This is Part II of my short introduction to rare books. To read Part I, please visit my previous post. Let’s pick up where we left off:
What is the difference between edition, printing, issue, and state?
Any cursory glance at a book dealer’s catalogue description will reveal vocabulary foreign to initiates. One of the most important lexical differences to know is between edition, printing, issue, and state, as these can dramatically change the value. Remember how I said first editions are the most likely to be collected? Let’s be more specific. The first batch of books printed is what is most likely to be collected. Here’s a quick rundown so you can determine whether a book is from the first batch.
Edition: all the copies printed of a book during the same setting of type. Historically, the type would be set by hand, then printed. But type was expensive, so once the printer finished printing that book he would dismantle the type. If he were to re-assemble to type to print the book again, that would constitute the second edition.
Printing: all the copies printed of a book during a specific interval of time. For example, the printer might produce 1000 copies in June. He’d leave the type in tact (no dismantling, therefore still the same edition) and revisit in August. The books printed in August would be the second printing. Note that there is an interval of time in between the two batches.
Issue: all the copies of a book issued to the public at one time. The publisher can conceivably gather up three separate printings of a book and issue them all at once, making some copies a “first edition, first issue, third printing.” Note that different issues (a deluxe version vs. a normal “trade” version) can be issued simultaneously, but are separate issues because they are technically different books.
State: all the copies of a book that have the same physical characteristics. In other words, there is only one state of a book until a change is made. (That change is called the “point,” covered in Part 1.) After the change, you have the “state” before the change and the “state” after the change. For example, T.S Eliot’s Cocktail Party has a typo in the first state. It reads, “You shall see here again,” whereas it should have read, “You shall see her again.” This was caught and changed (corrected), so the first state is the state with the error, while the second state is the state with the corrected word.
So why does this matter? Because you want the earliest printed books possible. If you have the choice between a “first edition, first printing” and a “first edition, second printing,” always go for the first printing. Indeed, because collectors prefer the earliest possible version of the work, there can be a dramatic difference in value between a first and second printing.
This is especially applicable in our modern world, since publishers today do not hand-set their type. They use computers. So technically there is no dismantling of type, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of copies can be part of the first “edition” set on the computer. A lot of new works will be labeled “first edition” because of this, but don’t get your hopes up too much. Most of the copies printed these days are first editions. You need a copy from the very first batch printed, the “first printing.”
I once had a collector visit who informed me that our $10,000 first printing copy of On the Road was overpriced because he saw two copies on Ebay for significantly less ($5000ish). I told him I could not speak to those copies as I had not seen them, but I felt confident that we priced the book appropriately given its edition, condition, and completeness. Later, out of curiosity I looked up the Ebay copies. One was a first edition, fifth printing. The other was missing its dust jacket.
I see this happen all the time. If you want a later copy of the book, that’s perfectly fine. We generally encourage collectors to buy the best they can afford, so if you can’t afford the first printing of On the Road but still want a first edition, a fifth printing may be acceptable. But I worry about those collectors who think they’ve snagged an important copy at a great deal. Twenty years from now, when they try to sell it for a first printing price, they will be in for a nasty surprise.
Can later editions of books be considered rare?
In some exceptional cases a book other than the first edition, first printing can be considered rare. This happens in two main situations: (1) the later copy offers something important to collectors that earlier copies didn’t, like a historically valuable map; (2) the first printing is so rare that it is out of reach for most collectors.
The 1599 edition of Hakluyt’s Principle Navigations is a good example of the first possibility. Originally published in 1589, the 1599 second edition is still greatly desired by collectors because it has been heavily expanded with many more accounts of explorations. The first edition is only one volume; the second edition is three.
Shakespeare is a great example of the second possibility. The 1623 first edition of the collected plays of Shakespeare, known as the First Folio, is incredibly scarce and desirable. It goes for millions. But many, many collectors love Shakespeare, so later versions of the Bard can also be acceptable. Even some 20th century editions—if they are particularly noteworthy in some way—can be collectible.
Can a book be considered rare just because of its age?
For the most part, no. The main exception is what we call an incunable: a book printed in the 15th century. These books are collected simply because their very existence is big news. They were the first books EVER printed!
Sometimes we’ll get phone calls explaining that the caller has a very old book. “It’s from 1850!” Unfortunately, for a book, that’s not terribly old. In such cases collectible value comes down to edition, as usual, rather than age.
Besides edition, what other qualities are important to a rare book?
The triumvirate is edition, completeness, and condition.
Completeness: in order for a book to retain its desirability as a collectible (and therefore the majority of its value), it must be complete as originally issued, or as close to complete as possible for that particular book. This means if a book was originally issued with a dust jacket, it should still have that same dust jacket. If the book came with a folding map, the folding map should still be there. If it’s a ten-volume set, all ten volumes should be together.
Because an incomplete book loses a key aspect of its collectability if missing something, this will affect the value tremendously. For example, if one volume is missing from your ten-volume set, the price doesn’t go down 10%. Instead, the price goes down significantly—it can decrease by 50% or even more, depending on the set. Some real life examples:
A first edition of the official account of the Lewis and Clark expedition is one of the most coveted pieces of Americana. In great condition, it can be worth over $200,000. But without the large folding map, based on Clark’s own cartography, it’s worth more around $25,000.
The Great Gatsby has one of the most recognizable dust jackets ever made. However, it is extremely hard to find. In a great original dust jacket, the book can go for $200,000 or more. Without the dust jacket, a nice copy of the book goes for $5000-$6000.
In many cases the spread isn’t so extreme, as I used iconic examples to demonstrate the point. (Note also that for extremely desirable items, even incomplete copies can still command noteworthy prices.) However, for the most part a book published after, say, 1930-ish without its dust jacket will not be collectible (highly valuable) at all. Very simply, many items can lose their collectability entirely if they are incomplete.
Condition: This is the quality that pinpoints the value of your book after edition and completeness have been established. For example, a first edition copy of Hound of the Baskervilles (without its extremely scarce dust jacket) may range in price from $6000 to $9000. But where it falls on that spectrum, established by edition and completeness, is based on the condition of that particular copy.
This is why you’ll often hear my colleagues and I say that we can’t make a judgment on a book’s value unless we’ve seen it (ideally in person, but at the very least in photos). Condition can sometimes make the difference of thousands of dollars.
Note that the condition of a book has to be compared to other books of the same edition. Otherwise you’re comparing apples to oranges. For example, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was published in 1943, in the midst of World War II, during paper rationing. It would be a mistake to expect the paper of the dust jacket to reflect the quality of paper pre- and post-war America. In fact, The Fountainhead is costs significantly more than Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, because of the difficulty of finding great copies, along with the significantly smaller print run.
Restoration also plays a major role in condition. With very few exceptions, a copy with restoration will be valued less than an unrestored copy of the book in great condition—even if the restored book seems to look better on the surface.
This ends Part II. Please comment with any questions, or with anything you’d like to see covered in the Rare Books 101 series. Planned for future installments:
How much does restoration matter?
How to store and take care of your rare books
Where to start?
Rare books as investments