02Jun The Modern Sophisticated Book - What it is and its Place in the Market for Rare Books

For those unaware, and collectors should not be unaware, a sophisticated book is one that has been 'doctored or faked up' (Carter & Barker, 2010, p207). English-speakers mostly use the term sophisticated nowadays to mean something improved by education or experience, the usage in the rare book world refers to a less-commonly used definition, that of something being deceptive or misleading.

A quick look online at seller's catalogues and the term appear underused, most likely because in the era of online bookselling it would be easy to confuse or even conflate the two definitions. A search for 'sophisticated copy' returned seller entries using the term correctly, i.e. referring to books having had endpapers replaced, new title pages inserted, and leaves inserted from other copies. The others used sophisticated in the other sense, describing the book as being something better than commonly found. There was one description that was left quite ambiguous: 'a sophisticated book for a sophisticated collector'. Read what you will into that one.

Many sellers will opt to use the term restored instead of sophisticated nowadays. There is a distinction, though a grey area exists between the two terms. The distinction likely came about given that there's an element of underhandedness to sophistication that many would like not to be associated with the term restoration. You may find the term 'gentle restoration to the spine tips' in a description. That doesn't mean the book is sophisticated. Swapping a title page from a tatty first edition into a tidy second edition so that it's indistinguishable from a first edition as issued is a sophisticated book. A book having had the library stamps removed is sophisticated, The grey area exists where, for example, endpapers are replaced and boards are rebacked.

These are just terms used in description, the important point is that they're in the description and that the description is clear and unambiguous. It's not good enough to have a book described as simply restored or sophisticated; a description of what has happened to the book must be included. As long as that detail is there, then whether the book is sophisticated or restored becomes moot. That said, sophisticated will, to the untrained reader, sound like a good thing.

To address this element of underhandedness that exists with sophistication, it should be noted that the process of sophistication only becomes underhanded when it's not explicitly mentioned. Whilst it might be frowned upon to combine four copies of a book to make a 'superbook', as long as that's described it's not underhand. Another distinction is with rebinds. A rebound book might be described as having been 'recently bound'. A 400-year-old book that had been rebound 200 years ago might be described as having had an 18th Century binding. Whereas a 200-year-old book having been bound 200-years-ago might be described as having a 'contemporary binding'. Dating the binding negates the need for a mention of sophistication.

In a roundabout manner, this brings us to what I'm terming a modern sophisticated book. I'd like to be clear that in the majority of cases, like with rebinds, it is clear that with a modern sophisticated book something has occurred. I'd like to use the term to refer more to a bookseller or collector having undertaken a process of making a book more attractive to the market. Again, this is distinct from restored. It should also be noted that I am by no means decrying the modern sophisticated book as an impostor or heretic, rather it's place in the market must be defined.

The history of the modern sophisticated book starts with Harry Potter. Publishing and thereafter book collecting, had never seen a phenomenon like Potter before. To cut a long story short, the value of the first edition of the first book increased at a high rate. Publishers wanted to offer similar books, and collectors wanted to collect similar books. Everything was touted as 'the next Harry Potter'. Collectors wanted to buy a book for £10 and sell it a year later for £1000. Nothing, and I mean nothing, lived up to the hype. Some publications went on to be successful books, and some books went on to be collectable. A finger-in-the-air estimate would suggest somewhere around 2% of the books that rode this hype doubled in value over the subsequent decade. I would be surprised if that was higher than a regular fiction first edition. 

The problem was that people wanted to collect the books, but the marketing was good enough that print runs were often high. Collectors mistook the (perceived) quality of these books with a likely high increase in value. The supply was high, which in turn meant that the price was low and thus the risk was perceived as low; who wouldn't spend £12.99 on a book that there was a (perceived) chance would increase ten-fold in a year. Coupled with that was the burgeoning eBay market wherein collectors could be encouraged to bid on these books as they saw others bidding. It was a case of 'everyone thinks this is good, so it must be'.

The problem was how to increase the opening price of the new 'asset'. The solution was to reduce the supply. It wasn't possible to reduce the number of copies on the market as the books were available everywhere, and there were too many to buy the majority of supply and eek them out into the marketplace, a practice which has been seen with signed limited editions. Again, nothing underhand, it's just supply and demand. Instead, the problem became about how to sophisticate a first edition. This meant adding value somehow.

Every channel was explored and the results are readily available in the market. Some have made it into our stock (something we now actively avoid), though for reasons we outline later, it's not a simple matter of a modern sophisticated book being better than an unsophisticated one. The primary example of sophistication is found with signatures.

You may have 10,000 first editions in circulation, but if you're the only seller getting them signed and you only get a dozen done, then that £12.99 suddenly jumps by a factor of ten. And if there are hundreds of collectors willing to take a punt at £12.99, there are dozens taking a punt at £129.99. A secondary market arises and the price jumps to £250. Step forward a decade and that price drops back down to £12.99, but that's a point we'll get to soon.

If the author is doing a promotional tour, as is often written into contracts nowadays, then the supply of signatures is too high to get that tenfold increase. If you have a dozen signings, with a couple of hundred people in the queue, then you're going to have perhaps a thousand (not all books at the signing will be the book we're talking about) copies of that first edition signed, and whilst the majority won't hit the market, the demand will decrease massively.

More work needs to be done to get that increase. So, the seller or collector, writes to the book's illustrator and gets a dozen signed first editions signed by the illustrator also. These are seen as better than a standard signed first edition, and the multiplier is back. The trend continues ad nauseam. There are many ways to sophisticate a book thus:

  • Ask the author to include a date on the signature. It isn't always the date the signature took place, but often the publication date - that will attract a higher premium.
  • Ask the author to include a quote from the book, either the author's choice or the seller's choice. The more outrageous the quote the higher the premium. You may even get to pick the one you want.
  • Ask the illustrator to put a little sketch in.
  • Buy a hundred copies and get the author to sign a hundred sheets, tip them in and call it a limited edition.
  • Rebind 100 copies in faux leather.
  • Create slipcases.
  • Get the map designer to sign the endpapers
  • Get a signature from the icon designer (yep, I saw that once; a book additionally signed by the person who designed the icon on the title page).
  • Buy a series of bookplates and paste them in, maybe putting a limitation number on them.
  • Include a bookmark, a badge, a plastic bag and some flyers.

These are just a handful of possible ways to sophisticate a new-ish book. A small glossary has arisen around them too (none of which are terms we use in our descriptions):

  • Flat-signed - a term meaning a signature without being personalised to anyone, something coined by Stephen King many moons ago. This is a term that is vehemently out of favour with the professional rare book trade. The correct term is simply 'signed'. A book with a personalisation or more than just a signature is 'inscribed;.
  • Remarque - a term used to describe an additional illustration. This technically means a mark on a plate or a marginal sketch, but has been adopted as a marketing method.
  • Signed, Lined and Dated - a term meaning that the book has had a signature added, along with a quote from the book and a date.

The reason we as sellers shy away from these terms and the books they describe, and herein is the crux of modern sophistication, is that whilst they're designed to improve the market, we believe they have a negative effect on it.

Nobody would argue that a signed copy is worth less than an unsigned copy (except in a handful of edge cases), but not all signed copies are equal. I'm not going to extol the benefits of inscribed (particularly where personalised) first editions, that's a story for another article, but the reasoning is twofold. Firstly, if everyone's getting books signed without an inscription, and dated, and having a quote included, then they're all comparable. You're never going to pick up a copy of the book and think 'wow, what a wonderful inscription'. This is genuinely concerning, because the two things that a bookseller will always show you at a fair are copies in exceptional condition (all modern books are fine - so that doesn't apply here) and copies with a wonderful inscription. If everyone gets just the author's squiggle then every copy is dull. Secondly, when you see a book with the signature, quote and date you know that it has been signed in such a way to create an asset (the value of which is debatable) . Again, this lacks the personal touch which is the whole point of a signature.

Looking at another few aspects, take for example a book signed by the author by way of a tipped-in sheet, with a limitation of 100 copies. It's easy to think that what you're buying is an exclusive edition, one that's better than a signed first edition. There can only be 100 of these and it's a popular book. It must be the pinnacle for a collector. Unfortunately, that's not the case. What you're buying is an unsigned first edition with a sheet tipped in. A book signed to the title page is generally preferable to a book signed on a bookplate, partly because it's likely that there's a bit of history there and the author's handled the book and perhaps chatted with the person who had it signed (again, this is often reflected in a nice inscription). A tipped-in sheet is of equal or less valuable than a bookplate. Often a bookplate is just loose, but a tipped in sheet has essentially ruined the book. Of course, the distinction here is when the publisher does it. The discussion then moves over to it being a published state of the book, particularly where the format is different. 

Sketches, are something we have less of an issue with, but there's still this nagging doubt, that you've bought a product and not an item with a history. We have a book in stock at the moment that has some damaged leaves, the previous owner was friends with an illustrator and got him to add a sketch to the endpapers to compensate for the two damaged leaves. Essentially, this is the same process - adding something to a book to make it more valuable. The difference here is that this was done as a one off, not in a large group to create a margin. Is that really a difference? We think so, and this is primarily because when you pick the book up, the value of the sketches and their scarcity outweighs the value of the book, and the embellishment carries a history (particularly as the previous owner is himself and author). In the extreme, we've seen books marketed as limited editions with artist's sketches; the seller buys 50 copies and commissions a sketch in each, mostly the same sketch. The rarity is manufactured, and the feel of the book is one of a commodity.

Ultimately though, the proof is in the market performance. At the one end, if you have a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with a signature then you'll find that the more interesting the signature, the higher the value. If it simply has her name it'll be worth less. At the other end you have thousands of books sitting on shelves with no value, regardless of the type or lack of sophistication. In the middle you have everything else. Some books will be commanding a higher price because they have been sophisticated, and they will be achieving these prices. It is our belief that this is misguided and the market will bear that out. This came to our realisation with a recent collection of modern books of which nearly all were sophisticated in some way; there wasn't an interesting book in there. We collect first editions because they represent a facet of history. Even if you collect as an investment, it's important to realise that the value is determined by that representation of history. The more interesting or significant the representation, the higher the value. That's not to say it's better to buy an unsigned first edition than it is to buy one that has a signature with a quote (though it may be in some cases), but always consider what else is available. As a seller, I am much happier cataloguing a book without a signature, date and quote than a simple unsigned first edition; the value-added element undermines the book Develop an understanding of rarity; if everyone's buying the 'limited edition', you buy the interesting one that you haven't seen before. Learn to identify the distinction between rarity and manufactured rarity. 

A final example, is a series of books I saw recently sold with a sketch on the endpaper (an odd place to sketch in itself). Each book was limited to around 100 copies. The copies were stamped or authenticated by a sticker. Early titles were book club editions or reprints. The books were signed by the illustrator and numbered. In that one bundle, you have a signature, some measure of authenticity and a nice sketch. There were around a dozen titles offered. The reality is that what has come onto the market is a thousand later editions with sketches in them and stickers to remind everyone that it was part of a idea to create a little value in the market. I'm not going to downplay that marketing effort, well done to the seller for carving a niche, and I'm sure the collectors enjoy them. The point is though, that what is produced is not part of the history or bibliography of the book, it's a product.

As a caveat to all this, it should be noted that this is only valid in the area of the market that exists after the publisher and before the collector. A collector is advised to do what they want to make their books more pleasing to themselves, though when they offer that book for sale they then occupy a space within the aforementioned area and should be aware of that. A publisher on the other hand, has licence to publish what they have agreed with the author or estate. A publisher reprinting a book as part of a tenth-anniversary special is creating value in the market and often manufacturing rarity but this should always be offset by the publisher creating a book of collectable quality and an entry in the author's bibliography. A good example would be the Centipede Press recently publishing Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, a decade after its first publication. They limited the edition (manufactured rarity) and offered it at $300 (created significant value in the market). It's a wonderful production and a positive addition to a collection and the market. It's very easy to draw a comparison to the after-market embellishments we're calling modern sophistication, but it's vital to the understanding of book collecting that one notes the distinction between publication and bookselling (it's similar to the distinction between a first and second edition; it's all about the historicity of the book).

Another note is that all this means that a signed book is vastly more common nowadays than it has been historically. There are probably more signed copies of Stephen King's latest book than all the signed copies of H.G. Wells in existence (and Wells was a relatively prolific signer). This isn't in itself a bad thing, but before buying a signed book understand how rare that actually is.

A final word: give books a generation to sink in. Yes, you might not get the books at the original retail price, but you will fail much less frequently. We do sell books that have been published in the last twenty years, but we rarely buy them outright. If we have them on our shelves it's because either a) they came as part of a collection or b) we've read the author and are happy to encourage our clients to buy them as we believe they're good literature.

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