A Novel Idea

With physical book sales growing there has never been a better time to start collecting first editions, says Josh Stephenson.

A while back I picked up a second-hand copy of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase – a fantastic read but that’s beside the point – and on one of the inner blank pages there was a note. The note simply said, ‘Here you go, handsome. A great place to start with Murakami and to chill with after our crazy wild goose chase. What a shower – R’.

Immediately my mind was racing with what this all meant. What was the nature of their goose chase? Was this a book passed between lovers? If so, why did he let it go? Did the relationship fall apart? Did it fall apart because of the aforementioned goose chase? Before the novel’s tale had even begun I was faced with an altogether different story.

This is one of the underappreciated pleasures of books – the history that comes with them. Reading a book is a tactile pleasure, you feel the paper on your skin as you leaf through the pages, but what is easily unconsidered is the many others who have done the same thing. Just think about the locations that book will have travelled to, the emotions it would have elicited and the satisfaction it brought. Now repeat that back time and time again until its inception as a first edition.

And it’s first edition books which have been enjoying a surge in popularity over the last decade. While many expected the eBook and the Kindle to bring about the demise of print, instead the physical novel saw a resurgence in 2016 with sales of printed books rising by 7% as consumers started to lose interest in the eBook format. This is a phenomenon akin to the boom in sales of vinyl records –­ people are opting for experience over convenience.

This has led to a boom in the price of first edition books. By far the most expensive would be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which has seen the valuation of a good-conditioned first edition rise to £246,636, according to Stanley Gibbons’ Rare Book Index (stanleygibbonsplc.com). An astonishing figure which far outstrips its nearest competition, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which comes in at a comparatively modest £60,000.

These are at the upper end of the market and most classics can be bought for a few thousand pounds, but it is clear evidence the first editions market has never been stronger.

This has not been lost on the nation’s booksellers who have been enjoying the increasing interest, yet the appeal of the first edition has never been lost on them. “The first edition is the closest one can get to the author’s original idea. You can’t, in most cases, sit down with an author and go through their motivation for a book. So, if it is a book you admire then this acts not only as a monument to what it represents in its most embryonic state, but as a way to get inside the head of the author,” says Christiaan Jonkers, owner of the bookstore Jonkers Rare Books. “For instance, the author will have a significant say on the design of the first edition of the book and they will have a smaller say as the book gets reprinted and goes into paperback, foreign editions and so on.”

This is a view echoed by Richard Dawkins from the online book marketplace, AbeBooks, who believes a first edition is more than just a mere novel: “First editions are the cornerstone of book collecting. A first edition is a little piece of literary history, especially if the book has had some sort of social or cultural impact.

“It is common for a true first edition to be scarce, especially if it is the debut book from a particular author. As authors gain a following and become more popular, their print runs become larger. For example, there were only 500 copies of the first edition of Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone but the later novels had first edition print runs in the millions.”

When it comes to the authors who are the most popular among the buying public the list is long as it is varied, but if you have a liking for the great writers of the 20th century then you are not alone. John Atkinson runs his own bookstore, John Atkinson Fine and Rare Books (johnatkinsonbooks.co.uk), and finds modern first editions particularly alluring: “In my particular specialism, which is modern first editions, the leaders are fairly obvious: Rowling, Tolkien, Fleming, Christie and Orwell. The impact of film on the rarities in modern literature is important and can positively, or negatively, affect prices.”

Unsurprisingly, the list does not stop there and the likes of Hemingway, Dickens, Huxley, Dickinson, Wilde, Wharton, Woolf, Whitman, Waugh, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Twain, Nabokov, Salinger, Lee, Vonnegut, Faulkner, Kerouac and Burroughs all prove popular purchases.

Investment Opportunities

While some will buy a first edition book for their unbridled love of the title, what it means to them emotionally and perhaps to own a little piece of history, there is undeniably an investment opportunity to be made.

As part of a balanced portfolio such investments can be worthwhile, but, as with any investment, caveat emptor.

“Investing in books is just like the stock market. The value of a book can go up and down. Condition, condition, and condition are the three things to remember. Wear and tear can reduce the value of a first edition by thousands of pounds,” explains Mr Dawkins.

“When looking at modern first editions (books published in the past 100 years), look for the presence of a dust jacket and its condition. Many dust jackets were thrown away by the owners once the book was brought home. Publishers like Penguin ensured that dust jackets became works of art and worth keeping. First editions of The Great Gatsby can be easily found on the Internet marketplaces but first editions of this title with dust jackets are rare and worth much more.

“Aside from first editions, signed books are the second cornerstone of book collecting. Some authors are famous as great signers while others rarely signed anything.

“Price is defined by scarcity and demand. The great authors and the classic books are always in demand but scarcity really varies according to the circumstances of the time. The scarcer the book, the higher the value.”

This means, of course, collecting first edition books can become quite a expensive endeavour but it does not need to be. When it comes to first editions depending on your taste it can be much cheaper than you would expect. “You can make it as expensive or inexpensive as you want. If you want only the most sought after books in very good condition then you are going to be competing with a lot of other people some of whom are going to have very deep pockets,” says Mr Jonkers. “However, if your choice is in a minor author or a slightly more obscure author and you are collecting them just because you like them you may find it comparatively inexpensive.”

Brave New World

Now that the physical book has managed to save itself from oblivion where can the first editions market go now? Is there still room for growth? “It depends what you mean by grow. The availability of these first edition books is, by its very nature, limited – they can’t make any more of them. And as time goes on there will inevitably become fewer and fewer of them because books will get damaged or destroyed or lost. Therefore, the supply side of things is dwindling,” explains Mr Jonkers. “From a supply point of view books have been sought after and collected for 500 years and there’s no evidence that is going to stop.”

Which is good news for those of us who enjoy holding a piece of history in our hands and connecting with the past. A first edition copy of The Great Gatsby may be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds but that is nothing compared to the joy it would have given that person who read it, who perhaps would have passed it to a friend in a flurry of excitement, who kept it in the family for generations, before it was found in a box by an inquisitive grandchild who was reading it at school, before finally ending up in the hands of a collector who was inspired by Fitzgerald’s words when he was just a boy. For that is the joy of the first edition, the end of the story is just the beginning.


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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.

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