21Sep Collecting First Editions - Signed or Inscribed?


Collectors usually, though not always, value a book that has been signed by the author over one that hasn't. Though authors have been signing their books for centuries, the notion of an author sitting at a table and signing dozens of books for their adoring public is a relatively recent thing. This is one of the reasons why it's much more common to find recent books signed by their author than early books. Let's just outline a little terminology first.

Signed: This means the book has been signed by the author without being inscribed to someone in particular. Often this might be lengthened to Signed by the author or Signed by the author without inscription. We prefer the latter term for describing a book that has nothing in the author's hand other than their own name. This has often been designated as flat signed, this is not a term in recommended usage by the professional rare book trade.

Inscribed by the author: This means the book carries a note in the author's hand, most often written to someone in particular and then signed by the author. 

Inscription: it's important to understand that, in this context, an inscription is simply something written by hand in the book and one shouldn't assume that if a book is inscribed that the author has written in it. An inscription could be a note from a previous owner, or a message to a new owner gifting the book. These may be noted as gift inscriptions or owner's inscription. Unless these or of import or interest to the provenance of the book these generally reduce the value of the book. A good bookseller will always give a full description of the type of inscription.

So which is best?

Ultimately, it's down to personal choice, but our recommendation is nearly always to buy books inscribed by the author (this is usually to someone in particular). The reasons for this are as follows. Firstly, an inscription suggests something a little more personal, not only to the previous owner, but to the author too. Sometimes the best part of an inscription is in between the two names, where the author adds a witty note or a brief thank you for the support. Sometimes, the author might hint at knowing the owner. Always, however brief, there's a little hand-written story from the author that only you own (this, we believe, is the most important reason). Secondly, the value is generally, certainly historically, higher with an inscription. The longer the better too. Every now and then you'll get a wonderful inscription from the author. Thirdly, an inscription is much harder to forge, though an inscription doesn't imply authenticity it certainly gives you more text for comparison. Fourthly, inscribed copies were the norm for long enough and authors would like to know the name of the person to whom they were inscribing the book. Much like writing a letter, an inscription was a note to someone from someone. It would be impolite for an author to take no interest in who they were signing the book for. It's important to remember that this was, and still should be, an opportunity to meet an author, not a commercial enterprise* Fifthly, an inscribed book properly researched might provide clues to an association. For example 'To Dave, we'll always have Paris, from Iain.' might prove to be from a person important to the author and the inscription then adds a premium.

But I don't want a book inscribed 'to Dave'

That's fine, you collect what you want. If the presence of another name on there reminds you that it was signed for someone else then inscriptions might not be for you.

So why do so many people want books that aren't Inscribed?

With the advent of eBay, a prominent book-selling firm was very vocal in promoting books signed without inscriptions. Stating, without any doubt, that an inscribed book now and decades from now, would be worth much less than a book signed without an inscription. eBay and internet forums were birthing a new generation of collectors and given the prominence, particularly in the world of Stephen King, this became a 'fact'. I don't think it cynical to suggest that the market was keen to adopt this new fact, given that signed books are easier to forge than inscribed books. Fast forward a decade or two and the ghost of that remains; collectors of hyper-modern first editions want books signed without inscriptions. This coupled with the plentiful supply of modern books signed or inscribed by the author has meant they're able to pick and choose.

So what about the future?

Well, as always, it's up-to the collector. I mentioned Stephen King earlier. For a while, we found that inscribed copies were much harder to sell than signed copies. Over the years though, the doubt over authenticity has really taken hold in that market, and the balance has switched. We would take an inscribed King over a signed King any day - and likely add a premium for that. It is hard, however, to persuade many collectors of that. To them, the inscription just seems ugly, as though the fact that it was inscribed to someone else is very distinct from the fact that it wasn't signed to them. Add to that the dogma that an inscription is a bad thing and it becomes very hard to change. My advice is to talk to an ILAB dealer and see what they say, I suspect it would be hard to find one who would take a signed book over an inscribed one.

NB: I must add into the mix the notion of dates and quotes to the mix. A recent trend has been for the author to add a quote from the book on to the signature, and a date. Addressing the quote first, this is usually at the request of the book's owner, and certainly to them I'm sure it has a good deal of personal value. It doesn't, unfortunately, add value for the wider public. Similarly, a book with a date on or before publication, can really add value; often a book dated prior to the publication date can be a presentation copy from the author (though that's not often provable). A date on a book corresponding to the date of a signing might help to validate the signature, if for example there was a signing at the same date, and a quote and a date might help authenticate the signature due to a larger amount of comparison text, but ultimately they just reek of purposefully adding value. I realise that by saying that I'm undermining my argument a bit (adding a quote and a date infers an added value), but the reality is that long-term I suspect that an inscription will hold more value than a book without an inscription, and the date and quote will do little, regardless of what the market currently (formerly?) suggests.


*I've been to signings and brought books purely to sell on. I'm not suggesting it shouldn't be a commercial enterprise, of course the publisher is simply marketing their author too, rather most of the people who get a book signed do so for personal not commercial reasons.

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