Several years ago, I began book collecting. Casually at first, guided by my brother-in-law. For years, I collected many inexpensive first editions that are not worth much today. In 2007, I wondered how I might predict which a course in miracles podcast would be the most valuable. Would I be able to zero in on books that would “skyrocket” in value shortly after their publication? I started studying books by collectors such as Nicholas Basbanes and Rick Gekoski. Mr. Basbanes devotes a whole chapter to “Three Little Words”- rarity, scarcity and value – in his book, Among the Gently Mad. He says that rarity is achieved by a combination of significance, desirability and availability.
An example Mr. Basbanes gives is that of bibles. The first book printed was the Gutenberg or 42-line Bible. 47 copies are known to exist. There are four times as many Gutenberg Bibles as Bay Psalm Books (the first book printed in the American colonies in 1639). However, the Gutenberg Bible would be the more desirable and significant of the two. He also points out that there are over 500 existing copies of Copernicus’s 16th century book De Revolutionibus Orbium Colelestium (On The Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres). Even with a relatively large number of copies for a 450 year old book, it is one of the most coveted, expensive and stolen books.
For the books I collect I want a low first printing. How low? A few years ago, 50,000 was a large printing for an author’s first book. Now some first printings are 100,000 or more. I would really like to see less than 15,000 copies printed. However, information on low first printings can be very hard to find. Some authors do not know the number of copies in the first printing of their books. A key statement Mr. Basbanes makes is that the first books of important authors of any century are typically the most difficult to acquire. The authors are unknown when they write their first books and their publishers only print a small number of copies due to expected limited demand.
I now knew to look for new authors’ first books. But which new authors? The most collectible books are works of fiction. The genres most important to collectors are literary fiction, mystery, fantasy, science fiction and horror. Young adult “chapter” books have become more collectible since the Harry Potter books appeared 10+ years ago. Many authors have switched from adult fiction to young adult fiction as both teens and adults like to read these books. I have some history books and biographies in my collection but I do not usually look in these areas of a bookstore.
Why is fiction so collectible? The characters created and developed by authors are unique and cannot be copied by other authors. It is the creativity that makes the difference. A “Breakthrough” book can be an author’s second, third or later book that the critics love and the public lines up to buy. Often the book will be an award winner. I watch the award nominations carefully and try to buy award winning books with low first printings. A recent example is the unknown author, Jaimy Gordon, winning the National Book Award with her third novel, The Lord of Misrule.
If an author begins a new series, the first book will sometimes become valuable. Examples of this are Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Rick Riodan’s The Lightning Thief and Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. Each author had written several books before writing these career-launching books.