How — and Why —You Should Become a Book Collector

“assorted book lot” by Ugur Akdemir on Unsplash

Sir Isaac Newton observed that for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. I wonder if he had digital communications in mind. The last twenty years have seen the rise of mobile phones, the Internet, and other means to keep us always tethered.

This is the action. The reaction is newer — I’d say the last 5–7 years — and though not yet equal, it is growing in strength. The reaction is this: slow down. Disconnect. Find more “quiet” and “spacious” places “where the mind can wander free,” in the words of William Powers.

David Sax puts this premise at the heart of his book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, which chronicles the return to popularity of primitive tools like vinyl records. Bill McKibben writes, “I defy you to read Sax’s book without wanting to buy a Moleskine [notebook], put an LP record on a turntable, or play a game of Scrabble with your friends.”

Let me add another retro pleasure: books. I don’t mean reading, which is available in many formats — I mean books. Collecting them. Holding them. Occasionally talking to them (hey, it works for plants). Bibliophiles, such people are called, and I have been one for years. It is a fabulous hobby, especially for bookish people, and you can make a few dollars to boot.

Here, then, is a primer for all you little printer’s devils who want to try this storied avocation.

Terminology

Pop quiz: what do these words mean? You have 10 minutes.

1. Ex-libris

2. Married

3. Review slip

4. Shadow

5. Tipped-in v. laid-in

Stop. Put your pencils down. Let’s go over them.

Ex-libris, Latin for “From the library of,” is a bookplate printed with the owner’s name or initials. Married means that a dust jacket from one copy of a book has been paired with another copy, one it was not issued with. A review slip is a publisher’s notice included with a copy of a book sent to a book reviewer. Shadow means discoloration on a book where stickers or tape was removed. And a tipped-in item — usually a signed page or plate — is bound into the book, as opposed to something laid-in, which is, well, laid into the book.

How many did you get? One or two? None? Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know them at first either. But why are they important?

An ex-libris is considered damage to the book, unless it belongs to a famous person or was designed by a famous person — like cartoonist Gahan Wilson, whose bookplates that are now collectible.

If you have a married set, you’re okay unless the dust jacket changed from one print run to the next.

A review slip adds value to a book, indicating that the copy was not available for sale.

Depending on severity, tape and sticker shadows lower the book’s value, though not as much as dust jacket chips and creases.

Finally, an autograph tipped-in or laid-in is not as desirable as one signed directly onto the title page.

(See this excellent glossary for more collecting terms.)

Speaking of value, nothing affects it more than condition, and there is a separate set of terms for grading books. I recommend this guide to book conditions, which explains the standard grading labels (fine, good, etc.) as well as other terms you are likely to see, such as “foxing.”

Editions

Imagine you have on a table in front of you two copies of Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie. It is a valuable book, worth over $4,000 in fine condition, which both copies appear to be in. You decide to buy one copy.

Later, you run into me and want to show me your fabulous purchase. I look at the book and tell you — softly, cushioning the blow — that the book you just bought for the equivalent of a nice used car is in fact worth only about $10.

How can that be?

Answer: what you bought is not a first edition. Many people use this term loosely, and sometimes wrongly. Let’s look at what it means.

The most collectible version of a title is usually the first edition. You will also see the words “first printing” — they tend to be interchangeable. It means the first batch of books to come off the publisher’s press. If a book sells out of the first printing, then the publisher will do a larger second printing. If that sells out, they’ll do a third printing. And so on.

Your copy of Carrie may be one of these later printings. Or it could be what is called a “book club edition.” You’re familiar with book clubs. You pay a monthly fee, and books are sent to you in the mail. The Book-of-the-Month Club is the most famous, but there have been scores of others. They are printed not by the original publisher but by some other company, often using the original plates. Being far more numerous than the true first edition, book club copies are far less valuable.

The good news is that, with a little education, you can learn to spot later printings and book club editions. Publishers indicate edition and print run using a variety of methods. This site lists hundreds of publishers and their methods.

To identify book club editions, which are especially pesky in the science fiction and fantasy genre, this article is a great primer.

For edition-related terminology, check out this list.

Finally, if you plan to collect one author comprehensively, seek out a good bibliography of that author. For instance, you might have avoided that $4,000 Carrie mistake by being a regular at this site, which lists first edition characteristics, called “points,” for each Stephen King title.

Where to buy

You know about condition. You know about edition. The next question is: what are the best places to buy books?

Truly scarce books, by the nature of their scarcity, are not likely to be available anywhere except from a proven bookseller. You’ll pay top dollar, of course, but you will also get guarantees such as the bookseller’s knowledge, honesty, and reputation. In other words, you can be sure that $4,000 first edition of Carrie is a real first edition.

Ebay is a good place to buy books. So is Biblio.com. Sometimes you get lucky with Amazon or Barnes & Noble. But the best marketplace for rare books is Abebooks, a site has thousands of sellers offering millions of items, some quite expensive. Want a first edition of The Great Gatsby with original dust jacket? It’s only $175,000. How about Alice in Wonderland? A bargain at $73,240.

One advantage of browsing Abebooks is reading the essay-like listing by noted booksellers like Ken Lopez, Peter Harrington, and Allen and Pat Ahearn. You’ll learn a semester’s worth of literary history from each one.

I use Abebooks when I have a specific want and don’t mind paying retail. When I’m in a more speculative mood, I check out antique malls, flea markets, thrift stores, or library book sales. These sellers generally don’t know what they have. I paid $1.00 at a thrift store for a decent first edition of Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Homecoming, which I sold to a dealer for $100.

Signatures

I like signatures. They make a fascinating study. Some are punctilious. Some are sloppy. A few are spidery. I always sign my first and last name, unless I am writing a friend; then I’ll stop with my first name. Some people only sign their initials.

If it seems that women have prettier signatures than men, it is because they do. “During the early school years,” writes Kristin Kane in Parenting magazine, “when kids are learning to shape letters, the nerve fibers that control fine motor skills in boys’ brains typically haven’t matured as much as girls’ have.” Boys catch up, of course, but the scrawl they are left with may be a relic of that lag.

The author’s autograph adds value to a book. Some authors sign a lot; some don’t. Thomas Pynchon’s signature is one of the rarest among modern authors. As semi-recluses, Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Harris (author of Silence of the Lambs) don’t have many signatures in circulation. Nor does J. D. Salinger, who turned reclusiveness into an industry.

Scarcer signatures are normally more valuable, though there are exceptions. You can find thousands of Stephen King signed books on the market at any given time, but you won’t pay less than $100 for any of them.

Where I have had the most fun as a book collector is meeting authors and having them sign first editions of their older books. I’ve met Richard Ford, David Sedaris, Clyde Edgerton, and “Weird Al” Yankovic at bookstore signings.

Other authors appear at book festivals, writers’ conferences, and literary conventions. I have met Stephen King, Rick Bass, Bill Bryson, and George R. R. Martin at such events. (Read what GRRM said about my first edition of A Game of Thrones.)

What if you have a signed book but didn’t meet the author? Is the signature genuine? What if you have an inscription (“To Anthony, Best Wishes, Stephen King”) instead of just a signature (this is sometimes called flat-signing)? These are important questions without straightforward answers. A good place to start is this collection of articles.

What (and why) to collect

So what should you collect? A particular author? A certain genre?

That is personal, of course. AbeBooks.com has some great articles on collecting authors (J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, William Shakespeare), genres (children’s books, steampunk, comedy), or publishers (Victor Gollancz, Easton Press, Arkham House).

The best advice is to collect what you like, not just what you think you can sell. I have eclectic tastes — sports, celebrity memoirs, comedy, horror, science fiction, linguistics, postmodern literature, and graphic novels, to name a few. I wouldn’t call myself a completist in any of these fields, but with certain authors, I am, or try to be.

As for why you should collect:

  1. It’s fun.
  2. It’s profitable.
  3. You’re preserving bits of history.

In an era when wages are stagnant, the world is scary, and our president is “unencumbered by historical memory,” it’s a great (read: necessary) time to become a book collector.

Writer. Editor (www.conventionscene.com). Librarian. Lover of books, cats, and comic cons. Hater of vegetables. Tweet: @anthonycaycock

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