Last winter amidst all the hype surrounding the movie version of The English Patient, a Toronto journalist confessed to his readers that he had not enjoyed the novel. His copy had ended up in a garage sale. Literary tastes vary, but with the news that a first edition hard-cover of the book is worth between $150 and $250, he must wish he had taken it to a second-hand bookseller and reaped greater rewards for his pains.
Contemporary Canadian fiction has clearly come of age, in the eyes of serious book collecting. While we are not as acquisitive as the Americans or the British, both foreign bibliophiles and Canadians have amassed impressive private collections of our writers over the past thirty years. Catalogues no longer designate authors as "Canadian" when listing their works. And first editions of certain writers are now commanding prices that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.
What is the value of first editions published over the last few decades? Conversations with some of the experts on antiquarian books who have observed the emergence of the current market provide an education in themselves. Their estimates reveal a tremendous price range, as well as the careful scrutiny required in collecting authors who are now considered "blue-chip". Book collecting in Canadian works may be comparatively new, but with the Internet, catalogues, and descriptive bibliographies, it is surprisingly easy to assemble a collection or simply check on the rising value of books that are sitting in family bookcases. But before one embarks on the quest for fine copies of favourite writers, some popular misconceptions about first editions should be cleared up.
"When we talk about first edition collecting, we are not talking about any old first edition of a book. They have to have certain characteristics," explains Steven Temple of Steven Temple Books in Toronto. "They have to be first printings, not just first editions. We use the term `first edition' when we really ought to use the term `first printing'. The book needs to be in collectors' condition. It has to have a jacket if it is a modern book. By `modern', I mean post-1930. Not that a book published after 1930 without a jacket is worthless, but it's not very collectable."
A dust-jacket can multiply the value of a book by a factor of three or four, sometimes ten. The most extreme case Temple knows of is The Great Gatsby. A first printing without a jacket sells for around $750 Canadian; one with a jacket would sell for $15,000 US. Certain Canadian works are rarely found with dust-jackets. Temple has sold two first editions of Anne of Green Gables without dust-jackets in the last five years. The first went for $5,000, the second for $7,500. There may be no known copies of it with a jacket, but he estimates that if one turned up it would be worth $15,000 to $20,000. At an auction in New York it might fetch as much as $25,000 US because "it is a book with international appeal, and if you had the Japanese fighting for it, people might go crazy at the auction. A copy of the first printing is rare enough."
Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is another Canadian classic that rarely turns up in a jacket.
Probably the highest price ever paid for a work of Canadian literature was paid at Waddington's Auctioneers in Toronto last June. The only known complete advance uncorrected proof of Robert Service's Songs of a Sourdough was sold for $12,000 Canadian. Temple was the underbidder, dropping out at $11,000; he found the experience thrilling. Bliss Carman is not in much demand by collectors, but last year Temple sold a copy of the Toronto pirated edition of his first book, Low Tide at Grand Pré, for $4,500 US. Generally, however, unless it is one of the giants of the twentieth century, the market for poetry has remained static in the '90s.
Surprisingly, the least interest in Canadian first editions is in Quebec. Richard Gingras, the proprietor of Montreal's Librairie Le Chercheur de Trésors, observes that French Canadians have "gone directly from the public library to the Internet" in their reading habits. "We do not have a tradition of buying first editions in Québécois literature." There is a limited market for rare books such as a first edition of the poetry of Emile Nelligan, which would be worth $400. An American institutional collector once called Gingras asking if a first edition Michel Tremblay was available and was surprised when it was less than $200. The workshop edition of Les Belles Soeurs is towards the top end of the French Canadian market at $120, while a first edition of the play sells for a mere $10. A hard-cover edition of Antonine Maillet's Pélagie-la Charrette sells for $20. "If anyone wants to start a collection of a Québécois author, now is a good time because the prices are cheap."
Serious bibliophiles, who collect in depth, usually focus on one author, and gather first editions of all her or his works. With nineteenth-century British and American authors, this can be a formidable task. Some also include criticism and any related biographic materials. Devoted collectors sometimes want foreign editions and translations of each work. Janet Fetherling, of Annex Books in Toronto, advises people to define their own interests. "Some people might want all the editions. If they were collecting Anne Michaels, they might want the American edition, and all the English-language editions, or even all of the foreign editions. They don't have to collect her poetry if they don't like poetry. There are people who collect one book: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has been illustrated by a lot of artists. Or various classical books have been translated by a lot of people, and a collector may want all of the translators who translated a work into English. You can collect illustrated editions of a novelist or poet if you want, but you don't have to. So people should define their own collections." Fetherling maintains that "people should also collect something that they like because that is the real joy of it, not because it's the flavour of the month and everyone is talking about the writer. A book may have increased wildly in value and seem like a good investment, but if you don't like the author, it isn't."
Popular reception and critical opinion are not the key determinants in the value of a book. Prices in the collector's market are dictated primarily by the scarcity of the work. Consequently an earlier, generally less recognized endeavour by an established author is often more valuable than a more renowned work. Small disasters can inadvertently contribute to value. The House of Anansi had a flood one year, making stock from that time less easily obtainable today. One poet published by Coach House discovered that the supply they had given him of his first book had been accidentally thrown out when his family house was being renovated. Large catastrophes also can have repercussions for the book market. World War II created a paper shortage, forcing British publishers to pulp parts of their stocks. Works with small sales projections were sacrificed to the war effort. One of these was Robertson Davies's first book, Shakespeare's Boy Actors. Today a copy of it is worth approximately $1,500 to $2,000.
Determining which is the first imprint of the first edition often requires expert advice. Steven Temple has demonstrated that some of Robertson Davies's works have variances in the printing that indicate precisely which ones are the first editions. In some cases he has also cross-checked these conclusions using William French's library, because review copies of books sent to him (as The Globe and Mail's long-time book columnist) were invariably fresh off the press. It is easy to find The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks in first printing, but copies of the first state of the first printing (which have integral, rather than cancelled, title pages that were not removed and replaced by a reprinted leaf glued back in on a stub) are very rare. The first issue jacket of The Manticore does not have a four-digit number on the back cover. It is very difficult to find a copy of Tempest Tost without fading on its spine. These may seem like minor points, but connoisseurs know they dictate much of the value of one of these books.
Awards can enhance the value of a writer's works. Winning the Booker and Pulitzer prizes has helped the values of some authors like Carol Shields and Michael Ondaatje. Canadian awards help sales, but have less effect on the long-term value of the book. Similarly, a film adaptation of a novel often raises the price of the first edition of the book, as well as generating sales. This was certainly the case with Shoeless Joe, which for a while was priced at as much as $600. But Steven Temple cautions that the value of the work can decline a few years later when the hype around the film has subsided. He sells The English Patient for $150 US. "It will reach the $250 level in time. But I'd rather wait a decent period. Books should appreciate gradually over time, not four-fold overnight." He has received few calls for the book since the Academy Awards.
An area of debate in book valuation is the worth of autographs. Does the author's signature help the value of a book? And if you are having a book inscribed should you ask the author to inscribe it to you, or should it be limited to the signature alone? Richard Gingras says that autographs don't matter much in Quebec. Frank Velikonja, of Toronto's Cover to Cover, who does a brisk trade in soft- and hard-cover books, observes, "There is less demand for paperbacks, so one autographed by the author would be worth its initial retail price if it was in good condition; but it would not appreciate in value." Steven Temple and Janet Fetherling both believe that books inscribed to a former owner have little or no extra cachet and value to collectors unless the owner was also famous. David Mason, however, of Toronto's David Mason Books, finds inscribed books more interesting and often values them slightly more. Generally a signature can add from $5 to $500 to the value of a hard-cover first edition, depending on the scarcity of the signature or the author's acclaim. Because book promotions demand that newer authors sign a great deal, their signatures often carry less weight (some people joke that it's the unsigned copies that become rare and collectable.) But generally, collectors love signed books.
Special editions of authors' works that have been created by artists and publishers are often dismissed by antiquarian booksellers because they are too expensive for collectors. David Mason feels that a collector should not be called upon to buy them. There is a new boxed edition of Leonard Cohen that he feels is "a rip-off", and quite unnecessary for a serious collection of Cohen's work. He refuses to carry limited editions of Canadian art books that were aimed at speculators, maintaining that these "manufactured rarities" are often made by people who don't know how to produce them properly. Nor do they always rise in value, because there is no guarantee that serious collectors will be interested.
But selected artists have also applied their talents to the creation of special limited editions of literary works. Charles Pachter's lavish 1980 version of Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie has found its way into many private and institutional collections. The livre d'artiste, which was limited to 120 copies done in hand-made paper, was originally priced at $6,000. It now sells for $10,000, well out of the reach of most people. Fortunately, Macfarlane Walter & Ross has just published a smaller popular edition that is a reproduction of the original. At $40, it is far less expensive, and Atwood devotees can add it to their collections.
Not all limited editions are done with the collector in mind. One of Janet Fetherling's treasures is a small hand-printed volume of Canadian poems she found in the library of a Canadian poet. A young woman studying in the United States created it. After she hand-printed each poem, she sent the sheets to its author to be signed. The leaves were then hand-sewn together. As Michael Ondaatje was one of the selected poets, and as Janet Fetherling has an impressive Ondaatje collection, she decided to keep it. As one listens to her discuss rare books, one can tell that the little volume has found its true home.
Some Do's and Don'ts for Book Collectors
Select a writer or genre you love because, as Janet Fetherling says, "You are going to spend a lot of time with the collection."
The books should be in as close to pristine condition as possible. Do not disfigure the book in any way. The dust-jacket is of prime importance when a contemporary book is appraised, so read books with the dust-jackets off. Some collectors keep their books in plastic jackets. There are collectors who will not buy books where the price has been clipped off the interior flap; they, however, are a diminishing breed.
Some publishers print a statement that the book is a first edition on the back of the title page with the other publication information. Another common convention is to list a series of publication numbers that vary, often from 1 to 10, though not necessarily in numerical order. As a work goes through several printings, the previous publication number will be removed from the print plate. The first imprint of the first edition will still have the number 1. This is considered to be the first edition. There are of course many exceptions to this. When in doubt, check with a bookseller.
With the exception of the odd case, such as Robertson Davies's Fifth Business, Book-of-the-Month Club selections have no resale value as such.
Some booksellers find that collectors love having an author's inscription on a book, but not if it is to a previous owner. Others don't mind. Collectors may want to err on the side of caution and, if they have an author sign, ask for the author's name only.
Personalizing by writing in names in ink or pasting book-plates inside is not advisable, if one wants to maintain the value of a book. Book dealers often try to remove book-plates. If they are used, David Mason advises having them printed and inserting them with flour paste, which is easier to remove.
Personal embossing stamps kill the value of books. David Mason makes it clear that a book that would be worth $100 will be valued at $20 if any of its pages have been stamped. "Whoever invented those should be strung up by the thumbs and left to be eaten by the birds because people who use them are ruining books forever. It says something about possession and ownership and vanity. Either way, these people are defacing cultural artifacts."
The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada is composed of many knowledgeable book dealers who do valuations of books and authors' papers. Most have compiled catalogues and descriptive bibliographies. Someone starting a collection or needing book appraisals should seek the advice of one of the members. Those who part with rare books to a bookseller generally receive one-third to two-thirds of the value of the work.
Belinda Beaton is a Toronto writer.