DeFlip Side #66: Bibliomaniac’s Payday

DS66.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

I’ve finally slipped over the edge; my obsession with collecting books has become so acute that I have begun to collect books about collecting books. I suppose it was inevitable, considering that I have been steadily collecting books for more than twenty years; what’s really odd is that only recently have I begun thinking of them in terms of a “collection.” They were always just my books.

But as the adage goes, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. The small amount I’ve learned about the nebulous universe of book collecting, and its flip side—book dealing—has me looking at my shelves in an entirely different light, one with a decidedly green tinge. Green for the potential cash that might be tied up in all that paper and glue, and green for the first-edition envy I’ve been developing.

Modern firsts, as they’re called, is where the most ready money lies in the book trade. We’re not talking early retirement here; think more along the lines of a nice vacation. The key is to keep an eye on up and coming authors and buy first editions of their novels before they break. Science Fiction and Fantasy titles are no exception.

Look at William Gibson. His first book, Neuromancer, was originally published in paperback and sold for around four bucks. That same paperback today commands $700 to $900 in good condition. If you were smart enough to buy the later hardback edition, first published in Britain, your $15 dollar investment would now be worth around $2,000.

Another example: If you have a signed first edition copy of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep you can probably make enough to take a year off. With that kind of enticement, is it any wonder that I’m more seriously cataloging my shelves these days?

One thing I have going for me is my obsession with keeping my books in pristine condition. The majority appear unread, their spines as smooth and uncreased as the day I bought them. As with all collectibles, book value is chiefly determined by condition.

Still, for all that, I’ve learned enough to know that my library is no goldmine. Some of my first editions have certainly appreciated in value, but they’re small potatoes compared to the real movers and shakers in the collectible genre book market—as exemplified by the ten most expensive Science Fiction and Fantasy books sold in 2006, as listed on AbeBooks.com.

Coming in at #10 is a perennial favorite, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, which sold for $3,000. This was for a rare UK edition with four of Tolkien’s color illustrations, one of only about 1,800 copies that survived the bombing of London in November 1940.

At # 9 was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which sold for $3,250. This was the first edition of a limited issue of numbered and signed copies.

The #8 spot went to a book called Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, selling for $3,975. That’s not too shabby for this relatively obscure 1976 Hugo winner; actually, someone shelled out all this cash for the novel’s original manuscript and some related ephemera.

Coming in at #7 is The Ship That Sailed to Mars by William Timlin. This 1923 first edition sold for $3,995. I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds neat. It’s a about a group of elves and dwarves that build a ship and go to Mars.

Déjà vu reigns in sixth place, as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley makes the list once again; only this time it was for a true first edition that fetched $4,025.

Books 5 and 4 are tied, with The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Scarborough and an early edition of I, Robot by Issac Asimov both selling for $4,500. Everyone knows I, Robot; The Healer’s War is a 1989 Nebula winner, and it was actually an early draft of the novel that garnered this hefty price.

The third and second top sales are also tied, clocking in at $7,500. They are The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King, and a lot of four novels by William Gibson including the aforementioned Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive. It just goes to underscore the thriving market for modern first editions. I hope something similar happens to King’s Needful Things and Four Past Midnight, of which I own firsts.

And coming in at number one, selling for $8,258.40 is a first edition of none other than George Orwell’s 1984. Looks like Big Brother can finally afford to take that vacation to Eastasia.

Like I said, you get you hands on the right first edition, and there’s no telling what can happen. But it’s this realization that has, ironically, cooled my attitude toward the pursuit of collectible books. I started to walk into every bookstore with the mindset of a book scout; instead of browsing for books I might like, I found myself obsessively trolling for firsts. In the process, the one source of pure, selfish, enduring pleasure in my life was becoming corrupted by greed.

So no more. I am once again buying for the sheer thrill of it, picking up whatever book catches my fancy, whether it’s a first edition or an eighty-first. The way I see it, I will inevitably—and probably unwittingly—pick up a few cash cows along the way.

Happy reading!

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