A couple of weeks ago I mused about The Private Press. Today, the topic is somewhat related as it is all about limited copies of books available to collectors in the marketplace. Scarcity drives collectability and prices.
So let’s stay with the private press for openers. As you can imagine with a hand driven press, the preparation to print is painstaking and a slow deliberate process. And naturally, the books are more expensive than your mass-produced books. So, many publishers took the opportunity to create a few more costly but more exquisite volumes by printing a very few volumes on higher quality paper and bound in beautiful leather or vellum. (Vellum, or parchment sometimes, was the go to for the very highest end books.) These select tomes could be sold for a premium and, indeed, it is these select rarities that have escalated in price in the collectors market as well. The crème de la crème are books printed on vellum pages and then bound in the finest of morocco leather.
In the photo example of Fanfrolico’s Baudelaire’s Fleurs Du Mal the book, on the left, was printed on higher quality paper and bound in half vellum. Not only is it signed by the illustrator, Beresford Egan, every single, illustration was signed by the artist. The book on the left sells for ten times the book on the right.
But limited signed editions were not the sole purview of the private press crowd. Mainstream publishers figured this out as well, along with their authors. They went about creating artificial scarcity. Let us take Stephen King for example. His first two books, Carrie and Salem’s Lot are scarce because they were published in very small numbers, which is typical for a new or unknown author. And with few exceptions it is the early books of famous authors that are the hardest to find and are priced accordingly. So how do you keep collectors interested in authors when they become best sellers? When first editions number in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. You create scarcity by introducing limited signed editions. These are purely for the collectors’ market and it works. The verso, and trademark page, of King’s Christine shows that a limited edition preceded the “normal” first edition. Often, this will be expressed using the term “first trade edition” referring to the book you hold in your hands.
This is not a recent phenomenon. In 1926, H. G. Wells and his London based publisher, Benn, came out with 3 versions of The World of William Clissold. In the photo, the set on the left was the trade edition, the middle one for circulating libraries, and the one on the right bound in the requisite vellum was signed by Wells for the collector’s market.
This novel may well have been the last of the “triple deckers”, books published in 3 separate volumes. This was the norm for novels published in the nineteenth century. Let the public pay 3 times for a good story! Maybe a musing down the road.