Book Collecting for Fun and Profit by Bill McBride. An American perspective (1).

Mr McBride, an American dealer based in Hartford, Connecticut, published his pocket-sized guide to book collecting and dealing for  $9.95 in 1997, but twenty six years later, things in the second hand book world haven’t changed that much, except perhaps that the Internet now plays a much bigger part in the whole business.

This Jot is a commentary on what McBride has to say on collecting and dealing from an American standpoint, though it should be emphasised that throughout the Western world there is very little difference in how collectors and dealers regard books today compared with how such a book maven as Slater ( see previous Jots) saw the business back in 1892.

Let’s start with McBride’s first piece of advice.

Rule One: buy what you like.

‘ Books can be proven to be good investments, but the wisdom to know what to buy seems clearest only in hindsight: “ twenty-five years ago, if you had bought such-and-such a book, it would be worth a hundred times its original price.”. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to pick the ones that will perform that well out of the millions of new books published in English, world-wide.’

‘ Almost impossible’, perhaps, but not impossible. McBride is talking about new books. But if the author in question  is an established figure with a world-wide reputation (perhaps he or she is a Nobel prize winner) the possibility of that author’s latest novel or collection not rising in value is a no-brainer. If you had bought, for example, a first edition of Philip Larkin’s High Window when it appeared in 1974 you could put your house on it rising in value considerably within twenty years, even if you didn’t know that it would be the poet’s final collection.

But new novelists? Yes, ‘almost impossible ‘.In the same year (1997) that McBride’s guide appeared someone called J. K. Rowling brought out Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone , following its rejection by a number of leading publishers of children’s fiction. Each year literally thousands of new books for children are published in the UK. No-one could have predicted that Ms Rowling’s book would turn out to be the international sensation that it became. Bloomsbury obviously had faith in their new author, but not faith enough to bring out more than a smallish edition. The book received mainly rave reviews for the originality of its plot and characterisation. The edition sold out and a new edition was reprinted. Fans of the book couldn’t wait for the next Harry Potter story and they didn’t have to wait long. Readers who had bought the debut novel  because they liked stories about schoolboys defying their parents and adults and getting mixed up in magic in a special school for magicians found, twenty years later, that their  pocket money had bought a book worth many thousands of pounds. They had bought what they liked and had ended up with a good ‘investment ‘. 

But sometimes it is ‘impossible‘ to predict what an author will produce. If, in1908, a fond parent had stuck with an author whose previous two books had been the rather underwhelming The Golden Age and Dream Days and bought Kenneth Graham’s latest book, The Wind in the Willows because they happen to like the author’s rather whimsical way of writing and thought their son might like it too, they would have done their offspring a great favour. A first edition of The Wind in the Willows with the original wrapper now changes hands for £60,000. In fact, the book is so sought after that in 2015 one ruthless thief actually killed a dealer for a copy worth £50,000.

So yes. Buy what you like, but keep your fingers crossed when you do so.

Rule Two: Buy for condition.

Buy the best possible copy of a book you want and that you can afford. Affording a book can be subjective. You may really, really want a particular book so badly you eat tunafish for a month to pay for it. When considering  a lesser copy of an important book, decide whether it is better to have the title represented in your collection than not to have it at all…’

Generally good advice, but not always. If, for instance, you are certain that a copy of a book is so rare and sought after that most dealers and collectors would covet it even in poor condition, then you are justified in paying a good price for it. The book may be a piece of incunabula that has reached its present poor condition by passing through the hands of several important scholars, some of whom have annotated it with significant comments. It may be lacking a title page and/or some of its other pages, but its association with a famous writer or scholar of, say the sixteenth century, makes it special. In this case its condition is totally unimportant. Perhaps the book was one of the surviving copies of a work burned by the public hangman for its heretical content. This makes it special and sought after by modern historians or theologians. 

Part two is forthcoming.

R. M. Healey

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