There is nothing quite like the thrill of tracking down that elusive first edition book. With a bit of detective work the interested party can find almost any first edition in a variety of conditions. I’ve been collecting modern first editions for more than twenty years, and seriously for nearly a decade. I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in the right place at the right time for most of them. For others, I’ve paid handsomely and, on more than one occasion, have had to sneak the treasure into my house and past my wife. Thankfully, we have so many books in our home that she doesn’t notice another acquisition when it arrives. I must confess that this illicit activity of mine provides me with more than a little electrical charge. I’m being unfaithful to my wife, but instead of another woman, it’s with books. I’ve even sunk so low as to raid the townhouse belonging to a dead colleague for books, with permission from his family I hasten to add.
Recently I’ve begun to notice a disturbing trend in publishing. A growing number of new books are now being published already signed, accompanied by a golden sticker that says “Signed First Edition.” For people like me, this is a catastrophe. What it means is that signed first editions will no longer be as valuable as they once were. Although I do not collect first editions as an investment, it still helps to think that if I ever found myself in need I could sell off one or two books. With more and more books being published already signed, the novelty, the excitement of obtaining a signed first edition has lost its luster. During the past two weeks alone I’ve purchased three new signed first editions. The trend also lets anyone into the club that takes first editions seriously. If these books are readily available, the what’s the point? One might as well collect baseball cards or comic books or bottle caps.
First editions are fine investments because they never lose value. In fact, depending upon the condition of the book, if that book has a jacket and what condition the jacket is in, and if the price has been clipped from the jacket, the value of the book can increase or decrease widely. Most first editions increase in value, and having a signed first edition can increase its value immensely. Acquiring signed first editions is a safer investment than the stock market, and will often yield a greater return. Moreover, if the book states first edition and first printing (the two are not necessarily the same) the value can also increase.
Signed first editions can come in two categories: the signed copy, and the inscribed copy. The signed copy carries the author’s signature only, while the inscribed copy is dedicated to a specific person. I have both in my library. The inscribed editions are not worth as much as the signed, with the exception being that the inscribed is to another author or artist. I would consider selling my soul for an inscribed F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway.
Perhaps the new trend in signed first editions appearing in bookstores as they are published is part of why we are experiencing a resurgence in print; if so, then I am all for signed firsts. Yet, the increased number of signed first editions, combined with large print runs, will only decrease the value of first edition books. A first edition that has a 50,000 first print run will not be worth as much as a book with a 10,000 first print run. That means your first edition Stephen King or J.K. Rowling is worth just about as much as what you paid for it in the bookstore. Still, for those not looking for a sound investment, a signed first edition can add a more personal aspect to one’s library. Nevertheless, if the trend in signed firsts continues to grow, I wonder just how special those signed copies of one’s favorite books will be. It may turn out that inscribed first editions will actually be worth more than the signed.