05Dec Over-Priced Later Impressions

Something needs to be said about the growing trend of over-priced later printings of first editions.

There's something nebulous about the motivation behind book collecting. The desire to own the physical object; a memento or an object d’art, or a concrete representation of nostalgia or achievement, a manifestation of one’s soul, an artefact of history, narcissism and chest-puffing, an investment even. A primal urge to gather and horde. The collecting of first editions makes that motivation even hazier. Why the first edition? For the enjoyment of the hunt, the chase, the rarity, the nostalgia, the aesthetics – certainly, the simple need for a socially agreed-upon stake in the ground. Precedence. Perhaps most persuasive and romantic, as taught to me by a fine bookseller, is the notion that the first edition, in a given country, represents the point at which history was altered in some way. Before Secker & Warburg published Nineteen Eighty-Four, there was no Big Brother. The first edition not only represents that time, it is an historical, causal artefact. The motivations, however, aren’t much of a concern; they exist: thus, a market.

Nobody, at least nobody reading this, would argue that the first edition has no place in the odd conceit of book collecting. Many enterprising sellers and publishers have helped expand that premise too, offering large paper editions, limited runs, vellum bindings, proof copies, manuscripts, bindings and deluxe reprints. Again, these tick the boxes mostly and it’s hard to argue against the claim to the market these reprints have. However, there is a limit. Not everything is collectable.

To elucidate, I’m referring to later impressions (or printings if that makes more sense to you). Now, we’re going to ignore the notion of rarity because that doesn’t often apply here (though does sometimes). And we’re not talking about states or issues of the first impression. We’re talking about books that are explicitly later impressions – most commonly denoted by a line on the copyright page stating ‘2nd Impression’, ‘Reprinted five times (1999)’ or a numberline lacking the one (3 4 5 6 7 8 9) etc.

Over the last couple of years there's been an increase in how much sellers are charging for later impressions. Reflecting, one would assume, a demand for later impressions. The first thing I would suggest is that if a later impression (of the first edition) is bibliographically different to the first or subsequent printings, then there's a case for collecting that impression. The Gollancz edition of Dune is a fine example, the fourth (I think), impression is in a red jacket rather than black and given that few people are looking for it, it's harder to find. Similarly, later editions are often collectable. In some cases, more than the first edition*. In a few cases later impressions of first editions are desirable. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone spring to mind. The prices of later impressions for these are still too high in my opinion, but I understand why someone would buy a later impression rather than shelling out £50k for the first editions. Determining how much a collector will pay will depend, as with all valuations, on a number of factors, but my advice would be to pay no more than around one percent of the cost of a first impression for a later impression**. I’m putting Tolkien and Rowling aside for now, because their demand creates too much flux in the market. Let’s use Lolita as an example, because I have a copy beside me.

The Weidenfeld and Nicolson edition of 1959 was one of the first hardcover editions. It’s collectable in its own right although it is preceded by the Paris edition of 1955 in wraps and the New York edition also of 1955 casebound. There’s also an edition published in Jerusalem in hardback, which I think precedes the New York edition***. The W&N edition is collectable because the market decided so. It’s a significant moment in British literature, that physical object altered the literary and social landscape. A sumptuous fine press edition would be collectable too. Later impressions of the W&N aren’t.

You might find sellers offering £40 for a third printing. Going by my 1% metric, I would suggest a near fine copy of a third printing would be worth around £3. Perhaps as a filler until you’ve got the cash for a nice first edition, or a gift, or a reading copy. The obvious criticism here is that not everyone can afford to pay £300 for a copy of Lolita. If this is the case, buy a later impression. Get a nice copy and it’ll sit well on the shelf. Just don’t pay £40 for it. It’s easy to argue the £3 is too low, and a shop might want to charge £15 for a nice copy. That’s absolutely fine, we’re not talking about retail value here, we’re talking about collectable value. To clarify, if you’re paying £40 for a third impression of Lolita, ask yourself if you’d be willing to pay £40 for a brand new regular hardback from Waterstone’s. If not, then you’re assigning value to the later impression of the first edition which doesn’t exist.

There are very few books that are exceptions to this rule, yet I am constantly seeing increasingly high prices for later printings. It undermines the market and pushes the prices for first impressions higher. Furthermore, it’s not led by scarcity because there is no cut-off or sliding scale of values****. Of course, your rational might be to pay £50 for a later impression because you don’t want to pay £150 for a first impression. That’s your prerogative. I’m just advising you that that is not a good idea, and sellers are being a little naughty in normalising it.

This is a generalisation of course. As I’ve said, some titles carry value in later impressions***** and this is starting to bed into the market. And to reiterate, bibliographically important issues, states and printings are collectable in their own right. I could be wrong too. The market might just be changing because of the ever-increasing prices of first editions, meaning a secondary market is forming for those who want something as close to a first edition as they can afford. I can’t really argue against that, other than to say that if that does happen then that’s what the market demands, and professional sellers will likely support that. However, it’s not there yet, and the professional trade isn’t going to push it that way.

* Later impressions of limited editions / deluxe editions etc. do not follow the same course as what I’m suggesting here. Generally, these later editions have high production values. It is these qualities you are paying for here not the primacy.

** Arguably, the 1% metric represents, say, 99% of collectable books and it’s a curve up from that: The Hobbit might be 10%, early Greene might by 5% etc. etc.

*** This is interesting in its own right: we as dealers jumped on this edition as being a bibliographically significant issue of the book; rightly so. The market didn’t respond as well to us and copies hung around. This is the organic nature of the market. Had the book been published in the US, UK, Russia or Paris sales would’ve been quicker (US / UK due mostly to where the market mostly exists, and the English text for English-speaking collectors, Russia due to the follow-the-flag notion (c.f. Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Capek), and Paris due to its first publication).

**** Buying later impressions is inexplicable to me, doubly so the instinct that a 4th impression is less valuable than a 2nd impression, or a 37th less so than a 62nd. Of course, there’s an absurdity in the notion of collecting first editions anyway, but that nebulous market is incredibly stable and constructed by thousands of collectors and dealers covering billions of pounds. Most collectable markets are like this; take art for example, or coins.

***** I don’t actually advise paying a lot of money for later printings of Rowling or Tolkien because it doesn’t correlate with the market description. I do understand though why some people pay good money for a third impression of the Hobbit, knowing that a first impression is out of their price range. I would recommend rather that one opts for a nice inscription or a well-presented reprint (e.g. the Deluxe Harry Potters or the Folio Society Hobbit editions).

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