Matthew Haley is a books and manuscripts specialist at Bonhams in London. Haley is not just in the book business, he’s an avid fan of books—from their physicality and design to the literature and poetry between their covers. Recently we spoke to Haley about first editions, the difference between first editions and first printings, and some of the most collectible titles and authors on the market today.
Strictly speaking, a book’s edition refers to the setting of the text. So the first time you set the text and print a book with it, and then sell a bound book that you’ve just printed, that’s the first edition, first printing. If you use the same setup of text and print it again, that would be the second printing—a printing is therefore a subclass of an edition. The printing is also called the impression, as in first or second impression.
In general, the first edition, first printing is known simply as the first edition, but I don’t think the nomenclature or the way an edition is identified in a book is entirely standard. Normally when a book is labeled as a first edition, it is accompanied on the copyright page with numbers from 10 to 1. Sometimes they are literally presented as 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
Some publishers will order the numbers in slightly odd ways. But basically, the standard interpretation is that if a book is identified as the first edition and the numbers only go down to, say, two, then you are looking at the second printing or second impression; if they go down to three, then it’s a third printing; and so on.
With first editions, we are usually talking about the first publication of a book in the writer’s country of origin and language. Otherwise you have to qualify it by saying “first American edition” or “first edition in English.” In most cases, when a book is described as the first edition, then it usually means the first edition of that book in the author’s language.
It also nearly always means the first edition of that book in the country where the author resides, but there are exceptions. For example, a British author might not have had any success in the U.K. but then finds an American publisher. So you might get a British author who published first in America. That will vary author-by-author or even book-by-book.
Collectors Weekly: Are first editions in the country and language of the author typically more collectible than subsequent editions in different countries?
Haley: Yes. Essentially what the collector is looking for is the first public opportunity to buy this book anywhere. It’s always first, first, first, first, first. Even for U.S. collectors, if a book appeared in the U.K. first, then that’s the one that will be most sought after.
Collectors Weekly: How desirable are proofs and advance copies?
Haley: For some reason they often don’t have as much value as the actual first published edition. I think it’s partly because it’s often difficult to know how many were issued—I think it’s often a lot more than one might assume.
Also, proofs and advance copies generally don’t have dust jackets, and they’re usually printed as paperbacks. Thus, they lack the iconic and visual appeal of a first edition. Generally speaking, they have maybe two-thirds to three-quarters of the value of a first edition. Unless, of course, it’s a proof with the author’s corrections on it. Then you are in a completely different ballpark.
Similarly, nearly all first editions are worth more if they’re signed, but this is probably less true of modern books. A lot of authors today do lengthy signing tours and appearances and that sort of thing, so the number of signed copies is not especially small.
Other authors are much less inclined to sign anything, so obviously their signatures are more sought after. Famously, Harper Lee, who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” didn’t sign very much. The value of a signature may vary, but I can’t think of any situation in which an author’s signature has caused a book to be worth less.
Inscriptions can help or hurt the value of a first edition. I would say that “To Ben, Ray Bradbury” would perhaps be very slightly less desirable than just “Ray Bradbury.” But “To my dear friend Ben” is a little bit of an improvement, and “To my dear friend Ben, who inspired me to write this book” is much better!
Collectors Weekly: So the content of the inscription can affect a book’s value?
Haley: Yes, and the person’s relationship to the author. That relationship becomes part of the provenance. Such books are what we call association copies. If the person to whom a book is inscribed has some importance to the author, then it’s an association copy. It might be from one author to another author who was very influential in the first author’s writing, or from one author to a family member, or a friend from college, or something like that.
In part, an association copy helps give collectors peace of mind that the inscription is authentic, but it really just makes the book that little bit more unusual and curious than a regular signed copy.
Collectors Weekly: Which American classics are most sought after?
Haley: We’ve already discussed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and there’s “Moby Dick” and “The Great Gatsby.” Those are all five-figure books in first-edition form. Anything that’s a household name is going to be the most sought after, really. Books that have been turned into classic movies like “Gone With the Wind” are also desirable. Genres also have their followings. Crime, children’s books, and sci-fi are all their own collecting fields, and each has a subset of collectible authors within it.
This brings us to the different types of first-edition collectors. There are people who want the classics in first edition—in other words, the classic books regardless of who the author is. But there are also people known as completists who want the complete works of a given author in first edition, including rare juvenilia stuff published when they were children. The most obvious form of completist in book collecting is someone who wants to own all of the James Bond books by Ian Fleming, or perhaps all of the James Bond books, including those written by Ian Fleming, Kingsley Amis, and Sebastian Faulks.
P.G. Wodehouse is another favorite of completists. The approach is not limited to authors, particularly. How one collects books is as varied as people’s tastes. But collecting by author is one way for a collector to express his or her affection for a given writer. It’s probably slightly easier to complete a collection of first-edition Ian Flemings than Hemingways. Also, Ian Fleming has that boyish movie tie-in as well, which is quite good fun.
Collectors Weekly: Do movies always make first editions more valuable?
Haley: It depends on how classic the movie becomes. The Bond movies are unquestionably classics. Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” became “Blade Runner.” That movie is considered a classic, but in a sense the book was already there, so either way it’s going to remain collectible.
One recent circumstance that comes to mind is Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights,” part of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which had a sudden peak in terms of their value in auction. After the film “The Golden Compass” came out, the peak dropped off slightly. So I think it’s quite a difficult thing to try and predict.
Collectors Weekly: I suppose “Harry Potter” is in a class by itself?
Haley: In terms of “Harry Potter” by J. K. Rowling, the first edition was the Bloomsbury edition, which was printed in London. We’ve definitely seen big interest in that. At times it would be making £9,000 sterling, I think, or even £12,000 at one point. And the effect of that was that further down the chain, people were paying a few hundred pounds for a paperback that was signed. So when you have a situation in which the first edition is worth so much, then it will trickle down so that the less desirable editions still end up being worth some amount of money.
Collectors Weekly: What about other children’s books?
Haley: Maurice Sendak is always of interest, his illustrated ones particularly. With children’s books, it’s a mixture of the story plus the illustrator, really. Sometimes the illustrator is more desirable than the author, sometimes it’s the other way around. “Winnie-the-Pooh” is a classic example of both coming together. E. H. Shepard’s illustrations of “Winnie-the-Pooh” (Shepard also illustrated “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame) are as iconic, really, as the text itself by A. A. Milne. Similarly, just about any title that includes drawings by early 20th-century illustrator Arthur Rackham is collectible. He tended to illustrate children’s books, including J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” and a 1907 edition of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
People often ask me about science fiction, but it’s such a niche area. We actually don’t see a great many titles at Bonham’s. We get the occasional H. G. Wells novel and other sci-fi classics, but we don’t often see the more arcane parts of the market. For example, I don’t think I’ve seen anything by Isaac Asimov since I’ve been here, but I’m not quite sure why because Asimov first editions certainly are valuable. I would say that most of the sci-fi we sell is prewar, but there are obviously collectible sci-fi authors who are postwar.
Collectors Weekly: Are people collecting biographies?
Haley: Written in the modern age? Almost never. There are some biographies that are collectible from much earlier on, like James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” from the 18th century. But I can’t think of any 20th-century biographies that have great value.
Collectors Weekly: So is fiction perhaps more sought after than nonfiction?
Haley: Not necessarily. There are other fields of writing that are potentially more valuable than fiction, like natural history, travel, science, that sort of thing. Biographies, history, and military writing are all generally less sought after than fiction. I think it’s just that the majority of what people read is fiction, and fiction touches people in a way that other forms of literature don’t.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect cookbooks?
Haley: Well, Julia Child aside, the earlier cookbooks, certainly. Anything earlier than 1800 or 1700 can have quite a lot of a value to it. One thing we started seeing recently was a massive growth in interest in manuscript cookbooks, which are people’s recipe books from the 17th century and before.
Most large houses of that time had a cookbook in which the cook or the lady of the house kept all their recipes, plus, perhaps, recipes from friends. These “household guides,” if you will, often contained medical remedies as well, which means you get these really strange juxtapositions. They were not published—they are more like one-of-a-kind manuscripts. But that seems to be a growth area.
As you move into the pre-Victorian period, you’re looking at Jane Austen—“Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” those sorts of titles. Once you get into the Victorian period, collectible authors include Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Nathaniel Hawthorne maybe. Toward the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, you’ve got Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim,” and all the core people, the people you read at high school.
Collectors Weekly: Wilde also wrote plays. Is a good copy of one of his plays just as desirable as a copy of a book?
Haley: Yes, I think that would be true. Normally plays are not worth as much as novels, but Wilde is a bit of an exception—a lot of his published plays are valuable. They’re also very nicely produced examples of book design in the late 19th century. Wilde books often have very attractive bindings. Many were published as limited editions.
Toward the end of the 19th century, they started going in like mad for limited editions, signed and numbered copies, and special bindings, partly, perhaps, as a backlash against mass-produced industrialized printing that had developed during the 19th century.
Some of the bindings of Wilde’s books are very Art Nouveau in style, and occasionally there was also the Aubrey Beardsley tie-in—for example, Beardsley illustrated Wilde’s play Salomé. In that sense, Wilde books truly represent their time.
After Art Nouveau, in the first half of the 20th century, the big names are James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pretty much any first-edition novel by any of those authors is a five- or six-figure book. Some poetry, too, T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” being a prime example.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a market for books from the mid-20th century?
Haley: It’s quite a complex market because there are often some curious quirks about the printing in books published by Beacon, Grove, City Lights, and others. Some of those books were printed in the traditional sense, others were more like mimeographs, and then you get some, like the ones printed by City Lights, that have all sorts of what are called “issue points.”
This question of issue points actually relates to the modern first editions we were discussing at the beginning of this interview. Occasionally you have an edition of the text, and within that edition you might have various “issues.” This normally means that, for example, a typographical error has been corrected but the text remains broadly the same, apart from the one page where the typo was corrected.
One of the most famous examples of this concerns J. K. Rowling’s first book. On the copyright page, her name was listed as Joanne Rowling rather than J. K. Rowling. Fairly recently, people determined that the Joanne Rowling copies came first, and that it was corrected to J. K. Rowling when the author kicked up a fuss with her publisher.
The issue with J. K. instead of Joanne is not considered a separate printing, but because we can establish that Joanne came first, those copies are more desirable. Even if there are more copies in circulation that read Joanne, people still prefer it because it’s the first one.
Collectors Weekly: If someone has a first edition of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” or Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” should they read it?
Haley: They should not read it, I’m afraid to say. At least, they should not read it in that edition. Go out and buy a paperback and read that. And if you have such a book, you should obviously look after the dust jacket as much as possible.
“On the copyright page, her name was listed as Joanne Rowling rather than J. K. Rowling.”
That’s one thing we haven’t addressed, the value of dust jackets, which is huge. It makes a massive difference. In a recent sale here at Bonham’s, we had two copies of “The Great Gatsby,” one with a dust jacket which we sold for $180,000 and one without which we sold for $3,000. That tells you how much value is in the dust jacket.
In the early days, dust jackets were literally “dust jackets,” kept on books in bookstores to keep them from getting dusty. Originally dust jackets were just typography on dull-colored paper. When people took a book home, the jackets were often discarded.
From the 1920s on, as publishing houses started employing designers and artists to produce decorative dust jackets, they used the jacket to market their books. Some people began to embrace the idea of keeping dust jackets on their books, but old habits die hard, so many people continued to dispose of their books’ dust jackets. That’s one reason why they are so rare.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for beginning collectors?
Haley: One of the advantages of pursuing antiquarian books, earlier books, is that you can see the age on it. It’s very easy to tell whether an old book is what it purports to be, or not. With modern first editions, it can be more difficult, particularly when it comes to things like dust jackets and signatures. Dust jackets can be restored or reproduced and sold as if they were originals. And with signatures, if you are buying from an unknown source, you are probably taking a chance that the signature is actually authentic.
In my mind, there are three approaches to buying modern first editions. One: Buy books you like right when they come out. In this scenario, you’ll be buying a first edition, in hardback, in a dust jacket, and you might even be able to get the author to sign it for you. Best of all, you’re not likely to pay more than $20 or $25 for it.
Two: If you’re buying more valuable and more collectible first editions, buy either from a reputable auction house, an established dealer, or somebody who’s got a long-standing reputation and belongs to a professional body of some sort.
Three: It’s always smart to buy first editions that you like but don’t have to pay very much money for. In this case, the risk is fairly low. I mean, if you manage to find what appears to be a first edition of “The Great Gatsby” in a cardboard box at a flea market for $5, then the worst that can happen is you’ve wasted $5.
Once you bring your first edition home, the only other advice I’d offer, apart from not reading it, is to keep the book, especially one with a dust jacket, out of direct sunlight. It can also be a good idea to dust the tops of your books now and again to prevent dust from getting embedded in the tops of the pages.
Collectors Weekly: As someone who loves books, how do you feel about e-readers?
Haley: I can see that they have their uses, and I’m curious about the idea of reading the book on screen. I tried out the Sony Reader, but you get these black flashes when you turn the page—that bothered me. My concerns with the Kindle are that I would drop it and that I can’t just stick it in my back pocket like I can with a cheap paperback.
As you say, I love books, the physicality of books, book design, and all those sorts of things. But the books I choose to read tend to be quite tired-out, second-time copies that I can throw around and just enjoy, without worrying about treating them nicely.
Collectors Weekly: So, what are you mistreating now?
Haley: At the moment I’m reading a lot of classic 20th-century American fiction. I studied English literature when I was in school in England, but it was literally English literature. I had barely read any American literature before I moved over here about a year ago, so I’m trying to make up for lost time.
I just read the most recent novel by Edmund White called “Hotel de Dream,” and before that I read “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney, partly inspired by having read “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis about a year or two ago. I’ve also been reading Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, classic 20th-century American stuff.
(All images in this article courtesy Bonhams & Butterfields in New York)