THE MOST IMPORTANT SINGLE FACTOR in the valuation of a first edition is condition. (Some people go so far as to say it is the only factor.) For modern first editions published since the turn of the Twentieth century, the most important element in pricing is the condition of the dust jacket. The reason for this is obvious: the jacket is the most fragile and vulnerable element of a book.
A hundred years ago, the dust jacket’s only use was to protect the book it covered from damage, but that quickly changed when publishers began printing promotional material on dust jackets. In a relatively short period of time—less than 20 years, from roughly the first decade of the Twentieth century to the early 1920s—dust jacket design evolved into a sophisticated sales tool for publishers.
Despite the fact that some of the most wonderful dust jacket art was produced in the first half of the Twentieth century (Francis Cugat’s glorious image for The Great Gatsby was published in 1925), collectors were relatively slow to appreciate that it was important to protect jackets. Many collectors routinely threw dust jackets away, preferring the more uniform look of jacketless books on their shelves.
The earliest use of dust jacket protectors began in lending libraries during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Both public libraries and, especially, the lending libraries established by book and department stores for the many customers could not afford to purchase books, used plastic jacket protectors to extend the lives of their books.
In the beginning these protectors were relatively primitive. They often had glue strips designed to hold jackets in place that left a gummy black residue on the edges of the dust jackets. The protectors were often taped into the books, leaving telltale residual marks on the endpapers.
This changed in the second half of the Twentieth century when canny booksellers began to realize that books with fresh dust jackets sold much more readily than those with damaged or missing jackets. Even so, some booksellers and scouts resisted the use of jacket protectors, often for aesthetic reasons. I recall a dinner with a legendary scout who asked me if I kept my books “in plastic.” He had never become used to the reflective nature of jacket protectors; he preferred his books without them.
My answer was that once I realized I was a collector, I began putting all my books in dust jacket protectors. The first thing I do when I buy a book is put a fresh archival quality protector on the dust jacket. Given today’s market, it is sheer foolishness to do anything else. The dust jacket carries at least 80 percent of the value of any first edition. It would be silly not to spend the few cents on a protector to insure it retains its freshness and thus its value. In addition, I have come to enjoy looking at my books in jacketprotectors. Rather than detracting from the aesthetic value, they add to it.
Opinions vary widely among sellers and collectors about the relative merits of the various brands of jacket protectors. Collectors should buy dust jacket protectors made from archival quality materials that do not require tape and/or adhesive to apply them to the jacket. Most library supply houses, including the leaders—Bro-Dart, Gaylord and Demco—manufacture a wide range of jacket protectors, and clearly designate in their literature which are archival quality. Collectors may purchase these directly from the manufacturers or from many booksellers.
Dust jacket protectors are the best and least expensive insurance available for your books. Cover ‘em up!