16 June 2006

First edition, first print

There's this really old Garfield poster that says something like: "The material things in life aren't important to me, but I do like the stuff".

I collect things I like. When I was young, I used to collect tiny shards of ceramic tile from building sites. I used to collect the liners from soft drink bottles, when they had promotional copy on them. For a while, I used to collect badges and pins. Old coins. Stamps. But as you grow older, your collections change, become more sophisticated, somehow. You grow bored with bottle liners and become interested in books and records. Things you can only have by exchanging money for them. You turn away from being a mere collector to being a completist. This is dangerous territory; a land inhabited by madmen, human squirrels, anoraks, artefact smugglers. Passionate folk, understandably, but quite, quite insane.

Wouldn't we all like to own first edition, signed copies of things like Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (worth about £600 mint condition) or George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (worth about £4500 mint condition) or even Bram Stoker's Dracula (about £20000 mint condition)? Frankly, possessing such treasures would give me a nervous breakdown (is there too much humidity in the room? the dust jackets must be protected from fading by sunlight! are they insured? no, don't touch those!). So therefore I do not collect rare and valuable books - we'll conveniently forget about the affordability of the price tags and my current state of solvency. Most of my small collection of books is comprised of paperbacks. I like these immensely: they're easier to hold whilst reading, are cheaper and stack well on the shelf. Also, there's none of the fuss about whether it's a true first edition and all that nonsense.

For those of you who are interested in whether a book will be worth anything, here are some handy hints. A true first edition is actually the first edition, first print of a book. Second and third printings may look identical, but will be worth less because they do not represent the original state of the book. Check the publishing history page of the book: most books from the latter part of the 20th century onwards have a strike through line. It's the line of numbers that usually looks something like this: 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1 . The lowest number you can see is the number of the print run. The paperback copies of Labyrinth by Kate Mosse in the shop at the moment have a strike through line that reads 15 17 19 20 18 16 14 . These copies are from the fourteenth print of the paperback. Sometimes there'll be a single number, as in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist: 44 . The instant you walk out of a bookshop with a paperback, it's worth much less. This is because you've turned it into a second hand book by buying it and there are a million others like it.

Hardcovers may sometimes appreciate in value the longer you keep them, but not all hardcovers. The trick comes in knowing which ones will become valuable. If it says New York Times Bestseller on the front, it's not a first edition. Debut novels by authors who will eventually become famous are usually valuable to collectors. Acclaim adds value as much as does exclusivity. Often these will have very small initial print runs, the publishers being cautious with new talent. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (500 copy first print run) versus Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (10.8 million copy first print run) is a very good example. Bet you wish you hadn't waited for Smith's White Teeth or Mitchell's Ghostwritten to come out on paperback, now don't you! In reality it is nearly impossible to know intuitively whether a debut novelist will make it big later on.

I collect things I like. I listen to the records I buy and I read the books I buy (or plan to read, at least!). I'd feel too sorry for a really precious hardcover to even open it. Paperbacks come in wonderfully designed covers, especially when they form part of a series. I've discovered many awesome books and authors by collecting other titles in a series: the essential.penguin series of the late '90s comes to mind. I wouldn't have known about the joys of Carson McCullers without it. Admit it now: how many of you were first drawn to the books of David Mitchell by the amazingly well designed covers? In some cases you can judge a book by its cover - moreover, a book can be judged by its publisher. Good publishers and theirs editors can throw money into making their products look good. Certain kinds of books are targeted to a certain audience by how they look. If you want to stay away from mass market fiction, don't read books where the name of the author is printed bigger than that of the book, or those that have the name of the author in giant embossed gold lettering. Et cetera, et cetera.

In the end, a collection of anything is only worth something if it has been assembled with love and passion, and yes, maybe even a touch of madness. It should be amassed by the collector for the collector, not to impress friends or according to some fashion. A good collection will reflect the compulsions of its custodian. A good collection is the most sincere self-portrait anybody could make.


Unknown said...

Next time, I might tell you all about the joys of trying to track down CD singles from the early '90s, and why record companies bring out a million versions of the same thing.

~d said...

When I was a 8 or 9, I collected business cards. I evenhad the card holders and such. I do not remember when I decided not to collect them any longer. I do not recall making a decision to get rid of them. I just know that I no longer have them. I have no clue where they went.
Gosh, EOH, do I collect anything today? I am not certain. I will totally think on that.

arcadia said...

i've also had a knack for collecting. as a child i had collections of writing paper, stickers, erasers, marbles, broaches, rocks, shells and finally, shongololos (it's a mafikeng-thing). apart from books i don't really collect much these days...does crockery count?

Unknown said...

Business cards - that's such a cool thing for a kid to collect! I remember there used to be a vending machine in Sunny Park (a dodgy mall in the city that used to be an awesome place when I was younger) that allowed you to design and print your own business cards right there! I so wanted to do it, but couldn't think of what my business would be. Also think my mother would go spare if she saw me handing out our home number to strangers!

Crockery is a very valid thing to make a collection of - especially if it has some sort of theme (i.e. just teapots, or just Spode, etc.) Where do you find your pieces? Are you a closet antique-er?

Anonymous said...

1. In terms of Book Awards (e.g. Pulitzer, Nobel, Whitbread), which would you recommend, and from which will you absolutely stay away from?

2. We love PAN, we hate Warner, what else is there?

Marissa said...

Mostly stay away from books where the name of the author is printed in bigger letters than that of the book. Excellent advice.

I collect things I find inside library books and second-hand books.

Unknown said...

1. It depends on what you like, really. If you like very complex, literary reads, try reading the Commonwealth Booker Prize winners, like Iris Murdoch, Peter Carey or Ian McEwan. These are the black forest cakes of books. Might give indigestion to inexperienced stomachs.

The Orange Prize is awarded to the best female authors, but is a little book club-y. The PEN/Faulkner Award goes to the best American fiction (Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett). The National Book Award (Ha Jin, Jonathan Franzen) is also quite good. A basket of muffins, if you will.

The American Pulitzer Prize is awarded in a lot of journalism categories (including cartoons and photography), and the fiction that receives it tends to be very topical and fresh (think Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, E. Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon). These are the chocolate brownies of the book world.

My favourite prizes are the Whitbread Book Awards, which are now called the Costa Book Awards. These are always great books, because the books are not only judged by skilled people in the business, but also by book lovers like us. Previous winners include Ali Smith, Mark Haddon, Zadie Smith, Kate Atkinson and Salman Rushdie. There are five category winners (first novel, novel, biography, poetry and children's) and an overall book of the year chosen from those five. These are immensely readable, the more-ish apple crumble of books.

Nobel Prizes for literature are given to authors for a lifetime's achievement. Their books are like christmas fruit cake. You want to like it, but you just can't.

Unknown said...

2. If you like quirky, well-written stuff, the Vintage imprint of Random House is quite good. All of Chuck Palahniuk, Kurt Vonnegut and Ian McEwan are available from Vintage. They also have a very good Classics list.

Penguin Books carry some good authors, like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Coe, Jonathan Safran Foer, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Dave Eggers Will Self and David Lodge, as well as the world's best Classics list. They are my favourite publishers.

Picador is a very cool imprint of Pan Macmillan: this is where you'll find Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Adams and Kate Long.

Black Swan is a huge imprint of the even larger Transworld. It's the home of some of the best travel writing, as well as Ben Elton, Kate Atkinson and Armistead Maupin. Read Q & A by Vikas Swarup and Sayonara Bar by Susan Barker.

Faber & Faber publishes very literary, but achingly beautiful things: Peter Carey, Milan Kundera and Barbara Kingsolver. They also have possibly the world's best poetry list.

4th Estate is an imprint of HarperCollins that produces lots of good stuff: E. Annie Proulx, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon. HarperCollins seems to be shuffling its editors around a little though, so check out HarperPerennial as well.

If you want more chick-lit or crime fiction, then try anything mainstream - Review (an imprint of Hodder Headline) or Arrow (an imprint of Random House), but I can't really help you there!

Unknown said...

That must be a gross collection. I've found the following inside old books: jam sandwiches; bacon; appointments for various doctors. How can you use food as a bookmark? Sacrilege.

arcadia said...

don't really have many interesting pieces yet, but am in fact a closet antique-er. would love a spode-collection when my financial situation allows for it one day.

about publishing - have you thought of publishing your poetry? just read an article today about the lack of new Afrikaans voices under the age of 30, something which i've been thinking about lately. poetry especially seems to be experiencing a dry season within Afrikaans literature at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I have bought and read a couple of books because of the cover design. Another good example of good cover design is that series of Penguin books. I think they called 20s or 70s or 80s or something.. I've bought a couple. Interesting marketing ploy too. Its like the literary equivalent of singles.
I also collected business cards for a while funnily enough

Anonymous said...

I love your take on collections-Assembled with love and passion and have meaning for the person-I am there.

Thanks for the book information! I love books and just like them to have them. I love old books and have some that I am sure need better taking care of, but...I am too busy. I'm sure that they are not that valuable. I am currently reading a book that I have always wanted to read called Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinser. It is fascinating!
I collect National Geographics and believe that Heaven for me will be to become an explorer and documentor of wildlife, culture, etc. My childhood collection was beer cans until I realized how many that there actually were. I keep a loose collection of cool rocks all around now. Gotta go-c-ya

Anonymous said...

So when you publish your work, which publisher will you tell your agent to contact?

Wendy said...

We suffer from the same disease. Although I think you have it a bit worse than I do - I just think of Mute Records and know this. Collecting is to expensive! Or I am to poor. I also have a real love hate relationship with Working Title these days. AND the whole book thing! I know you have seen the new Penguin Epic series...

Anonymous said...

Afrikaans poetry is experiencing a dry spell because none of the publishers want to publish something that doesn't make them loads of money. They aren't prepared to give new poets a chance!

Unknown said...

I got that Penguin 70s boxed set, which is beautifully made and has some good stuff. The Penguin Epics series looks awesome - especially the boxed set on their website. Don't know if I'd read any of it, though. Also, there's a lot less fun in buying stuff all in one go. It took me 8 years to collect the essential.penguin series - each book I managed to get my hands on when they all went out of print was like a small miracle. It was very exciting and I have fond memories of the obscure shops I found some of them in. Penguin's just such a cool brand - I should have bought that Penguin George Orwell mug in Foyles when I was there. Oh, well.

Afrikaans poetry is experiencing the same dry spell as poetry everywhere else. The 'net is a pretty good place to surf around for new talent, though: try as a good place to start.

And on the publishing thing, arcadia: I'm seriously considering publishing some of my science first! All of the journals published by Blackwell Publishing have high impact factors and great editors, so hopefully you'll see me there one day.

~d said...

Hey-EOH, thank you for the 'cool' on collecting business cards. I always kind of thought I was a dork. As a matter of a fact-the husband and I have been together over 10 years-and I bet he doesn't know that bit of trivia. Here-want another one? I would buy Hubba Bubba bubble gum for $0.20 a pack and re sell the single pieces for $0.05 a piece. At school. In 4th grade.

Karen Little said...

This is an excellent post! You've explained the art of book collecting so well and so simply.

You know your collections are something I'll always be jealous of... sigh...

Marissa said...

A jam sandwich? In a book? Surely not. And bacon? Why oh why.

~d said...

Knock-Knock...are you on holiday?

Tommy Boy said...

I collect first edition winners of the Pulitzer Prize. Collecting them all has been challenging because they go back to 1918. Many of the early books are practically forgotten and very hard to find. I rely on this site to help me figure out what the first edition/printing looks like -

Unknown said...

That's quite ambitious, Tommy Boy. Good luck: it sounds like you have an amazing and very special collection. Thanks for the link!