14Feb Britain vs America - What Editions to Collect

NOTE: This first appeared on an earlier blog in July, 2016.

Nope, this isn’t some whimsical hammering on the chest, it’s a brief look at which editions to buy when collecting rare books. As a little spoiler; this won’t provide a set of rules that determine which edition to collect; it’s never that easy. So, what are we talking about exactly, and why Britain vs America? Well, it’s not always Britain vs America, particularly not if you’re not collecting English language books. But when searching for a book, it’s not always clear whether one should purchase the first US edition, the first UK edition or some other edition. Of course, it’s not always a decision between UK and US editions, but that’s the most common choice. I’m going to outline the primary points for consideration.

1. Follow the Flag

This is a common consideration, but what does it mean? It suggests that when collecting books by a particular author that you should buy the books published in that author’s home country. Home country doesn’t always mean where they were born or raised, it often means where the author resides, or wrote their works. An author like Isaac Asimov might’ve been born in Russia, but that doesn’t always mean that one should collect Russian first editions. Asimov left Russia for the US when he was three; in this particular case follow the flag means the US. T.S. Eliot? Born and raised in Missouri, sojourned in Paris, worked in London. Not as simple. Eliot was an American, and whilst his major contributions to the literary world, both as a writer and publisher, were very much centred in Britain, he was still an American. If you’re following the flag, you’re probably going to buy the American editions. Generally, following the flag will lead to the preferred edition (the term preferred edition is used to denote which edition most people prefer to buy), though this is by no means a role. Of course, it doesn’t apply to a lot of authors, Camus for example might be desirable in the English, so it’s impossible to follow the flag.

2. Print Runs

This isn’t as subjective as most of the points here because the fact is that most often, books are printed in the UK with a smaller print run than in the US. There are fewer readers in the UK than the US. A book printed here with a print run of 1,000 might have a run of 3,000 in the US. Of course, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule; there are plenty of books printed in the UK in a higher volume than in the US, particularly when one considers dates - some books by British authors might not have seen a US printing until decades after. So, again, it’s not possible to pick a title and say with certainty that the US edition is more common than the UK edition, though it is somewhat likely to be the case.

3. Demand

Sometimes demand determines which is the preferred edition. This is a cyclical relationship. An increase in demand subsequently increases the demand. It’s sort of like a slow-burning example of hype. Take Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A British author, working with an American director on a British-made film. Marginally, the US edition is the preferred edition, but that’s primarily indicated by the price. There’s a strong association with it being the book of the film, and films are usually made in America. But what about A Clockwork Orange? British writer, American director, filmed in Britain. The British edition is the preferred edition. The situation is almost identical, the only real differences are print runs (which aren’t commonly known), and the fact the 2001 has American lead actors, compared to Clockwork Orange’s British leads (HAL is Canadian, so I don’t know how that fits in). The point is that sometimes the demand surpasses the points of consideration and this perpetuates throughout the years. I’m not suggesting that this is the case with the two books above, just that sometimes certain editions are preferred for sometimes arbitrary reasons.

4. Aesthetics

This is an easy one, as long as you can be completely objective about what constitutes good design. If, like everyone else, your appreciation of art is subjective, then you can be happy in your decision-making. Some books just look and feel better than their counterparts. Take an author like Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer. The UK editions have been, in my opinion and that of most of our collectors, much nicer in the UK editions than the US, at least they were initially. Bringing a designer on like Chip Kidd has been helpful in settling the balance, but, for many, the UK editions are just nicer.

5. Historic Trends

This is one of the most important factors for many collectors. Let’s say you were seduced by a beautiful British first edition of a Robert Heinlein book, and for the next few years you bought all his hardbacks that came out in the UK. Now, ten years later, you find that there are some really cool jacket designs on the US editions (Starship Troopers) or some seminal works that are much more valuable in the US (Stranger in a Strange Land), or simply that everyone’s telling you that the US editions are the preferred editions (they are). Are you going to stop collecting the UK editions? Probably not, you’ll probably keep filling your collection because historically that’s been the trend for you. Tie this into the other points and it changes more widely; historically Terry Pratchett books have been preferred in the UK edition, so the latest book is preferred in the UK, regardless of all other points.

6. Priority

Historically, this was the most important point for a great deal of collectors. The idea, for numerous, sometimes arcane, reasons, was to collect the earliest edition. If a British author published a book in the US five days before he or she published it in the UK, then these collectors would buy the US edition, even if it were ugly and had a huge print run. That’s the first edition, that’s what they want (proofs often don’t matter to these collectors; again, these things are somewhat particular).

7. Value

For some, the most important point. Which copy of Childhood’s End should I spend my money on? Well, he was British, the British first edition had a smaller print run, the US was a year earlier, British firsts are generally preferred. Aesthetics? Both pretty awful, I guess the US edition just clinches it. So not too clean cut. The US edition is four or five times more valuable than the UK, though four or five times more common. This, for some, is all that matters. It can be argued that the preferred edition is the most valuable edition because people are willing to pay the most for it. It’s not that simple though, of course, it never is - take scarcity, for example, if there are 100,000 copies of a book it will be very cheap, but could still be the preferred edition.

So, to summarise, this is another vague and non-scientific article on book collecting. I’d love for it to be scientific and I’m sure in the hands of another it would be, but the fact is that every book has its own merits, it’s up to you to reconcile it with your collection.

Finally, there is a trend nowadays to collect the highlights, giving a wide rather than deep collection. In this case, one can often just buy the preferred editions, it might not be a coherent collection in the traditional sense, but if it works, it works.

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