I spend a lot of my day initiating bibliophiles into the fundamentals of rare books. For those of you who don’t have the chance to visit in person, I realized it may be difficult for you to have the opportunity to get the basics. So here’s Part I of a Rare Books 101.
What is a rare book?
In a nutshell, it is a book that is collected. “Rare” in this case does not mean “scarce”—though that is generally part of it.
What books are most likely to be collected?
Basic supply and demand.
Supply: In most cases, the first edition of a book is the version that is printed in (and survives in) the fewest amount of copies. This is because the first time a book is printed, the publishers won’t have a certain idea of how well it will sell, so they tend towards conservative in the number of copies they print. That way there’s no harm: if the print run sells out, they can always print more. On the other hand, if they print too many and copies of the print run are left over, the publisher loses money. Therefore it’s safer to make your first print a relatively small number.
Demand: The first edition of a book is generally the edition that has the biggest impact on the world. In addition, there’s a romanticism to the idea that it’s the first time those ideas were ever read by the general public. Collecting is very concept-driven, and collectors often seek items with the greatest historical or personal impact.
Note that supply and demand work together. You might own a book that survives in only three copies, but if no one is interested in the content, it won’t be a terribly valuable book. On the other hand, if a book in high demand is printed in an enormous amount of copies, its collectible value will be relatively lower than expected, given its impact.
Signed books are another example of the supply and demand concept. If there are already few copies of a first edition, then there are even fewer first edition copies that are also signed. In addition, a book that is signed will be in higher demand because of the concept that the author actually touched the book.
How can I tell if my book is a first edition?
There is no uniform way to tell, as printing conventions vary widely from era to era and place to place. The ideal is obviously when the book says “first edition,” generally on the copyright page. However, this trait is seen most often only with books printed after WWII, so for the vast majority of books it will not appear.
Collectors search for what are called bibliographic points. Think of a point as a point of change. That is: in earlier copies of a book, a physical trait shows itself one way. Then a change occurs, and that physical trait shows itself differently.
An easy example of this is a typo. On page 57 of Huckleberry Finn, 11 lines up from the bottom, the text reads: “with the was.” It should read: “with the saw.” This was caught after the first printing and corrected, so bibliographers know that any copies with the error are part of the first printing.
Points can be more than simply errors, however. Maybe the book was bound in a different color in later editions. Maybe the publisher increased the price of the book where it was printed on the dust jacket. There are practically limitless possibilities, and each book is different. In other words: you need to ask an expert or consult the proper bibliography to know for sure.
But my book looks just like the one on your website. Doesn’t that mean it’s a first?
This is a leading question, but we get it all the time. The answer is no. Many books—particularly 20th century and children’s books—are published with the same artwork and in the same format over and over again. Think about it this way. You loved Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel when you were little. Now you have a child. You want to buy him a copy that looks just like the one you had. See, it’s quite smart for publishers to keep the same art in some cases.
Instead, you have to search out those bibliographic points. Is the rectangle in the corner reading “50 Word Vocabulary” on Green Eggs and Ham a sticker, or printed on the book? That’s one point for this iconic Seuss title: the rectangle is a sticker.
Now, it’s true you can conduct an initial inspection of your books to weed out the most obviously wrong candidates. Go to the title page of your book. Note the date. (Remember: the title page, NOT the copyright page.) Then go online and type in “first edition” plus the title of your book. Does the publication date match the date on the title page?
If the dates match, don’t get too excited. It doesn’t mean the book is a first edition: many popular books went through multiple editions in the first year they were published. However, the vast majority of books can be ruled out this way because the vast majority of books were not published in the same year as the first. So if the dates do match, it means that this book deserves a little more research.
How do I figure out the bibliographic points of a first edition?
In the end, it’s always about the authoritative bibliography. A bibliography is an in-depth description of the physical aspects of a book, usually emphasizing the differences (the points) so as to make identifying the proper edition as simple as referencing the information in the book.
Besides entire books of dedicated bibliographies, there are a lot of books whose bibliographies are summarized in individual articles. In addition, there are some handy one-stop guides available, such as Ahearn’s Collected Books—though these are more useful for a quick list of points (they do NOT always cover every important point of a book, beware), and not so much for pricing (which is simply more nuanced than a single number).
Online, there are many dealers who will state the points of a book, but as a general principle I would avoid taking them at their gospel word unless they directly cite the authoritative bibliography. (I have on many occasions seen false information about points on the internet.) In addition, you can ask an expert like me or one of my colleagues at Bauman. We will either help you find the bibliography, or we will look it up ourselves in the bibliography and let you know.
This is the end of Part 1, which covers the basics. In Part II, I’ll go over some nuances and exceptions that play major roles in collecting. Below are the questions I’m planning to answer in the next part. Please comment and let me know what other Rare Book 101 questions you’d like me to tackle.
Besides edition, what other qualities are important to a rare book?
What is the difference between edition, printing, issue, and state?
How much does restoration matter?
Can later editions of books be considered rare?
Can a book be rare simply because of its age?