First editions

I ate up this interview with Matthew Haley, a books and manuscript specialist, greedily, with a spoon! None of this is news to me. I grew up with a book collector father. He was highly knowledgeable, an expert in his chosen area of books, and I remember him opening a certain rare book to the copyright page, and showing me, in the random codes there (the descending numbers you see, for example), what that meant, and why it meant that this particular book was special. It’s fascinating stuff to me. Does a signed copy mean it is worth more? Not necessarily. What’s the difference between a first edition and a first printing? How does one put value on a book? What makes it valuable? Haley knows his stuff.

Here’s Haley on inscriptions (one of my favorite topics), and how they can affect the value of a book:

Similarly, nearly all first editions are worth more if they’re signed, but this is probably less true of modern books. A lot of authors today do lengthy signing tours and appearances and that sort of thing, so the number of signed copies is not especially small.

Other authors are much less inclined to sign anything, so obviously their signatures are more sought after. Famously, Harper Lee, who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” didn’t sign very much. The value of a signature may vary, but I can’t think of any situation in which an author’s signature has caused a book to be worth less.

Inscriptions can help or hurt the value of a first edition. I would say that “To Ben, Ray Bradbury” would perhaps be very slightly less desirable than just “Ray Bradbury.” But “To my dear friend Ben” is a little bit of an improvement, and “To my dear friend Ben, who inspired me to write this book” is much better!

Fascinating details on first editions of Harry Potter, and how J.K. Rowling’s name was first listed as “Joanne Rowling”, later adjusted, so that editions are considered more valuable. A really interesting section on Oscar Wilde, and why his plays are so sought after (when plays, in general, are not valuable, as objects). Having just read Oscar’s Books, by Thomas Wright), I felt a familiarity with that topic: Wilde loved limited editions, numbered copies, so they are very rare, not to mention the fact that his books were always beautiful. He worked hard on the content, naturally, but he felt that the form (the colors, the typeset, the cover) was equally as important. He sent a note to an American publisher of one of his books:

The type seems crisp and clean. I suppose it is as black as one can get? Perhaps a shade thicker would be well.

In the same vein, he wrote another letter to an American publisher, which shows you, again, his attention to detail, and how much the details mattered to him. Even more than typos, it sometimes seems.

Why, oh! why did you not keep to my large margin – I assure you that there are subtle scientific relations between margin and style, and my stories read quite differently in your edition.

He was very sensitive to aesthetics – and for that reason, his books are often mini works of art, just in terms of the binding, the artwork, and the look and feel of it.

I was fascinated by Haley’s comment on dust jackets. Again, this is well-trod ground for me, growing up with the father I had. Dust jackets, and the presence of them, can exponentially up the value of a book, in extraordinary ways. Haley gives a startling example:

That’s one thing we haven’t addressed, the value of dust jackets, which is huge. It makes a massive difference. In a recent sale here at Bonham’s, we had two copies of “The Great Gatsby,” one with a dust jacket which we sold for $180,000 and one without which we sold for $3,000. That tells you how much value is in the dust jacket.

In the early days, dust jackets were literally “dust jackets,” kept on books in bookstores to keep them from getting dusty. Originally dust jackets were just typography on dull-colored paper. When people took a book home, the jackets were often discarded.

From the 1920s on, as publishing houses started employing designers and artists to produce decorative dust jackets, they used the jacket to market their books. Some people began to embrace the idea of keeping dust jackets on their books, but old habits die hard, so many people continued to dispose of their books’ dust jackets. That’s one reason why they are so rare.

The Great Gatsby, first edition, is one of those Holy Grail books in book collecting, and the fact that a copy with the dust jacket went for literally a hundred thousand dollars plus more than a copy without the dust jacket is a perfect illustration of the situation.

Definitely go read the whole thing.

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