplate.
  • This book appears to be signed by the author, it must be more valuable.” – Possibly. Book signing is a phenomenon that has become increasingly popular. So much so, that some books are published with a facsimile signature, which can be detected using a magnifying glass – dots of ink rather than a continuous line are a giveaway. Not all authors sign books – so a book signed by an author who rarely does so is often worth a premium, while an author who is a prolific signer may not increase a book’s value.
  • This book is in great condition, for its age.” – Condition is generally regarded as independent from age. There are pristine books that are hundreds of years old, and shabby books from the early 1900’s. Saying that a book is in good shape for its age is a cover for a lack of understanding of book grading standards. On eBay, this one is right up there with *RARE!!!!*
  • Buying first editions of new works now will pay off in the future.” – Not necessarily. Often, an author’s first book is the author’s most rare, as publishers often do not like to make big investments in large print runs for unknown authors. Established authors may get first edition runs for subsequent works numbering in the hundreds of thousands, essentially eliminating the rarity often associated with first editions. First editions of poor works may never appreciate, of course.
  • The seller says this is a first edition, so it must be one!” – I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. Within the realm of reputable dealers, this may be a safer assumption – but it can’t hurt to ask. When a reputable dealer says “First Edition”, what they usually mean is “First Printing, First Edition”. An ‘edition’ is all books printed from one setting of type (historically). A ‘printing’ is a number of books printed from that type at one time. To further complicate matters, a ‘state’ is a smaller variation induced during a single printing. While there is some wiggle room in these definitions, particularly with the death of traditional typesetting, in general the most desirable edition for a collector of ‘Firsts’ is the first state of the first printing of the first edition. Whew. Actually determining if a book meets these criteria is a field of study left for the most discriminating of bibliographers. Dealers may not have the correct ‘points of issue’, or list of attributes, to determine in a book is a true “First”.
  • This book is leather bound…” –or- “This book says it is a limited edition, so it must be valuable.” – Popular works often spawn editions marketed as “Collectable”. A rule of thumb – if a book is marketed as a collectable by the publisher, it probably isn’t.

How does a collector avoid these pitfalls? In a word, experience. When you decide you’d like to obtain a specific book, don’t run out and buy the first copy you find. Do research, and follow the market. You may find a book that you thought was ‘rare’ is not, or that the most desirable edition of the book is a different printing altogether. You will also save yourself money in the long haul by not buying an inferior book and upgrading it later.

If it takes you months to source a book using all of the resources available to you, including the internet, dealer catalogs, and periodicals, it is likely that the book is at least uncommon, and you might consider buying a copy when it turns up. If you see a copy weekly or monthly, you can surely wait to buy the best copy that can be had, and be more selective in finding it.

Book collecting is not a race, it’s a lifelong pursuit – one in which patience (and prudent buying) is a virtue.

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