It’s been about thirty years now.
As I recall, the first book that I ever bought specifically for my “collection” was the Underwood-Miller edition of Roger Zelazny’s The Bells of Shoredan. I’d been an SF&F reader for years, and had accumulated a few well-stocked shelves. I can’t say that I specifically thought of that motley assortment of old paperbacks as anything as lofty as a real collection, but at the moment that little chapbook arrived and I tucked it carefully away, I was, in my own mind at least, a book collector.
Trying to talk about book collecting as if it’s one, monolithic thing is impossible. People collect books for a variety of reasons, and trying to define what makes a book collectible outside of a personal context doesn’t lend itself to a single set of rules. We all collect what we like—what we like to read, or maybe just what we like to collect. My interests may be very different from yours, or they may be much the same. Starting from that point, the best that can be taken from an outsider’s perspective is purely informational: data that may help you, not necessarily regarding whether or not to read or buy a book, but once you know you’re going to buy something, what to look out for when you do, so that you can make the best choice among the many options that are available.
A collection has to start somewhere. Here are three suggestions that, once you’ve answered them for yourself, may help you decide where your primary interests lie:
Know what you want to collect. Genres, authors, reading copies, high-grade first editions—whatever. We all have “accidental” collections that accumulate, without conscious intent, over the course of time; if you are at the point where you want to start taking an active role in shaping a collection, the best place to start is with understanding what belongs in it, and what doesn’t.
Know what you already own. It makes no difference how you do it—a program such as Delicious Library, a Word file or a notebook, with everything jotted down in the cataloguing methodology of your choice, or just keeping your shelves in order—get it organized and searchable. Everything that you already own that fits into your definition of what you want your collection to be means that you won’t need to buy it again. It should also give you a pretty good answer to #1, above.
Know what you want to spend. With the exception of one-of-a-kind items and the truly rare, in this internet age you can likely find almost anything, if you know where to look. Want a hardcover first edition, first printing of Ender’s Game, signed by Orson Scott Card? A quick look at ABE shows two copies available. Of course, the less expensive of the two is $2,000. Searching around on the ‘net and making calls may get you a somewhat better price, but bottom line (pun intended), if you want to buy a copy of this book on the antiquarian market, it’ll take some dollars. That doesn’t necessarily mean it comes off your “want to collect” list if those particular copies are out of your spending parameters; just means that you may need to wait longer, or look harder, to find a copy that works for you.
Know your stuff. It isn’t hard to buy books. Or stocks, for that matter. But in both cases, it really helps to truly understand what makes one thing better—from a buying standpoint—than another. Not only will you increase your chances of getting the right book the first time, you’ll also be protecting your investment. You may not think of your book collection in terms of value, but over time, and in many cases, an investment is exactly what it is. And based on the recent performance of the market, it may actually bring you a better return than stocks.
You can never discount or take out the emotional aspect of collecting. If you buy only what you love, you increase the odds tremendously that your level of satisfaction will most often be high. But there’s quite a bit you can do to make it higher, and to maximize your opportunities to get the right books at the right price. And that’s what I’d like to talk about in these posts: resources and tools, traditional and online, that can help you find the books you are looking for, get them at the right price, and safeguard the money, time, and effort that your collection—and the books themselves—deserve.
I’ll also talk about recent and forthcoming books that, as a collector, have caught my attention. Some are titles that I want for my own collection; others may be out of my area, but are still potentially of interest to another collector. I’d say it’s a great time to be a book collector, what with all the topnotch stuff being published these days, but it was also fabulous thirty years ago, and in all the years since. And I have no plans at all to retire.