08Jan Matrix Collecting - An Alternative Method of Book Collecting

When I dismantled and sold my first collection nearly a decade ago it was nearly a decade old. When I look back, it was an unruly collection, with more than a smidgen of simple amassing. It was my first collection and I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed receiving the books. There were no rarities really and the joy was finding the book at an affordable price, rather than simply finding the book. I collected for the joy of reading and every book had some aspect of being collectable, but this did not make it a great collection. Some books were acquired because I liked the book, others because I liked the genre, some because the author was well known and others because other people were buying them.

When we started a new collection a couple of years ago we knew it needed more direction and a new model. A decade in book-dealing had shown me, more than collecting ever had, that building a superlative collection was difficult without a great deal of money and even more patience. My challenge was to come up with a method whereby a collection could feel complete without the need for it to encompass every possibility. Matrix collecting was the answer that satisfied me.

What is a matrix collection?

In a nutshell, a matrix collection is a collection of collections. More specifically, it's a series of very small collections which when combined represent an over-arching theme. For example, perhaps you have an interest in science. You may have a collection of Chemistry books, antiquarian books on alchemy, books by Darwin. If you want to build a collection of Terry Pratchett, you may have a small collection of Discworld books, non-fiction, Children's books and proofs. The name matrix comes from the idea that these collections will likely be displayed in groups on a bookcase, each collection occupying a single cell - the bookcase being the matrix (grid). I also liked the notion that it tied in with a printing matrix. It has nothing to do with Keanu Reeves, though if you're collecting fiction there is a fun analogy to be had wherein the collection represents that which is not real.

The four rules for a matrix collection.

Below are four rules that must be adhered to. Of course, the joy of a collection is to build it how you want, I'm outlining these rules as it really me to feel that the quality of my collection is where I want it to be. 

#1 Define the matrix

In reality, the first and second rules are interchangeable and have a certain amount of transience. In my experience though, it's best to define the over-arching scheme of the collection first. This will most likely be based on your personal tastes. It could be 'A collection of Horror fiction', 'A collection of Nobel prizewinners', 'Great ideas in science', 'the works of J.R.R. Tolkien'. Now, an obvious question would be why do I need a matrix if all I'm collecting is J.R.R. Tolkien? Well, if you want to put together a complete collection of the finest Tolkien books it'll cost well into six figures and take the best part of a century. If you're happy to do that, or happy to miss a few bits then a matrix collection's probably not right for you. For others, read on. 

Note too that this rule can be as vague as 'anything I fancy'. You may be a keen collector of books about Geology but you also like Bernard Cornwell. In this case there is no over-arching theme to the collection. This is not a problem, your theme will be vague, but there is still definition within the cells. 

#2 Define the cells

In a matrix collection a cell is a group of books. Every book within that cell must meet one or more criteria, the criteria define the cell. It could be wide like 'first editions' or 'John Wyndham Books'  or narrow like 'Proof copies of Martian terraforming novels' or 'True crime with a female serial killer'. The important thing here is that each collection must form part of your over-arching theme. 

Also, it is important to note that this is something that should be revisited occasionally. Collections need to be flexible and reassessing what needs culling and what needs improving is vital.

#3 Limit the size

Perhaps the most important factor in a matrix collection is limiting the size of the cells. My recommendation here is four. Yep, that's right, limit the number of books in each cell to four. Initially that may sound like a challenge, but the pertinent thing to remember is that you, the collector, gets to define the cells. Let's say you're collecting Fantasy. Limiting the cell size to four items, doesn't mean you only get to collect four books by George R.R. Martin. You could define some cells as  'George R.R. Martin Proofs', 'George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings'. Of course, the finer-grained your cell definitions, the less well-formed your matrix. It's a flexible model, but if you're looking to create a fine-tuned collection I would suggest taking a coarse-grained approach. Consider too that if you have the idea of collecting four George R.R. Martin books as your end goal, you are going to be much more selective and end up with four fantastic books. Once that goal is reached and book five comes along, then you can redefine the cells.

It can also be worth considering limiting the number of cells. For the admittedly arbitrary desire for symmetry, I limited my collection to sixteen cells when I first started building it. I had maybe five books, but that told me I had to buy a further 59 to reach my goal. Of course, I never got close to it, the goalposts moved and cells got redefined - that the goal is in reach though is enough for me.

There's one small caveat here that I sort of bastardised into the model is that of complete works. I found early on in my collection that with some books I couldn't quite make the four-book-rule work. I had a number of books by Robin Hobb - signed first editions - and I wanted a full set. If I had a 'Robin Hobb' cell, I would only be allowed four books, or four trilogies*. To accommodate this I created a cell was titled 'Important Writers of 21st Century Fantasy', that cell was restricted to the UK signed first and limited editions of four authors, Hobb being one of them, China Mieville is the second and three and four are undefined. This stretches the model significantly but I feel this flexibility is required. To stop it actually breaking the model I introduced two further restrictions: firstly, the entry within the cell must be well-defined and two, the quantity must be below a certain number (I chose ten**). 

*the model allows trilogies, series etc. to be treated as a single entry within a cell. 

**My Robin Hobb collection is thus her five trilogies and her one quartet (UK signed firsts) - limited editions, proofs and short story collections are out of scope - this is difficult to adhere to, and when the Subterranean Press republished her Farseer Trilogy last year I found that I had to create a new cell for the Subterranean Press to allow me to add the lettered edition to my collection. I know that this sounds crazy, but the restrictions really do help keep the collection refined.

#4 Sell the outcasts 

So, you've filled your 'Stephen King Signed Limited Editions' cell. All four slots are occupied and the opportunity comes along to buy a nice copy of The Stand in the coffin that you've always wanted. Where does it go? Well, you have a number of options: 1) re-define the cells; 2) increase the size limits of the cells; 3) sell a book from the cell.

It's up to you which option you choose, though I would only recommend one and three. The idea behind a matrix collection is to have a constantly-evolving collection that improves in quality more than quantity. Therefore we would suggest looking to sell a book on before finding it a new cell. If you can't bear to part with it or it feels like an integral part of the collection, then take a look at rule number one. Failing that, reassess the cell size but bear in mind that can have an adverse effect on the other cells (or could be a segue into further collecting).

I know that selling books from a collection is a cardinal sin for some collectors, but it does free up funds and you know, these are just guidelines; you don't have to be too strict with yourself. And of course, they don't have to be sold on right away, they can be candidates for removal; perhaps not catalogued as part of the collection but still on the shelves.

An example

The example I'll offer is a section of my own collection, which in itself represented a cross-section of how we try to arrange our stock.

1. Define the matrix

The collection represents: a vertical slice through the history of speculative fiction.

N.B. Try and imagine the difficulty of creating that collection without some limitations and guidelines.

2. Define the cells

At last count we had 36 cells in our collection. Here are a handful:

  • Arthurian Literature
  • Mythology
  • Taproot Texts
  • Modern Science Fiction
  • Stephen King
  • Modern Proofs
  • The Tartarus Press
  • The Master and Margarita
  • Magic Realism

3. Limit the cell size

We chose four entries as it really did let us focus. Other than the author collections we mentioned, we've found this to be useful in making purchasing decisions.

4. Sell the outcasts

We've sold a few books from our collection, things that either didn't represent the over-arching theme properly, books whose shelf-life* had expired or books that had been replaced.

Let me talk through a couple of the cells. Take the Tartarus Press cell for example. I bought four a year or so back, two hardbacks and two paperbacks. I created a new cell (so revisited rule #2). A couple of months ago I chanced upon another book that I wanted to add into the collection. I had to remove one of the four I'd bought a year earlier. I picked an Arthur Machen on the basis of it having been previously published a century earlier, whereas the new book was a true first edition and thus better represented the over-arching theme.

My Stephen King cell is perhaps the best example though, as having handled the majority of King editions published, I understand what a wealth of choice there is. I'm not a huge King fan, but he does represent a branch on my over-arching theme and perhaps more importantly he does have a significance to my own personal reading. My King cell currently includes a first UK edition of Night Shift, A Centipede Press edition of Salem's Lot, an inscribed first edition of IT and a first edition of The Stand. Night Shift is rare, Salem's Lot was the first novel I read as an adult, IT is a seminal King work (however poor the ending) and The Stand is my favourite King book. It's a nicely squared cell. However, I don't like IT and The Stand has condition issues. Should any opportunity arise, I would get rid of those in that order. 

Looking at my collection, which I have catalogued, I see the gaps and I see the overall picture. I know which sections are under-represented and can focus on them, I can see which are over-represented (modern proofs!) and can look to sell on. I don't have many books that I absolutely need to add to my collection (there's one edition of Master and Margarita that I own that I would just love in my collection - but it's too expensive) and this is important. I don't feel like my collection's missing a first edition of Bradbury's 451, though that is an integral part in the over-arching theme.This is because I don't have a bunch of Bradbury first editions in my collection and I don't have a cell wherein that title is an absolute necessity. A nice paperback edition or an anniversary edition will complement nicely in the '20th Century SF' cell because there aren't any other Bradbury first for it to look like an outsider next to. It also means I don't have to shell-out a couple of grand for a signed first. If I were to create a Bradbury cell, which I may at sometime, then it will probably require a 451, but unless the other three books are US firsts of The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked this Way Comes and Dark Carnival then the US first of 451 isn't required (and yes, I don't know how to spell Fahrenheit (clearly I do) and a further yes, I clearly see how my collection now requires a Ray Bradbury cell with those four exact books in it - dammit).

*Shelf-life here refers to the amount of time a book stays fresh on your shelves and is important to consider when looking to sell outcasts. Some books offer no satisfaction when you pull them off the shelves, others are satisfying for weeks, others for decades. This is for many reasons including rarity, condition, value and nostalgia.


This isn't a model for everyone. It's a model for people who find themselves saying "I'll never be able to afford that" or "I'm running out of space". The important thing is that it gives you an end goal but allows for expansion at will. 

I like to think of book collecting as a journey (I'm sorry, it's an apt analogy however much it turns the stomach). Some people would like to know in advance which cities they'll visit, some like to just see where the road takes them and some crazy people just want to visit all the cities, even the crappy ones that nobody likes and TripAdvisor doesn't even have an entry for. If you think you're the first of those, then this model of collecting might help you.

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