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Geek With (Lots of) Books: The Cheap Collector

When you are building a collection it is always best to do it in such a way that you don’t go broke in the process. But that is easier said than done. If you absolutely have to have that first edition of The Man in the High Castle in fine condition with a fine dust jacket, it is not going to be easy. Or is it?

Amazingly, throughout the last 40 years I had had that book. Twice. Once in the mid 1970’s, I found it in a used bookstore for $2. I kept it for a few years and traded it to a good friend for some other items I wanted. I later found it in the late 1990’s. I got it in trade for items that initially cost me about $50. Inflation! What can you do? It went away as part of the giant book sale two years ago. Was I sorry to see it go away? You bet! But I can still read it. I’ve got that nice Library of America edition of Philip K. Dick with it and several other novels. (There are now three volumes in that set covering some of PKD’s best work.)

There are two easy ways to build a nice collection. First (and probably cheapest in the long run), buy the stuff new at retail or some discounted version of that. For the most part, this is the lowest price you are likely to see for a truly fine copy of a book. And it has the added benefit of helping keep your retailer in business! When Adventures in Crime and Space was still a store front, I could go in, examine the books, look for the nicest copy, and make my selection. As an owner, I got a discount and I helped with cash flow! Double goodness! And, not only did I help out my store, I also helped the author’s sales by increasing that total by one. It may not seem like much but each sale does count. Authors and publishers live and die by those numbers. No sales, no contracts. No contracts, probably no career.

And don’t let those self publishing ads fool you. Yes, anyone can publish a book. But can you get it reviewed? How about distributed? Will anyone pay for that title? Extremely damn difficult and I applaud those who are able to do it successfully. That last word is the key. My long time friend Henry Melton is doing it with his Wire Rim Books. His young adult science fiction novels are truly wonderful. But it takes a lot of work and self promotion. He travels all the time, hawking these books. He loves the travel and the talking, which is good because it takes a lot of both to succeed. And, had I not known him when that first book (Emperor Dad) came out, I wouldn’t have bought it. Sad to say, but a new writer in a self published title, generally is not going to appeal to me. But I did get it and I read it. It was initially an internet download. I liked it a lot and recommended to a few friends, who also recommended it. Word of mouth is wonderful. When he went to make a physical copy, he asked folks for a potential cover artist. I hooked him up with my nephew, who works in the comics industry. They have now done several titles together. Win, win, win to my point of view. So, before we get back to the column, check out Henry’s stuff. He’s won a couple of awards now for them. They are very good and worth your time and money. Tell him I sent you.

As I was saying, buying the books when they come out is the cheapest initial way to build a good collection. It is not the fastest way though and, to be honest, you need to have some good taste. Buying the first editions of Lin Carter as they appeared throughout the 60’s to the 80’s will not have made you a great Return on Investment as of today. Thirty years from now, who knows, but I’m not betting on it. Buying the first editions of Philip Jose Farmer during that same time frame will have done very well by you. Those fine copies of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Image of the Beast, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life have greatly appreciated and will probably continue to do so, though this, as with all book collecting, is never certain. Books come and go, process rise and fall. John Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize and his editions were worth thousands a while ago. Now, not so much. The best modern example I have is Ender’s Game. This was Orson Scott Card’s second hardcover, a small print run from Tor with reported lousy distribution (something like “first printings did not make it past the Mississippi” was what I heard at the time). It was published in late 1984, early 1985. The book says January 1985. I found a copy, verified that it was a first printing (always important on the collecting side) and made sure that it was in fine condition. I bought it, read it, mostly enjoyed it, took care of it, and, when I saw OSC in 1985 at the Austin, TX NASFiC (North American Science Fiction Convention, for those not in the know. This is held in the US when the World Science Fiction Convention is held abroad). So, my $13.95 investment current is in the $1,500 or higher range. It does not work that way with all titles. In fact, it rarely does. But when you have chosen well, it is a thing of beauty.

So, buying new is the easiest way. But, let’s say that in 1985 you were young, not born, or had no disposable income. I met two of those three criteria when The Man in the High Castle was published. So, how do I build this nice collection? I haunted used book stores. I went regularly, met with the owners and staff while I was shopping, telling them what I had found and what I was looking for. If they are good bookstore owners, they want to know. Filling your wants puts money into their pockets. Win, win. You keep coming back, they keep selling. Some bookstore owners pay no attention to their customers. They generally do not survive. I like my money to go to people whom I like and who like me. I have found amazing stuff in used bookstores over the years and in charity sales. Signed books, literary first editions, and collectible paperbacks. These people are all interested in turnover. The longer a book sits on their shelves, the less money they make from them, and the fewer titles they can buy since there is not a place to put the new volume. Turnover means people are buying and they will keep coming back.

Next time, we may talk about Amazon, rare book dealers and catalogs. Or not.

About Scott Cupp (11 Articles)
Scott Cupp is from San Antonio. He is (among other things) a reader, writer, collector, editor, book seller, reviewer, and curmudgeon. He has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the World Fantasy Award for editing CROSS PLAINS UNIVERSE. Among his stories are "Thirteen Days of Glory", "Johnny Cannabis and Tony, the Purple Paisley (Sometimes) Colored White Lab Rat", and "Monikins of the Montgolfiers".

3 Comments on Geek With (Lots of) Books: The Cheap Collector

  1. And that’s the difference between the collector and the accumulator. As one of the latter, all I’m really concerned with is that I have the book to READ. Oh sure, at one time I was buying hardcover first edition, first printing, standing in lines to get signatures (but not inscriptions, of course) and lovingly tending the results on my shelves. Once I needed some funds and sold a hundred or so books, made pretty good money. Then a few years back when space got to be a serious issue I boxed up about 400 and sent them off to a dealer friend. I got an initial payment, then a small second payment and that was it. The hypermodern market was down. I stewed for a while and then realized something. Books are to read. So I let go, and cleared out even more books, buying paperback replacements of those I really, really wanted to have at hand. Works for me.

  2. Tiny correction: I think Ender’s Game was Card’s fourth SF hardcover, preceded by A Planet Called Treason, his short story collection Unaccompanied Sonata, and Songmaster. And even that excludes some general non-fiction he did…

  3. Scott Cupp // October 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm //

    Lawrence – Of course, you are correct.  I was thinking only of SONGMASTER and not the others. 

    Rick – your revelations are what hit me two years ago.  I liked those titles that I sold (quite a few of which ended up on Lawrence’s shelves) but the money was nice too.  I replace what I want when I find it.  If it is a paperback, that is fine, if it is a hardback, that’s cool too.  As a general rule, I still do not pay the big prices for collectable stuff.  I did buy back two volumes from my sale which had very personal inscriptions (and one very nice lip print) for more than cover price, but that is rare nowadays.  I do still pay retail for some UK hardcovers where I have the other volumes in the series and they are expensive, but OCD is my middle name.  PS.  I really like your blog.  Fun stuff there.

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