Trends in Modern Book Collecting
About six months ago, I found that I was repeatedly discussing with a number of fellow booksellers, and more especially with a number of collectors on my mailing list, the apparent shift in collecting styles -- especially with regard to modern firsts -- that has taken place over the last 20 years or so. My main impression was that there has been a shift away from what I would call "in-depth" author collections toward the collecting of a relatively small number of "high spots" of modern literature.
No doubt the subject came up as I was attempting yet again to explain the extraordinary rise in the prices of a small handful of important -- or at least highly sought after -- modern titles such as The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and On the Road, to name just a few. The prices for collectible copies of these books have skyrocketed in recent years, reaching unthinkable new levels and then leaving those levels in the dust mere months later. How high could they go? What do I say when a customer asks if these (or others like them) are good investments at this price level? What was fueling the prices? Could the bottom drop out of the market and their prices plummet as fast as they had risen? And, finally -- but perhaps most important -- what relation do these prices have to anything approaching real value? When a signed copy of On the Road is being offered for the price of a luxury sedan or a small house, is there any realistic "value" being offered, or is this a field that is, at best, completely untethered -- detached from any reality -- and, at worst, the culminating end of a massive pyramid scheme?
I didn't exactly choose to ponder these questions out of disinterested intellectual curiosity: most often, I was being grilled by customers and prospective customers, and they deserved some kind of answer. And that answer tended to be that these days, as a result of a shift in collecting trends that has been taking place over the last two decades, there is much more demand for the high-profile titles that comprise today's definition of a truly striking book collection and, in a market driven almost purely by supply-and-demand, that increased demand translated very readily into increased prices. It was an easy answer and true as far as it went, I guess, but it seemed to me to beg not only all the questions listed above but also a host of other ones: How did this situation come about? Is this trend in collecting a sign of the "dumbing-down" of the book market -- away from the more scholarly, thorough, "completist" exploration of a particular author or field, and toward the rote repetition of "received wisdom" with regard to what is or is not fit, or important, to collect? And, ultimately, the question behind all these questions was: Is this good for the collecting world, or bad for it? Is it good for dealers and bad for collectors? Vice versa? Or could it be an area where dealers and collectors, despite being frequently on opposite sides of the price trench, have shared interests, which can be served in the collecting market of today?
For those who want answers to all these questions, read no further: I can assure you here that I do not have answers to all of them. The rest of this article will deal with those questions to which I can posit some sort of provisional answer but, perhaps more importantly, it will attempt to take a look at some of the history that has led up to the current state of affairs, which may help put this moment in time, and our particular current predilections, into some kind of context or perspective.
First, I should make clear a handful of assumptions that are based on my own experience which is, by definition, limited and likely to be more subjective than I think. Assumption number one: there seem to be a lot more dealers selling modern firsts today than there were when I started doing it, 20 years ago or so. I say this because it seems that all the dealers I first met when I started out are still doing business, and there are dozens -- maybe hundreds -- more who have started since then. Many of these are people who were collectors once: they were my customers as collectors and have now gone into business themselves, at least part-time, some full-time. The number of dealer ads and listings in this magazine dwarfs the number in the closest thing to a comparable medium from 20 years ago -- the bi-monthly American Book Collector.
The second assumption is really a corollary to the first: there must be more collectors today if there are more dealers and the dealers seem to be surviving and making a go of it.
Third: I was struck by what appeared to be a shift in "trends" in collecting -- more high spot collectors, fewer "completists." But I should point out that both of those categories of collectors, combined, make up only a fraction of modern book collectors. To quantify it, the "trend" probably involves numbers something like the following: that a generation ago 10-15% of the collectors were completists of one sort or another and 5-10% could be characterized as "high spot collectors." Today, those percentages are probably reversed. So, while this represents a significant, even dramatic, shift in the collecting market, it's also not a fundamental one: at most, it probably affects no more than a quarter of the market, and probably is actually somewhat less. It's noticeable primarily because the high spot collectors cast a high profile, since virtually every book they buy is a relatively expensive one, and also because, to a large extent as a result of this shift, prices of "high spots" of modern literature have increased dramatically in recent years, far outpacing the general rise in prices of other collectible books.
Finally, my own bias as I approached this question: I think there is a tendency to disparage the collectors of high spots as people mindlessly following someone else's idea of what a "good book" is and, conversely, to imagine the completists as noble-minded individuals pursuing a collection for the intangible greater benefit it may provide to humanity. My gut reaction to such stereotypes is that they must be wrong -- they're just too easy. The "wealthy collector who knows nothing about books but is throwing so much money at the field that he's wrecking my chances of getting a good book" is just too convenient a devil for me to believe in. And, while I have no problem with the notion of the noble-minded collector studiously building his collection to the greater benefit of Knowledge, I tend to think of all book collectors as noble in some degree or another: choosing to surround oneself with books -- special books, of one sort or another -- seems to me to be an admirable thing. It denotes a respect for the written word, for the language, for the ideas and insights that have brought us not only to where we are but, more importantly, to all the possibilities that exist of where we might yet be. So this exercise in exploring the question of whether there is such a trend, and what it means for all of us and what it portends for the future, is one in which I think a meaningful understanding must go beyond simplistic stereotypes and get to root causes, as well as to a more textured understanding of the book market and the roles that different categories of collectors are playing in it today.
So then, the first and most obvious change is that we have a larger collecting market today than there was 20 years ago; what does this have to do with "trends" in collecting? If the composition of the market were proportionately the same as it was 20 years ago, there would be as many more author "completists" as there are high spot collectors, but this patently doesn't seem to be the case. The prices in the market alone would indicate quite clearly that it's not the case, even if we didn't have anecdotal experience supporting that notion: where high spots have increased in price by factors of up to 50, and sometimes even 100, over the past 15 or 20 years, there has been no corresponding increase in the price of, say, secondary appearances of even the great, established collectible authors -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck -- let alone the later generation of Roth, Updike, Mailer, et al. In fact, to a large extent, listings of these items seem to have disappeared altogether from many dealers' catalogs. Why? A look at the history of book collecting, especially modern book collecting, can give us some perspective on these changes, as well as on some of the changes we can expect to see in coming years.
Collecting modern first editions essentially began in the late 1920s and early 30s, as the Depression hit and the bottom fell out of the rare book market or, more correctly, the top end of the rare book market collapsed almost entirely. There was one particular auction in the late 20s at which the values of the books didn't even come close to approaching the values they'd realized only a few years earlier, and throughout the 30s there were virtually no significant auctions of extremely valuable rare books. The implication of this was twofold: it meant that the tried-and-true "valuable" rare books of the past -- which had largely been borrowed from British book collecting traditions going back into the 19th century -- no longer seemed so reliable. And it opened up the possibility for collectors to decide, based on their own interests and tastes, that such modern writers as Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Conrad -- who were all except Conrad still alive at the time -- were legimitately "collectible." Their prices weren't very high, but they show up regularly in first edition and auction catalogues from the 30s. The first bibliography of Hemingway was published in 1931, only eight years after his first publication; Hemingway may have been the first "hyper-modern" author to be seriously collected.
In actuality, it was another specific chain of events, in 1978, that triggered what we now call "hyper-modern" book collecting. Like the change precipitated by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Depression, this change originated far from the world of rare books. An obscure tax ruling in a case involving a power tool supply company -- Thor Power Tool -- dictated that businesses that depreciated their inventory for tax purposes had to actually offer the depreciated goods for sale at the reduced prices or lose their tax writeoffs. For book publishers -- who had traditionally depreciated the value of their unsold inventory based on future sales projections -- this meant they either had to offer their books for sale at reduced value or get rid of them altogether. There was no way for them to survive selling the books for even less than they had been priced when they were new, and they dumped huge amounts of books into the remainder market and began the process whereby the life cycle of a book is now one year or less -- at which point remaining copies are sold off for pennies on the dollar to the discounters or the authors, or pulped altogether.
The significance of these changes for book collecting was, in the 1930s, that there was a whole new, young generation of writers who were now collectible and, in the 1970s, that now there were suddenly books that were legitimately scarce only a year or two after their publication. In the past, if a book didn't sell well, it would stay in the publisher's warehouse for years, sometimes decades, and in the 1970s you could buy books published in the 50s directly from their publishers, most of them still in the first editions. Now, after the Thor Power Tool ruling, this would no longer happen. So a new generation of book dealers stepped in to fill the void the publishers had left, and began offering first editions of recently published, but now unavailable, books for the cost of a new book, or only slightly more. They essentially became the repositories of what the publisher used to call "the backlist" -- those books that were not new, not hot, but still of interest and deserving to be made available.
Some of the authors writing these books later came to a prominence that far exceeded anything they had achieved earlier, and suddenly their early books were in great demand but were no longer available from the publishers. First editions of these books began commanding higher and higher prices, as the small supply could not match the demand until the book's price rose so high that some of the demand slacked off. And after a few years of that, there came to be a certain amount of speculation, as people tried to pick which books would be the ones that would be in demand, and buy them while they were still available. Now there's even a "tip sheet" for collecting hyper-modern books called Bookline, and one for collecting hyper-modern mysteries, published in the San Francisco Bay Area, and giving information about upcoming book tours, "pick hits" of the new books being published, reviews, and occasional but ongoing tracking of the titles they've picked in the past.
I mention hyper-modern collecting for two reasons: because it's become an important element of the trade in modern first editions (although, like "high spot collecting," it doesn't dominate the market nearly as much as some critics of the modern book trade suggest), and also because the speculative edge to that market, which drove prices of such books as A is for Alibi into the four-figure range, was an indirect contributor to the rise in prices of more solidly established modern high spots.
The growth of hyper-modern book collecting has parallels to the growth of modern book collecting in general that took place in the Thirties. And the collecting of modern high spots has its parallels to the traditional approach to book collecting that took place in England and America prior to the Great Depression and is still prevalent in large segments of the antiquarian book trade: in both cases, there exists a general consensus about which are the "books worth collecting." In a market that is strictly driven by supply and demand -- with a product that is scarce to begin with and, by definition, is getting scarcer as time passes -- the prices of rare books will continue to rise, as long as the demand holds steady or increases. In general, the supply is not going to increase.
There is a caveat that should be introduced here, however, which bears on the recent dramatic price increases for certain modern titles. As the supply dwindled and the demand held steady or increased, the prices of desirable high spots naturally went up. At certain price levels, though, the supply of these books would actually increase, because collectors who had bought copies years earlier at much lower prices, and had thus taken them out of the market at that time, were tempted to cash in their profits on the books that were not central to their own personal collections but were now worth considerably more than they had paid for them originally. Typically, the books that have been in private collections are in better shape than the average book that turns up in a dealer's shop, and so these books would enter the market at the upper end of the current price range. The result, which we saw over and over again through the 1980s and 90s, was that there were more fine copies of The Catcher in the Rye on the market when the price reached $3000 than there had been when it was $400. Similarly, when On the Road hit $2000 nearly all the copies that showed up were nicer than any of the ones that had been available when the book sold in the $500-$750 range. In effect, the natural supply had dried up, but the higher prices began to bring a select group of books back into the marketplace, ones that were in general in better condition and therefore were usually priced higher than before.
This recycling of books from collection to collection, often passing through dealers' hands for a very short time, sustained the trade in the most desirable books as long as the prices continued to rise to bring more copies into the marketplace to keep up with demand. However, even at the most exalted (some would say, ridiculous) prices, the demand for high spots has outstripped the supply, with the result that a new practice has filtered into the marketplace that was virtually unheard of previously with modern books -- that of offering first editions in repaired, or more properly, "restored" dust jackets. When Catcher in the Rye sold for $400, a $200 repair on a tattered dust jacket could hardly be justified. But when the book sells for $6000 and the repair is still $200, or even $400, it's a lot easier to justify the cost. And the collecting community seems to have reached a consensus that, if the choice is between attractiveness and original condition, the former will win out almost every time. Now virtually all of the copies of, say, The Great Gatsby that have shown up on the market in recent years have had restored jackets -- some of them created from fragments. Many copies of Catcher in the Rye, which appear beautiful at first glance, show the hand of the restorer on closer inspection, as do most copies of To Kill a Mockingbird that do not appear tattered and worn. Since the practice has been, in effect, sanctioned by the collecting community -- the notable auction of Richard Manney's books helped confirm that a few years ago -- this is not typically viewed as an ethical dilemma, but rather as just another consideration one should factor in when deciding on a purchase. Personally, I'm not so sure. A few years ago, there was a minor uproar at an ABAA book fair when a dealer was seen offering first editions with dust jackets that were color photocopies of the original dust jacket. The books were clearly identified as such by the dealer and the prices were very modest compared to a first edition in an original jacket but there was still a fairly general consensus that this was not appropriate. Yet, when a dust jacket of a high spot can be "restored" to apparently pristine condition from a fragmentary original, it begs the question of what exactly is the difference? How much of the original paper of the dust jacket must be present for a copy to be deemed acceptable? At the extremes it's easy to know the answer, but knowing where exactly to draw the line in the middle is the problem. Would one square inch of an original jacket be enough to justify an entirely recontructed -- i.e., created -- jacket as being acceptable? Two square inches? Ten? And so on. My sense is that the market is currently quite immature in this regard. These questions haven't been before us for long enough or in large enough numbers for the answers we're positing to be reliable -- that is, well-considered and thought through with sufficient understanding. It wouldn't surprise me to see a change in how this is viewed in coming years. What I hope doesn't happen is what may be most likely to happen -- a backlash against all restoration or, alternatively, a mindless acquiescence to the notion that anything that can be gotten away with is acceptable.
At the very least, it's something that we booksellers should take it upon ourselves to inform our customers about. There's nothing wrong with selling a restored Gatsby or Catcher, at least in today's market. There is something wrong with hiding the restoration from one's customer. And what tends to happen is that the restored copies creep up in price until they are even with, or just below, the price of comparably attractive unrestored copies. And then those unrestored copies, which continue to get progressively scarcer, take another leap in price -- which sometimes can initiate another round of collected books coming into the market, the supply catching up with demand temporarily, and price escalating yet again, either as demand continues to outstrip supply or, occasionally, as the new copies coming into the market raise the standard of condition compared to those already being offered for sale.
All of this helps explain, in part, the rise in the prices of high spot first editions. It's more complicated -- and less consciously driven -- than is sometimes assumed, or than the easy stereotypes that are used to characterize the market suggest. There is, no doubt, a germ of truth in the notion that collectors tend to collect what they read in high school -- or at least the books that influenced them at an impressionable age. But it is also true that, as time has passed, many of these works that are highly collected today have withstood the test of time in a way that they hadn't a generation ago. Part of the rise in the prices of high spots simply reflects the books' having lasted long enough to become, in effect, part of the canon. That collectors now reaching maturity may have read some of these books in high school is less important than the fact that they are still around, and still read, 30 and 40 years later. That they are here now is as important as their having been there then, or more so.
Still, collecting high spots can be a fairly mindless practice, just as collecting based on any list can be. Collecting Pulitzer Prizes or National Book Award winners, or Granta 20 authors, or Modern Library Top 100 books or, outside of the realm of modern literature, Printing and the Mind of Man titles can be a slavish adherence to the received wisdom of others. But lists are guides, and most collectors I know use them as such. In collecting Pulitzers, for example -- many of which, by the way, are not "high spots" -- many people adopt the completists' approach, attempting to fill out the list in its entirety. Sometimes the collections develop offshoots or branches: collecting The Grapes of Wrath as part of a Pulitzer collection may lead to collecting other Steinbeck first editions, or maybe just other Steinbeck novels. The collections tend to take on something of a life of their own, guided by the collector's inclinations and interests, not by received wisdom. For every high spot collector I've met who struck me as "shallow" and uninterested in the books per se, there are many more who strike me as serious and avid lovers of literature, who are attempting to put together a collection of great literature, and trying to do so in a way that best assures that the money they spend on their passion will be in some measure recoverable at a later date, oftentimes not for themselves but rather for their children or heirs. In short, they are trying to collect books out of love, but they also want to do so in a responsible way and are looking at the "bottom line" not so much out of greed as out of a seriousness of purpose: this book collection, like the other elements of their life, should be something that is not, finally, a mere indulgence.
In that light it makes sense that, as certain books become more and more established as milestones of our culture, more and more collectors will want them. And with an ever-diminishing supply, the upward pressure on prices will be very great. In a very real sense, the most proper answer to the question I was repeatedly being asked -- "Why is this book that I want so expensive?" -- should have been "Because you, like hundreds of other people, want it." That, of course, raises the question of whether these books are good investments or, more importantly, good "values?" "If I buy these books now, will I stand a reasonable chance of getting most or all of my money back, or even making a profit, if I decide to sell them later?"
Here the usual disclaimer -- the one your stock broker or mutual fund gives out, most often in very small print -- is in order. Something to the effect of "past performance is no guarantee of future results." Then they go on to show you how, if you had invested $5000 with them 20 years ago, you'd be worth a million dollars today. I can pull the statistics out to show you that values of collectible books, over the last 50 or 60 years, have tended to increase at double the rate of inflation so that, yes, in general over the long haul, you'll do okay collecting books. Still, the rate of increase in the prices of high spots over the last 5 or 10 years is much more akin to the bull market that went on for most of the 1990s: many stocks and mutual funds were appreciating at 30% per year and, no, that won't tend to continue, in that market or in the rare book market. Over time, the stock market will tend to average out at 10-12% return; rare books will probably come out at their historical averages of about 7%. And, if you bought Netscape at the top of its market, yes, you could take a bath if Microsoft succeeds in squashing it. Similarly, if the critical consensus on On the Road takes a turn in the direction of viewing it as a quaint artifact of a particular historical time period, its value as a collectible may stagnate or even drop. Some John Galsworthy limited editions sold for more in 1930, when a dollar was worth a great deal more than it is today, than they would bring now -- in other words, they will have lost most of their value over time. One thing that is, if not certain, then extremely likely: just as we're not likely to see 30% returns in the stock market again for some time, we're not going to see high spots doubling in price every two years indefinitely either. The maxim that one should plan on holding onto books for 5 or 10 years if one is going to realize a profit is probably especially true for books bought during the recent period of dramatically increasing prices for high spots.
That is not to say, however, that they don't represent, in more than one way, a "good investment." If a signed On the Road is being offered at $35,000, does this represent a market gone awry, with no connection to reality whatsoever? Is there any sense in which the "value" of this book could conceivably be construed to approximate such a number?
Again, I've got a bias here: I'm a bookseller. When books are worth "a lot" of money, that's probably good for me. So my answer should perhaps be taken with as much salt as one needs. That being said, I would answer, unequivocally, "yes." In my estimation, the price structure for collectible books is remarkably low, compared to many other fields of collectibles. It's dangerous, and often misleading, to compare apples and oranges and say, for example, that the price of one of the most significant postwar novels -- and one of the scarcest to find signed -- is, even at $35,000, less than the price of a second-tier watercolor by an artist you wouldn't have heard of unless you were already deeply involved with collecting art. But it's more or less true. Prices of literary materials, even unique items such as manuscripts, seldom approach even the bottom rung of the price structure for collectible art or antiques, largely because printed literary materials are viewed as "one of many" rather than as "unique." But the fact is that a literary manuscript is unique; so, for that matter, is an inscribed copy of a book, especially a particularly good association copy. By what measure should such items be viewed as being less valuable, or more commonplace, than a work of art? This is not a complaint, just a fact. But it sheds light on the question of whether a book is "worth" a given price; if one translates the question over into another field, it's easier to point out that "worth" is at least partly subjective and also partly due to market forces that are beyond an individual's control. Is a Van Gogh "worth" $53 million? Is a Kerouac "worth" $35,000? The answer, ultimately, is no more complicated than, "Yes, if someone buys it at that price." But should they buy it? Again, the answer depends on what they want to do with it. Buying anything for $53 million, or $35,000, is a risky venture if the goal is solely to hold it until it appreciates and then sell it for more. If the goal is something else, it could make perfect sense.
So buying high spots, or any collectible book, has an element of risk to it that cannot be denied. Historical trends notwithstanding, the direction that any particular book takes is ultimately unpredictable. Still, there are guidelines and, more importantly, there are other criteria to consider than simply return-on-investment. A book collection is a distinctly personal artifact. That many collectors want the same few books is really just another way of saying that many collectors want every book they buy to be a significant one, and to some extent they will tend to pursue the same group of acknowledged "great books" that other collectors pursue. This happened with the classics and with early travel and exploration books, and it is happening with literary first editions now. For some collectors, though, there is another kind of "profit" to be gleaned from collecting books, which has to do with the creation of a collection that enlarges the body of knowledge available about a particular author's life and work. This is a profit that may not translate into strict dollars and cents, but is nonetheless real.
Carl Petersen, who assembled one of the great Faulkner collections of all time and sold it a few years back for nearly a half million dollars, might have earned more on his investment if he had taken every dollar spent on a Faulkner item over the course of his 50 years of collecting and put it toward IBM stock. But in the process of assembling his collection, Petersen expanded the knowledge of Faulkner's writings so dramatically that the catalog of his collection is still one of the best Faulkner bibliographies there is. And we should probably take it on faith that he got an enormous amount of satisfaction out of the pursuit, not just the results. This kind of profit is more difficult to quantify, perhaps, than dollars and cents but is nonetheless real.
So where have all the latter-day Carl Petersens gone? Is this a style of collecting that has passed for good? It does seem as though fewer and fewer of the collectors on my mailing list are so immersed in their collecting areas that I am constantly learning from them. Rather it seems increasingly true that I am passing along information that is already well-established about writers whose works are already well-documented. While I don't have an "explanation" for this, a number of thoughts occur to me that might bear on the subject. First, the writers of a generation or two ago are now quite thoroughly documented. Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and others all have extensive published bibliographies, which could give collectors a checklist to use but more likely provide a daunting obstacle to the notion that any additional, useful information about them can be generated by one's personal collection. Not only is acquiring the magazines of the 20s and 30s more difficult than it was 50 or 60 years ago, there is not so much to be gained by doing it, in terms of a contribution to scholarly study: they're already known. The Carl Petersens of today would more likely be working on Stewart O'Nan's bibliography, or Rick Moody's, than William Faulkner's. And perhaps they are.
Another factor to take into account here is that, in general, our culture is much more media-saturated than it was a generation ago or more. Nowadays, if you collect Robert Stone completely, you not only have to collect the Robert Stone interviews that appear in magazines all over the country -- including all those small, regional publications that will interview him when he goes on an author tour promoting a new book -- you also have to glean the ephemeral "writings" that appear on the internet, and never show up in printed form unless you print them on your own printer. Again, the task looks fairly daunting. And, in a computer age where more information is indexed than ever before, the scholarly upside for such efforts is less than it was in the past. Most of what your collection will eventually reveal about an author's writings could probably be turned up in a couple of hours on a computer terminal.
Still another factor that may help shape this impression is that the Carl Petersens of today may well be collecting work in a field that for now falls largely outside of mainstream book collecting -- for example, the "graphic novels" by writer-artists that currently occupy a marginal place in our literary culture. The groundwork for future study of these books may be being laid right now, but taking place outside of our view. The "zines" of today could be the equivalent of Ed Sanders' landmark literary magazine of the early 1960s, Fuck You! A Magazine of the Arts, early issues of which provide practically a who's who of the significant postwar American writers associated with the Beat movement and the 1960s counterculture. Anyone collecting the 'zine writers right now would be essentially invisible to the mainstream rare book world, just as collectors of Sanders, Ginsberg, Snyder and McClure were invisible to the rare book world of 30 years ago.
Finally, after all these speculations about why there may be fewer "completists" today than there were in the past, I would be willing to bet that there are, actually, virtually the same number of people attempting to assemble bibliographically significant collections today as there were a generation ago, or perhaps even more, but because the overall book market has grown, they comprise a smaller percentage of it. Some of the areas of growth in the book market over the past 20 years, such as hyper-modern collecting, may have attracted new collectors to a pursuit quite different than that of building a bibliographically significant collection. But collecting of any sort will still have more similarities than differences. There's the "thrill of the hunt" and, when successful, there's the satisfaction of filling in a "slot" in one's imagined collection -- that is, bringing into reality one more piece of the idea behind the collection, that which gives it its focus and makes it a collection rather than merely an accumulation. The book trade today probably offers a wider range of avenues to pursue, and satisfactions to be had, than it did a generation ago, and is thus appealing to collectors with a wider range of tastes, temperaments and ambitions than was true in the past.
Today's market in collectible modern books is large and diverse -- two essential characteristics of a healthy market. There is great interest in high spots; there is a large segment of the market devoted to "genre fiction", with mysteries dominating but numerous other genres well-represented -- science fiction and fantasy, Westerns, even such an obscure area as Vietnam war fiction. There is an extremely active portion of the market devoted to collecting hyper-modern first editions, both mainstream literature and mysteries. There is substantial -- and seemingly increasing -- interest in various ethnic literatures: African-American, Chicano, Native American, Latin American and more. Some of the areas that were previously deemed marginal or even "cult-ish" have now become mainstream: Beat writers; the counterculture of the 1960s. There is ongoing interest in modern poetry and there is increasing interest in such varied areas as, on the one hand, artists' books and elaborate art bindings and, on the other hand, such primitive contructions as the xerox books of New York's Lower East Side in the 1970s and on. Overall, it can hardly be thought that the market in modern first editions is exclusively, or even mainly, devoted to pursuing a handful of high spots. And, in that sense, I think that both booksellers and collectors can take heart: there is enough diversity in this market that there is little that any one group of collectors -- or booksellers, for that matter -- can do to skew the market too dramatically, and this bodes well for all collecting in the future, and for booksellers willing to explore the areas that do emerge as significant portions of the market, but which may be ill-defined right now.
And, in that sense, I think that both booksellers and collectors can take heart: there is enough diversity in this market that there is little that any one group of collectors -- or booksellers, for that matter -- can do to skew the market too dramatically, and this bodes well for all collecting in the future, and for booksellers willing to explore the areas that do emerge as significant portions of the market, but which may be ill-defined right now.
These somewhat scattered observations don't answer all the questions posed above, but they do perhaps point toward some of the answers. That there are more people collecting high spots today than a generation ago is probably because there are more collectors today and the consensus about which are the "great books" has firmed up over time, rather than because the book trade has "dumbed down." The consensus on today's "great books" is not inherently different than the consensus was in earlier times about what were the great books in other eras. That there seem to be fewer "completists" may be because some of them are currently collecting outside of the view of the mainstream rare book trade, because collecting in such a manner has always been a somewhat solitary pursuit, and because the larger book market means that those collectors comprise a smaller percentage of the market today than they did in the past. That high spots have gotten more expensive is indisputable, but it's not mysterious: demand has stayed steady or increased, supply has dwindled, and the new supply that comes into the market as the prices rise tends to consist books of higher-than-average quality (i.e., previously hand-picked for private collections), which bolsters the current price levels and helps contribute to their upward escalation. The price levels books have recently reached will probably be sustained for the most part, but the rate of increase will likely slow considerably.
Since no article on books or book collecting can be published today (or written, for that matter) without mentioning the internet, I'll point out that the internet has, to a large extent, laid waste to the traditional "food chain" that existed in the used, out-of-print and rare book markets in the past, and this effect will likely increase in coming years. Its effect as a "leveling" force on prices will tend to inhibit exceedingly rapid price increases of the type we have seen in recent years but, in the meantime, it is contributing to substantial confusion when one can go on the internet and find copies of The Catcher in the Rye, all in comparable condition, for $4000 or $6500 or $7000. "Why is there such a big variance? Can any of these prices be trusted? What's the book actually worth?" are questions I've been asked innumerable times. The answer, I think, is that we are witnessing a significant transition in the book world and this is a process that is underway, not yet completed. The "food chain" that existed for decades in the used, rare and out-of-print world consisted of "scouts" and part-time booksellers who scoured the far reaches of the land for saleable books, which they would then sell to established dealers, who in turn, if they didn't have a ready market for exactly that kind of book in their own business, would sell to specialist dealers who presumably did have a market for them. At each point on the chain, the individuals involved recognized that they had to price the books attractively enough for their customer, the next link in the chain, to be able to buy them, mark them up for a profit, and still price them reasonably enough to sell to a willing customer -- who could generally be presumed to have some sense of what the book "should" sell for. With the advent of internet bookselling, we are seeing books offered by scouts, by small local general bookstores, by part-time hobbyist booksellers and by specialist dealers all intermingled. Everyone has access to the same market now, but the residue of the price structures of the "food chain" still exist. Scouts, or non-specialist dealers, will for the time being still tend to price their offerings the way they did in the past, because historically they haven't had direct access to the retail market for these books and they have no experience -- yet -- to convince them that it's actually there and also because their costs are lower: because the price structure of the food chain dictated that at each "lower" rung, one's costs be kept low enough that one could afford to sell the book at a wholesale price and still make money, the former sources for rare books -- the scouts, general bookstores, and part-time booksellers -- have a competitive advantage over their former customers, the specialist dealers who, being at the "top" of the food chain, have almost always paid the most for their books. So, during this transitional period -- which will probably last for a couple more years, at least, as an increasing percentage of the book-buying public gains access to the internet -- all sorts of price "discrepancies" are likely to appear in cyberspace. Over time, though, the really rare books will ascend to whatever price the market will support and those dealers who continue to deal in them, on the internet and elsewhere, will likely again arrive at prices that reflect a more general consensus regarding value than is currently the case. At the same time, the prices of the middle range of books -- moderately scarce but more likely than not to turn up in some dealers' stocks at any given time -- will tend to level off or even drop. Because of the internet, more books are more widely available than ever before and, overall, this should be a good thing for collectors and booksellers alike but for the moment, in this transitional period, it means that in many cases the supply outstrips the demand and, while this is a great boon to collectors, it means that many dealers are holding stock that is no longer as rare as it appeared previously, in a less information-rich market. The market pressures on these kinds of books will tend to force prices downward, at least for a while. This is one of the reasons that so few dealers' catalogs bother with secondary appearances of collectible authors anymore. When one's customers' access to books was limited to the catalogs they were sent by rare book dealers and the bookstores they managed to visit in their spare time, it made sense to offer books that, while not uncommon, were still scarce enough to be unlikely to turn up in any given shop. Now, however, with the stock of thousands of used bookstores available to one's customers with a few keystrokes, it makes more sense to leave those books where they are and let the customers find them than to buy them, raise the price and list them in a catalog. As I mentioned earlier, for the most collectible authors, the information about what books to look for is not the hard part; if your customer has a Hemingway bibliography, he can get on the internet and look for Best American Short Stories 1923. There is no longer a reason for a rare book dealer to sell such a book, which is not particularly rare.
Whether buying high spots or filling in an author collection or spotting the next hot hyper-modern title, books collections can be built that are good "investments" overall, but if return-on-one's-dollar is the primary criterion, there are probably better investments than books. Books, like the art that decorates one's walls, also provide another kind of "profit," more difficult to quantify, in terms of how much they enrich one's life and experience. And this should be factored in when addressing the question of "is it worth it?" when applied to any individual purchase because, finally, all collections are personal: what value a collection has is not just its dollars-and-cents worth, but its personal meaning as part of the larger process of one's life. If this seems obvious, that's good: it should be, and this most fundamental fact, the sine qua non of book collecting, should not get lost or obscured by the many questions that can arise in the course of developing or evaluating one's collection.
Copyright © 1999 by Ken Lopez