WHAT MAKES BOOKS RARE?
A book doesn’t have to be an antique or one of only a thousand copies to be rare. Rather, a rare book is one that is in demand, historically or otherwise relevant, and difficult to find. Relevance may mean different things to different people, but typically refers to a book that made a significant impact upon release and whose impact may still be felt today. Demand is affected by many things, such as the size of a book’s print run, how popular it is, and how controversial it may be. Since supply is an integral part of demand, factors that affect the lifespan or condition of a book, such as the materials it’s printed on and how often or carefully it’s been read (for example, a children’s book, a cookbook, or a book printed on low-quality paper is less likely to survive in excellent condition) also affect a book’s demand. Furthermore , it is important to state that even though a book may be rare, it may not be otherwise valuable or highly sought after.
DOES A BOOK’S CONDITION REALLY MATTER?
Yes, yes, and yes again. Top-condition books are both significantly more desirable and significantly more expensive than worn copies. It is wise to purchase the cleanest copy of a book that you can afford, which for many collectors is a Fine or Very Fine copy (yes, there is a distinction among these two grades). However, even if you can afford a copy in a better condition, one may not always be available for purchase. Mint condition copies of recent first editions may not be difficult to obtain, but it’s quite unlikely that a travelogue from the 1800s could be found without at least minimal wear. For a book such as that, even Fine may be an unobtainable goal, regardless of your budget. In some instances, a book that has become increasingly scarce, the condition may not be such a large factor in its value, especially if it’s entirely intact and original.
WHAT IS PROVENANCE, AND DOES IT MATTER?
A book’s provenance is a copy’s individual history, from the moment it leaves the printing press until the moment it comes into your hands. Determining provenance is rarely possible, but books may include indicative items such as bookplates, inscriptions, or owner names. Some also have a record of their provenance included within the book itself or recorded separately.
Provenance is rarely anything more than a curiosity or interesting historical footnote; it doesn’t typically add to the value of a copy except in rare circumstances, such as ownership by a famous person or library. Sometimes significant value can be added to a book if its provenance can be traced to the author via association (a copy that belonged to someone close to the author in some way) or presentation (a copy the author gave to someone). Presentation in particular, especially if the inscription is long or highly individualized, can skyrocket a book’s price and desirability.
WHAT DO EDITIONS, PRINTINGS, STATES, AND ISSUES MEAN?
An edition consists of each book printed from the same plate or setting of type with no significant alteration. When a book is a first edition, it comes from the first setting of type, and is a part of the first public release of the text as a book (though it may have been released earlier in another form). There can be more than one print run in an edition as long as the plates or setting of type have not changed, so a single edition may have 1,000 copies printed at the beginning of the year and another 1,000 printed at the end, both on the same plate.
When a small change is made to any printed element of the book (illustrations, cover, text) before it’s published, it creates a state within an edition. This may occur, for example, if a misspelling is fixed on the dust jacket or within the text. When multiple states in an edition exist, it is sometimes impossible to differentiate which came first.
Issues are deliberately created by publishers as modified copies of a particular title. This can occur in many different ways, such as an alteration in the book size or the addition of a dedication or foreword, and the resulting issue is treated as separate from the original. There is never any question of which issue came first, but the first issue is not always the most desirable; sometimes a modification in a later issue will make it more collectible, meaningful, or attractive than previous issues.
Editions are not always as clear-cut as the phrase “first edition” or “second edition” or the like may lead you to believe. For example, if a book says first Australian edition, then that’s an indication that the book was originally published in another country, even though the first Australian addition was its first appearance in the Australia. First editions can also reference the first appearance of a book in a particular language. Other types of editions can include limited, trade, and even signed limited editions, which feature an author signature and may have a special binding.
HOW LARGE IS A FIRST EDITION PRINT RUN?
This will vary from book to book, and the precise number is often unknown. Sometimes, this information may be contained in printer or publishing house records, or in a letter from the author or publisher. Other times the first edition is in fact a limited first edition, which means an exact number of books were printed, and that number is often included on the limitation page.
ARE FIRST EDITIONS THE ONLY ONES WORTH COLLECTING?
Though first editions are typically the most sought-after, there are exceptions to this rule. With literary texts, there may be additions to a later version that make it more desirable, a new poem added to an anthology, for example. Later editions of some nonfiction books that address history or travel can also become more desirable than first editions because material, such as biographical information or new illustrations, is frequently added or updated. In other cases, a book’s structure or format may be enhanced in later editions. You may have heard the term best edition, which refers to an edition of a book that bibliographers prefer to the first because of some enhancement, addition, or change.
Desirability is not the only factor when it comes to choosing editions. Some collectors wish only to purchase books in their native language, and the original first edition was printed in a different language. Other times, the original first edition is printed in a language that lacks the impact of its release in another language, or the original first edition is printed in a language that the collector simply can’t find. Some works first editions are so difficult to find that it’s not practical or possible to buy them, so collectors turn to later editions. It’s also not unheard of for collectors to seek special editions, signed copies, or editions or individual copies with a unique history over first editions.
HOW CAN YOU IDENTIFY A FIRST EDITION?
There are many ways to identify a book’s edition. First editions are not always clearly labeled as such by publishers, particularly books printed in or before the 1800s. Those that are labeled may say “first printing” or “first edition” on the copyright page, or they may use symbols or numbers. Those that are unlabeled must be studied by bibliographers, who examine an author’s printed material for similarities and differences between “points” found in content, typography, and binding. A point may be a specific typographical error on a specific page, or the font size of the author’s name on the cover, or even the type of cloth used in the binding. Such points can be used to identify an individual book’s state, issue, and edition.
WHY DO DUST JACKETS MATTER SO MUCH ON MODERN FIRST EDITIONS?
The original purpose of dust jackets or wrappers was simply to protect a book during the shipping process, and they were often discarded before a book was placed on its new owner’s shelf. Though we know of dust jackets being used as early as the mid-1800s, very few jackets from that time period have survived.
Dust jackets began to transform from simple protective coverings to artistic, promotional, and important parts of a book in the early 1900s. Since they were now seen as a component of the book itself, most collectors who want their first editions as whole and near to the original issue as possible began to desire books with dust jackets intact. Unfortunately, some dust jackets are tremendously difficult to find.
Not just the presence but also the condition of a dust jacket can greatly affect a book’s value, a book with a mint condition jacket is often worth significantly more than one with a worn jacket, which in turn may be worth significantly more than one with no jacket at all. Because dust jackets are made from paper and come into frequent contact with harmful agents such as moisture, dust, UV rays, friction, and simple human handling, wear and tear is not uncommon. Dust jackets often darken or fade, chip, tear, soil, and stain. Some are more susceptible to this than others, depending on the paper stock, coating, and color of the jacket. Many are also still thrown away.
IS ANY SPECIAL CARE REQUIRED FOR MY LIBRARY?
Books are typically hardy things, designed to withstand the stresses of time and multiple readings. However, this does not mean that they shouldn’t be stored and handled carefully. It’s important to keep your books in a controlled environment, one with stable temperature and humidity, neither too warm or cool, moist or dry. Also keep books out of direct sunlight, because UV rays will fade paper and damage leather bindings. You can extend the length of leather bindings by applying a specialized leather dressing once every year. For books with paper jackets, we recommend placing a clear, archival quality Mylar jacket on your dust covers, and for particularly delicate books, you may wish to consider a slipcase or display box.
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