The two kings of the book-collecting jungle are signed books and first editions. Collectors like scarcity, so first editions are sought because their print runs are usually low. The attraction of autographed books is a bit different. A signed copy is considered an extension of the author (or editor or illustrator). After all, he or she actually handled and wrote in that particular copy of the book!
While it may seem like there should be a direct correlation between an autograph in a book and its value, the connection is not so simple. There are various types of books as well as signatures, both of which can impact desirability of a signed copy. For example, if you have a signed first edition of a classic like Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” you own an extremely valuable commodity. But a signed copy of the Barbara Walters memoir “Audition,” inscribed during one of the countless stops on her well-orchestrated signing tour? Not so much.
Signed books range from ones with just the writer’s signature to others with an inscription to a specific person. Most collectors prefer the basic signature—why would Jack want a book inscribed to Jill?—though others are of the opinion that the more the author writes by hand in a book, the better.
No matter a specific collector’s view on inscriptions, most appreciate a scrawl from one famous author to another, like a copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” with a note to Allen Ginsberg on the inside cover. The ultimate in inscriptions, though, is to find that rare book containing a note from the author to whomever the book is dedicated.
When it comes to signed books—or plays, for that matter—first editions are always more sought after, as are books by famous authors. For example, there is no shortage of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” but an autographed copy still demands a pretty penny. Other autographed first editions by popular authors include Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Ginsberg’s, “Howl,” and Gary Snyder’s “Riprap.”
One of the ultimate signatures is the reclusive Harper Lee’s on a copy of her “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee only wrote one novel, which limits the supply, and she was notoriously stingy with her signature when the book was published, although she also signed a few in 1995 when the 35th-anniversary edition of the book was published.
Although contemporary autographed books don’t tend to garner the same attraction as vintage books, first edition or not, there is one glaring exception: J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Pot...
Also prized by some collectors are books signed by illustrators. Some of the most popular of these include William Timlin’s only book, “The Ship that Sailed to Mars,” and Thomas McKenney and James Hall’s “Indian Tribes of North America.”
Other autographed books that have proven popular with collectors include memoirs by U.S. Presidents, including Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, and Barack Obama. As for mainstream authors, some of the most collectible signatures are by such authors as Joseph Heller, Stephen King, Hunter S. Thompson, Herman Melville, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.