Embarking on an adventure in collecting something new and unfamiliar can be very exciting, but it can also be a bit overwhelming.
Case in point: turning a fascination for books into a passion for collecting them. The beauty of collecting books is that there’s a niche in the marketplace for just about everyone. The increase in modern edition books showing up in auctions – and in some cases fetching tidy sums – speaks to an opportunity that many are seizing as first-time collectors.
To gain a bit of perspective about the modern book market and gain a few tips for bibliophiles at any level of experience, we turned to Rebecca Rego Barry, author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, and editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine.
What do you feel are some of the most intriguing aspects of collecting modern editions?
For collectors of modern firsts, there is probably an element of capturing the history one has lived through, or celebrating some part of that history. All collectors are trying to tell a story with their collections, and for collectors of modern firsts, that story is often very personal.
Also, for those who collect firsts—modern or not—part of the draw is to see and experience the book exactly as the author did.
How should the beginning collector proceed if they want to focus on modern editions but have a limited budget?
Slowly! Beginning collectors can and will make mistakes, so it’s best to take it slowly as you find your focus and educate yourself about book-collecting basics. I would advise new collectors to attend a few books fairs if they can, get the ‘lay of the land,’ so to speak, and talk to booksellers who specialize in the areas that pique your interest. Affordability doesn’t have to be an issue, unless you’re aiming for a collection of high spots (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, etc.). If you secretly cherish some quirky or offbeat topic or author, that can be the perfect start for a unique and inexpensive collection.
Why do you think modern editions, like the Harry Potter series, are so attractive to collectors?
I think people are driven to collect books that are meaningful to them, so if the first book that truly appealed to you as a reader was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, maybe that’s the book that will launch your collection of modern firsts, or the works of J.K. Rowling, or every different edition of HP, or high points of children’s literature – who knows?!
Collectible modern firsts are typically in very good (or better) condition, so they also tend to look aesthetically pleasing on a shelf, as opposed to, say, flaking, sheepskin-bound medical books from the mid-nineteenth century. For some, that may be a consideration.
What are four things every collector should keep in mind when collecting modern editions?
- Can three of them be ‘condition?’ All joking aside, condition is perhaps the most important consideration in modern first editions.
- Because modern books are produced in quantity, they are rarely ‘rare,’ so their monetary value is often based on condition, both of the book and, sometimes even more importantly, the dust jacket.
- But to back up a little, first you’ll need to determine whether the book actually is a first edition, and that can be tricky, which is why there are guides to help, like McBride’s Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. If you’re working with a bookseller you know and trust, you won’t have to puzzle it out yourself.
- While some may like their books pristine and untouched, collectible modern books are occasionally signed or inscribed—so authenticity is obviously an issue, but so is the quality of the inscription. The ‘best’ or most interesting inscribed modern firsts can tell a story about the author and the person he/she inscribed it to: e.g., a friend, a lover, someone involved in the book’s production, a fellow author.
What are some of the lesser-known places one can find rare modern issues?
I think church and library book sales are still viable book-hunting venues. Just in the past few years, I’ve found a couple of ‘sleepers’ in this way, one at a church jumble sale in Syracuse, New York, and one at a university library book sale, also in New York. My very best find happened at a church book sale in Massachusetts back in 1999. That was a first edition of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, in its jacket, no less.
Several people I interviewed for my book mentioned Goodwill and other charity shops as great places to find modern and ‘hypermodern’ firsts.
What is one of the best quotes you’ve ever come across regarding books?
Well, that one’s easy for me. The quote from Larry McMurtry’s novel, Cadillac Jack, which was the guiding light for my book – ‘Anything can be anywhere.’ And this is borne out almost on a weekly basis when some unknown or ‘missing’ manuscript, book, or piece of art is ‘found.’ It appeals to the treasure hunter in all of us.
Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places (2015) and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine. She also writes about books, history and auctions for The Awl, Slate, and JSTOR Daily, and her chapter on the Warner sisters will appear in the forthcoming anthology From Page to Place: American Literary Tourism and the Afterlives of Authors (2017).