Sep 6 2013 10:00am

So You Want to Be a Book Collector...

library ...and why wouldn’t you? Book collecting is one of the greatest hobbies there is. It combines beautiful, interesting objects with the excitement of the hunt and, who knows, maybe even the possibility of making some money! Worst case scenario—you wind up with a lot of books. There’s no way to lose.

Still, this is a decision. Collecting isn’t just hoarding—randomly accumulating lots of books is no bad thing, but collecting requires a slightly more strategic approach. You need to figure out what you want, why you want it and, perhaps most importantly, what you’ll do to get it...

First, figure out why you’re doing this

And, speaking as a die-hard bibliophile, “because I can’t imagine not” is a perfectly acceptable answer. But maybe you see books as a long-term investment, like wine or stamps. Or perhaps you’re after a quick profit—eBay, dealing, etc. Or you simply love an author, his or her books express your inner philosophy and you need them all, on your shelf, for you.

All of these reasons are great, but they will impact what sort of books you’re looking for, as well as what condition they’re in—new, used, signed, inscribed, etc.

Second, pick a theme

I chose “theme” not “topic” deliberately, because what you collect can be something more intangible - perhaps even a category that may only be specific or identifiable to you.

It will also matter whether you pick a tight theme, say, the works of Joe Abercrombie or a broad one, e.g. “grimdark fantasy.” The benefits? Well, with Abercrombie, you can achieve it. Despite his best efforts, there’s still a finite amount of Abercrombiana (Another perk of book collecting: coining silly words like that). The idea of completing a collection is kind of cool, if slightly harrowing the instant a new book comes out.

With a broad collection, you’ll never finish. That can be frustrating, or fantastic. The broader the theme, the more likely you are to find something for your collection: every flea market, bookshop trip or lazy eBay browse will reveal something new for your ever-growing shelves.

I’d also warn against going too broad. Collecting, say, “fantasy” is dangerously woolly. You’ll not only never achieve it, but you’ll go broke trying. Boundaries keep you sane.

From personal experience: I stumbled on two of Maxim Jakubowski’s Black Box Thrillers—just as reading copies. Then I found a third. Then I did some research, and learned there were only nine. So, you know, why not? The quest began, and, within a year, ended. Awesome. Satisfying. Now what? Fortunately, I’m also after Fawcett Gold Medals, and, at last count, there were an infinite number of them. Whew.

Themes are also a matter of, for lack of a better word, “geometry.” Any two points make a line, and then whammo, you’ve got a potential collection. For example, multiple books with the same cover artist. Period typography. Publisher. Setting. Anything. Again, this can drive you mad—if you declare “COLLECTION” every time you get a pair, you’ll go nuts. But this can also be wonderful—when you make a link between a few books—perhaps even a link that no one has ever thought of before—and think, “hey—collecting William Gibson means I’ve got a few books with advertising in them. I wonder what other science fiction books are about marketing?” or “Hmmm. I love Hammett, clearly I need more San Francisco noir.” Be prepared for your themes to spiral out of control—and that’s part of the fun.

Of course, the answer is always be interested in everything. But that’s why we’re readers as well, right?

Now... are you looking for value or completeness?

Gollancz yellow jackets Is it more important that you get all of Ursula Le Guin’s books? Or do you want the best copies of her books? You can approach a collection either way (or, of course, both ways).

Imagine an author like Le Guin or Stephen King, or a theme like Ace Doubles or Gollancz yellow jackets. Just having one of everything would be an incredibly impressive achievement. Alternatively, you could ignore all Ace Doubles that aren’t mint. Or Gollancz yellow jackets that aren’t first editions. It ties back into what you want out of your collection: do you want to read everything or to own it?

What does “value” mean to you anyway?

It helps to think about books in several ways:

  • As a text. The object is insignificant; getting its content, however, is important. This ties in with the idea of completeness—the book is valuable because you want what’s inside it, not necessarily the physical package.
  • As an object. You may never read this book. It is not a text—it is a squat, rectangular sculpture, there to be admired, not put to a practical purpose. A first edition is more valuable to you than a later printing; a mint first edition is more valuable than a battered one. Finding dust jackets (unclipped, of course) is important. Mylar book covers are essential.
  • An a historical artifact. This book has a story of its own. Maybe it is from the collection of another author, or your own grandmother. Possibly the previous owner left fascinating and enigmatic annotations. Perhaps it has the bookplate of a publisher, or is an ex-library “file copy” from the British Museum or the BBC. The value is in the unique story that this copy has to tell.

“Value”—either tangibly expressed as money or intangibly as an emotional connection—can stem from any one of these.

Deep question: is it more important to search or to find?

This sounds a bit abstract, but, seriously: book hunting just so you can hunt for books is a perfectly acceptable way of going about it. You should think about what’s fun for you.

With Amazon (either normal or Marketplace) and Abebooks, you can essentially home in on any book you want, and get it with a single click. Does that increase or decrease the fun you’re having? Those two sites are at one end of the spectrum. On the other end lurks pure serendipity: flea markets, dealer rooms, charity shops. In-between: wandering into Foyles, Forbidden Planet, mailing lists from dealers and small bookshops. It is really up to you.

Again, a personal example: I’m missing one John D. MacDonald. One. Dude wrote a billion books, I don’t have one of them. I know exactly which one (I’m not telling) and I could click and get it right now for $20. But my JDM collection started with a box of copies that I got for a nickel each from a Phoenix restaurant (yup). I’ve spent years on it, and buying the last one with a click of the mouse? That just feels like cheating. I’m finding it through blind luck or not at all.

Signed stuff is awesome, right?

Again, that’s all up to you—but, generally speaking: yes. If you think of the three ways to add value—signatures give a book monetary value, they turn it into an endorsed text (the author is approving it after all) and they give that copy a story of its own.

Often the big question is whether to get something flatsigned (a signature) or inscribed (“To Jared”). Other variations include “S/L/D” (signed, lined and dated—which means the author includes a quote and dates the book to the time of signature) or doodled/sketched (exactly what it sounds like) or even a presentation copy or warmly inscribed (in which the author actually sounds like they knew the person who is receiving the book, e.g. (“To Jared, thanks for the scarf, now get off my lawn”).

A few tips:

  • Getting proofs signed (not inscribed) often says, “I got this copy for free, now I’m going to put it on eBay and make a lot of money off of it!” Not every author cares, but some do, and I don’t entirely blame them. I always get proofs inscribed—a way of saying that your copy will never leave your possession.
  • Inscriptions do lower the resale value, so if you’re getting a book signed in order to resell it, think twice. Unless you know a lot of people named “Jared.”
  • There are exceptions. If the inscription is to someone famous, for example. That’s an association copy (a book that also has value by association with someone/thing). “To Jared” devalues a book. “To Patrick Ness” doesn’t. Also, over time, the price disparity between signatures/descriptions becomes less noticeable, and, after a hundred years, generally doesn’t matter. (That may seem like ages, but we’re really talking about books from 1913 and earlier.)

What can help?

The best tools will always be Twitter and Google, because a million other collectors are all lurking out there, and dying to answer questions. But I would suggest some basic stuff—for example:

  1. Start a catalog. You’ll want to set this up sooner rather than later, as going back and filing stuff can be a pain in the ass. I use Collectorz’ Book Collector (there’s a free trial, so you can see if it is to your taste). I also have friends that use Google docs, Excel spreadsheets, GoodReads, LibraryThing, even manual checklists.
  2. Start a portable catalog. This comes in handy before you know it. Honestly, “want lists” are nice—and extremely useful when you’re dealing with online booksellers and the like. However, in my experience, you’ll probably get to the point where it is more useful to know what you have than what you don’t have pretty rapidly—especially with broader themes. This keeps you from buying duplicates. Most of the electronic catalogs now have apps (like Collectorz) or mobile sites (like GoodReads) which are really helpful.
  3. Learn how to identify first editions. Else you will be hosed by dealers, auctions and the like. There are a lot of great lessons on this subject on the internet, but I really do recommend getting a pocket sized guide like one of these. You won’t need it forever, but you’ll find it handy for the first few fairs or conventions.
  4. Learn how to identify other editions as well. Book Club Editions are often sold as first editions, and can be almost identical—but are often slightly different sizes and won’t have prices on the dust jackets. And if something is “Ex-Library” there’s a reason it is being sold for 10% of its real value. If you just want it to have a copy of the book, go wild. But it’ll be ugly.
  5. Consider other references. FIRSTS magazine is fun, and worth flipping through, but unless there’s an article immediately relevant to my interests, I wind up tossing them out pretty quickly. There are loads of checklists and books and guides—both as websites and in print. Again, my personal experience: if there’s a big thing I’m collecting, say Ace Doubles, it helps me to have a reference, if only to have a complete checklist. But general guides? Not so helpful. A lot of people swear by Joseph Connelly’s Modern First Editions, but, honestly, it is trying to cover everything in a single book (and does very little genre, incidentally). When you’re going for breadth: just use the internet.

Finally, remember that there’s always one more.

If you go into this thinking that you can “win” and have the definite collection of something, you’re just going to wind up frustrated (and poor). It is more important to turn this on its head: collecting is something you can do forever; there are always more books to find and opportunities to grow your own stash of treasures.

As a corollary to this, be proud of your books—you found them, you did a great job. But don’t be a dick about it, because, you know what? There’s always someone with more.


Ok, I know there are a few other collectors out here... what would you advise? Tips? Tricks? Philosophies? Games? Share!

This post originally appeared on Pornokitsch on August 28, 2013

Jared Shurin wants all the books.

1. MisterBeebo
Thank you so much for this post!

I just started collecting books this year and I'm focusing on first editions of the Lost Generation writers. It's been a lot of fun and I've also collected some great personal stories like a chance meeting with John Hemingway who, after signing a book, chatted with me for half an hour while he waited for a cab. There is quite a bit of Ernest in him which made it eerie and amazing. And that never would have happened if I hadn't been book hunting.

I've met some wonderful collectors and bookshop owners. The whole thing has been much more social than I thought it would be.

Thanks again for all the tips!
2. Dr. Cox
Cool post!
Advice . . . patronize independent book stores,
and read "Unpacking My Library" in Walter Benjamin's Illuminations
and Larry McMurtry's Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.

My library includes my collection of Arendt, Lovelace, Tolkien, Wilder, and C. Brontë, my grandparents' Bibles and commentaries, baseball bios bought at library book sales, and the My Book House series. And a lot of Bantam Classics and Penguin books bought for school :).
Jared Shurin
3. Jared_Shurin
@MisterBeebo: "The whole thing has been much more social than I thought it would be."

I know! It shocks me too - not just the Twitter chats with other collectors and the blogs and such, but all the friendly bookstore owners and nice people at book fairs and librarians and archivists and etc. etc. Even when I was, like, 14, and had no idea what I was asking (or how silly I sounded "can I see a first edition Lovecraft?") people would always take the time to answer questions and swap advice and generally be cool about things.* I suppose all people are like that with their hobbies, but... there's something wonderfully social about book collecting.

*(Except for the dude that I'm certain swiped an early edition of Dune from me at a library sale. I saw it first, I swear. Grr.)
4. joelfinkle
The internet has definitely taken the fun out of it. They joy used to be finding a used bookstore in a far corner of my metropolis, or that I haven't visited in a decade, and discovering a book that I didn't know existed -- my lists were compiled by the "Also by..." pages in the front of paperbacks. Hunting out a title could be a task of years (for a couple decades, I was certain there was another Moorcook End of Time novel out there, that turned out to be a mis-heard title, but it was fun to look for it).

Now, all the metadata is easily available, and the actual artifacts are nearly as easy to get at. Hunting has been replaced by the supermarket. The bright side is that worldwide availability through Amazon, paperbackswap and eBay has resulted in the prices of collectibles dropping through the floor. If I want it, I can probably afford it. Perhaps that reduces the fun too: There's no longer the story of the "signed copy of Ellison's Medea in a place that only took cash, with no ATM around, and it was gone when I got there the following week" (not a true story, but you get the point). Either you can afford it or you can't.

I've bought a lot fewer collectibles than I have in previous decades. Part of that is filling out my ERB, Andre Norton, and Laumer collections, getting bored with a couple other authors (I'm looking at you, Piers Anthony), and frustrated over multiple editions (that's you, Moorcock). I should pick another author or small press publisher, and get out there hunting.
Kristoff Bergenholm
5. Magentawolf
Heh. For me, Abe and Amazon are a godsend. Having that single hole in my collection like you have with John D. MacDonald would drive me absolutely bonkers.
G. D. B. (not Ambrose Bierce)
6. SchuylerH
@3: The chance finds are the best: I was looking for a signed van Vogt a while ago and I found one online where the description looked decent enough (first edition, Ace paperback) and it wasn't a high price (it was one of his later, minor, novels) so I bought it. When it arrived, I saw that it was inscribed (perhaps explaining the price). However, on closer inspection it turned out it that the inscription was from van Vogt to Gollancz's Leslie Flood.

I also got a Paul McAuley signature by accident in my copy of Secret Harmonies; seemingly, the seller had neglected to mention it.

I always thought that the best thing about second-hand bookshops is that you find what you're not looking for. I found my first Iain Banks in one (a first of Against a Dark Background) and, on a shelf a short distance away, my first Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely).
Jeremy Goff
7. JeremyM
When I first started collecting I went to a local bookshop and just started poking around. I remember talking with the owner and saying how I really wanted to collect but had no idea where and how to start. His advice was simply to collect what you want to collect. Just have fun with it and don't overthink it. So for me that means that when I find a book/author I love I try my hardest to get my hands on a first edition/first printings and to make my way to a signing. I don't like getting them inscribed and I feel a little awkward sometimes, but all the authors I've seen have never really said anything.

I love spending a day off hunting at bookshops, but when I moved to where I'm living now I realized that there's not any around. These days I have to hunt online which isn't quite as much fun but I still get that excited feeling when I see that brown box waiting for me on the doorstep.

I'm curious what everyone’s thoughts are on reading rare editions. I love buying books from Subterranean Press, but I am hesitant to crack open a rare edition that I just dropped a couple hundred bucks on. But then I feel guilty for having a book on my shelf that has never been read.
John Ginsberg-Stevens
8. eruditeogre
Good piece, Jared. I can only second the need for discipline (which I struggle with, given my access to so many books) and for a good First Editions guide. I use the very one you highlighted. Also, it helps when your boss has a wall of reference guides on collecting and IDing books.
G. D. B. (not Ambrose Bierce)
9. SchuylerH
@7: I ended up getting two of Home Fires: the traycased edition and a paperback which I could actually read. Aside from that, the one nugget of potential wisdom I have to offer is to take the dust jacket off hardcovers before reading them.
10. Sue C.
At some point I turned into a collector, just by buying books I love, then slowly becoming aware of the whole book collecting field. I collect mostly favorite genre authors, and mostly hyper-moderns. The internet has definitely taken some of the fun out of collecting, because there's nothing like finding a wonderful book on a dusty shelf somewhere, a thrill that can't be entirely duplicated by clicking the "purchase" button on an internet site. However, even chains like Half-Price Books can be a gold mine at times. Yes, their associates are trained to spot value in the books they handle, but their idea of value and YOUR idea of value may be very different. I was over the moon a few years ago to find a nice hard-cover copy of Michael Marshall Smith's book, Only Forward, for only a couple of bucks. And, like SchuylerH, I will often buy a collectible copy of a book from a small press, then buy a reading copy (having my cake and eating it too). Finally, I recommend finding good small book sellers on the internet and buying from them regularly. I've had some wonderful experiences with small book sellers, including receiving free ephemora (newspaper articles, postcards, etc.) associated with the books I've bought; being able to order signed copies with confidence; and having them contact me directly when they come across items they think may interest me, based on their knowledge of my interests. At the end of the day, it's all about having fun and enjoying wonderful books.
11. wyoarmadillos
I liked the tip of a portable catalog. I have both a wants list and a catalog however both not currently portable.

If I am browings library sales, used book stores, garage sales, etc, I often have not thought ahead to bring the list with me, as they seem more spur of the moment. Plus I enjoy the browsing. Then if I spot a gem I am looking for (mostly a completest - for an prolific writer middle or later book in a series), I find myself in trouble - do I have this one or not. Example - I know I have Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October, but do I have Clear and Present Danger.

Likewise if it is a book I know I have - do I have it in paperback or should I upgrade to .....
Michael Walsh
12. MichaelWalsh
Collecting signed copies can be interesting, so to speak. One eventually discivers that many authors/editors of the 50s are quite hard to find in signed states.

Books signed Edgar Pangborn are truly scarce And books signed by the prolific editor Groff Conklin are also a hard to fnd.

But then that's part of the joy of the hunt.
Jared Shurin
13. Jared_Shurin
@wyoarmadillos: I'm glad I'm not the only person that uses the phrase 'upgrading'...

@SchuylerH: That's really good advice! I have to admit, I've become more and more addicted to mylar dust jacket protectors as well. I kind of like the glossy sheen, perhaps... but there's also something fun about fussing over the books. I'm glad you mentioned the signatures as well - doing a bit of research into inscriptions is a lot of fun, and that sounds like one hell of a find...

@Sue C: You're not the first person to praise Half-Price books - I'm a little jealous! I don't remember them when I was growing up in the US (maybe they weren't in KC?) and we don't have them in the UK. But everyone seems to have a treasure-finding story there!

@JeremyM: It is pretty fun to read the rare editions - and, if anything, that's a case for ex-library copies, where the poor thing is already so screwed up. Sub Press are a great example. I don't generally read their beautiful reprints (the limited editions of Miéville or whatnot), but if they're doing something original (say, their gorgeous KJ Parker novellas), I just have to suck it up. Take off the dust jacket. Wash my hands. Enjoy every word... :)

@joelfinkle: I can't even imagine trying to collect Anthony or Moorcock any more. I made a half-hearted attempt to get Anthony's Incarnations series in first edition, and I think I would up in sort of half-finished limbo with 4 of 7 (I don't count the 8th as a book). I have a similar issue with Donaldson's Gap books. Especially since I could never remember the titles or subtitles, I wound up getting duplicates over and over and over again, and I've still not actually finished collecting all 5. Missing 4 maybe? Or 3? Some sort of collecting blind spot...
G. D. B. (not Ambrose Bierce)
14. SchuylerH
@13: I can be quite partial to mylar covers but I mostly use them on signed editions, Sub Press etc. Also, I am part of the way through my own Moorcock collection, mostly consisting of the new Gollancz ebooks for now. I've found the ISFDB invaluable, along with a Word document containing a list of my collection. I'm thinking of re-doing it in Excel to match the SF Gateway spreadsheet...
15. DaveB
I had the incredible experience of spending three months researching the history of chemistry at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia four years ago. I'm not a PhD candidate or historian, just a high school chemistry teacher who loves the history of science. I was able to photograph and read such books as a first edition Skeptical Chymist by Robert Boyle (there are only 35 left - the rest burned up in the Great Fire of London), a 1490 edition of Pliny the Elder's Natural History, a first edition De Re Metallica by Agricola (with over 250 woodcuts), a handwritten manuscript on alchemy by Isaac Newton, etc. I hadn't been a bibliophile before that, but I am now. I took over 10,000 photos in three months, which I am gradually putting together for my chemistry students. The staff at CHF was amazing, and I recommend stopping by if you're in Philly sometime and interested in the history of chemistry or alchemy. Or just love very old and very rare books!
Cheryl Sanders
16. RestlessSpirit
@DaveB: That's an awesome story! That's when the books themselves have become a part of history (and thankfully preserves the fact that Sir Newton truly believed in alchemy ).
Kelly Harris
17. Kowdy
Really enjoyed this post. Signed copies are fun for me but usually only when I have the chance to meet and speak with the author. (Peter S. Beagle being an unexpected treat and my all time favorite encounter.) As for my collecting habits, I kind of jump around. One method that has served me well is sifting through old Sci-Fi Magazines. I fell in love with vintage Sci-Fi and horror book covers and sifting through old magazines gave me an opportunity to discover some great covers via old ads. The bonus side to this method is that more often than not, once I find and read the book, I actually end up liking the stories and I find new authors to be on the lookout for. One tip I would like to add is to simply pick up that random book. Collecting for me is just as much about being lost in a great story as it is owning all of an author or a rare copy. I have discovered many great authors, adventures and wonderful worlds by simply grabbing that odd book out. Maybe it's the cover that grabs you, or that lingering thought...why does this authors name sound familiar? Whatever the reason, just grab it! Second hand stores are perfet for this! If for any reason you dislike the book, donate it to a book sharing group or location. One mans boring book is anothers grand adventure. Thanks again for the post and happy hunting all!
19. Jon Morgan-Parker
I have began my Adventure , this year 2013. During these very early stages , I am enjoying the Hunt and the lovely people I have met along the way. Thank you for everything you have taken the time to write. It is most certainly appreciated by this novice !
Jared Shurin
20. Jared_Shurin
Jon & Kowdy: Glad to be of help! And very glad you're having fun!

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