Gather & Bind: The Fundamentals of Book Collecting

Part Three: The What and Why of First Editions

ONE OF THE INEVITABLE QUESTIONS that arises in every book collecting seminar is “Why do you collect first editions?” I always give the same answer, “I collect firsts because I can’t afford to buy reprints.” And there is some kernel of truth in this seemingly contradictory answer. If you buy a first edition of any book, there is a chance that it will appreciate in value over time. If you buy a reprint, there is little or no possibility that it will ever be worth the original outlay in the resale market.

Let me give an extreme example. About a decade ago, I bought a first edition copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at a book fair. It cost $2,200, a premium price at the time. Five years later, I turned down a legitimate offer of $8,500, sight unseen, for the book. So the first edition had appreciated nearly fourfold—at the very least—in a short period of time. Had I purchased a hardcover reprint instead, I would have spent $19.95. If I took the reprint to a used bookstore, I might realize $2.50 for it, perhaps even $5.00—if I were willing to take trade credit as payment. The first edition appreciated at least $6,000, up 386 percent; the reprint declined $17.45, down 87 percent.

While dramatic examples like this are unusual, the underlying point is sound. Unless you buy a first edition, you have little likelihood of residual value in any book purchase. Like most collectors, I keep track of my collection in a database program on my computer. From time to time, I update it with the current prices for my collection in the marketplace. Right now, the estimated resale value for my collection is a more than three times the amount that I paid for it, and it continues to appreciate. There is a real market for first edition books; the collection is an asset—if I ever decide to sell my books.

As with nearly every investment, the market fluctuates with economic conditions and the strength of demand, but over time, first edition books tend to appreciate in value at a greater rate than inflation in the economy. There is a very good discussion of books as investments in Allen and Patricia Ahearn’s invaluable Book Collecting 2000 (Putnam), a volume every collector should own. (Be sure to buy a first.)

You will always be able to identify a book collector in any bookshop. The collector will pick up a book, and immediately open it to the copyright page to see whether or not it is a first. This becomes second nature very quickly. I do not buy a reprint, new book or old, unless I intend to use it as a reading copy only. (This may seem like a contradiction, but occasionally when I write articles for Firsts I need to have a “working” copy of a book that I can use without worrying about its condition, and I never do this with a fine first. “Working” copies never enter my collection.)

Another point of the economics of collecting first editions needs to be discussed. Over time, the number of collected authors and books decline. If you happen across a rare book dealer’s catalogue dating back 50 years or so, you will see that there are many authors listed that would not be included in a similar dealer’s offerings today. Interest tends to narrow as time passes. However, if you look at the prices asked, you will see that for the authors that are still collected, asking prices have appreciated remarkably. A $10 Hemingway first edition from the 1940s may well be a $5,000 copy today. Also, lovely copies that are well preserved remain saleable, even though their authors may now be forgotten.

Leaving economic factors aside, there is aesthetic pleasure in owning a first edition that is its own reward. Now and then I venture into a corner of my library that I have not visited in some time. Invariably I spot an old friend on the shelf, and pull it down to look at it again. There is something wonderful about a loved volume that transcends any practical considerations.

It is time to come to the point of this column. What are first editions, and why are they collected to the exclusion of later printings?

A first edition, as it is defined by booksellers and the book collecting community, is the first printing of a book that is offered for sale. Technically, a first edition is any printing struck from the original plates used for the book, but the term has narrowed in the last 100 years to include only those copies that were bound from the first print run. Today, a “first” is a copy from the first edition, first printing. The first edition, second printing is not considered a first by either booksellers or collectors. Repeat—for book collectors, a first is only the first printing of the first edition.

Now for the “why.” There are several explanations. Collecting books into a personal library dates back to the beginnings of civilization. In some sense, the glory of any culture lies in its libraries. The loss of the great library at Alexandria, one of the wonders of the Ancient World, was a harbinger of the onset of the Middle Ages, during which most of the residents of Western Civilization were illiterate.

After the development of the printing press, literacy increased and books became valuable; both individuals and institutions began accumulating libraries again. In early presses, type was made out of wood and malleable metals. The first press run was often the best; the letters were crisp and the text was the most readable. Early collectors wanted first editions; the term was synonymous with the best copies. This continued until the development of the offset press, where plates could be changed easily if they became worn or damaged. By this time, early in the Twentieth century, the first edition tradition was firmly entrenched, and it remains so today.

Another explanation lies in the fact that the first edition is the one that is the closest to the author. It is the “real” book, as the original publisher intended. Everything else is later, and lacks the mystique of a volume that is part of the first press run. A first is genuine; later printings are imitations of the first. As odd as this seems, every publisher knows that the first is the risky run; if a reprint is needed, it is pre-sold and lacks the gamble of the first. Also, later print runs sometimes contain textual or other changes made for a variety of reasons.

Granting the logic of the previous arguments, the explanation that works the best for me is that a first is what every collector wants. Since demand drives the rare book market, that makes a first desirable, and a reprint an also-ran. Until this changes—and it is not likely to in our time—it will remain so. It is that simple.