The Awful Books Guide to Collecting

Part 1

Everyone has to start somewhere. Might as well be here, right? ;)

WARNING - this will be a wall o' text. Sorry for being so verbose, but I wanted to cover as many bases as possible without getting pedantic.

First off, there are two editions this essay will address - numbered and lettered. Both are signed by the author(s) involved and might also include the signatures of any artists who contributed illustrations or paintings specifically for these editions. Editors may also be given Hancock space, but this is uncommon.

(Not every title will see a lettered version, as this is a very special edition with even more enhancing elements and a drastically lower production run. As such, it is also more expensive to produce. More on lettered editions will be discussed below.)

These signatures appear on the book's signature or limitation page along with a limitation identifier. The identifier specifies the book's unique serial number or letter as well as the total production run, such as "number 47 of 500 "or "letter P of 26 lettered copies". From here on out, signed & numbered editions will be referred to as "S/N", whereas signed & lettered versions will be "S/L".

Both S/N and S/L volumes are typically printed on archival-quality paper with commensurate inks. They also enjoy superior binding versus mass-market editions. As indicated above, an artist may be contacted to provide a variety of black-and-white and/or color illustrations that don't appear in any other version. The author may even pen a foreward especially for these editions.

It is possible for S/N books to come with a slipcase, which envelops the book except for the spine with a suitably rigid material. S/L books frequently sport a much fancier element called a traycase. A traycase is a clamshell construct which completely ensconces a book and is frequently lined with felt or more expensive Suede for cushioning. Traycases may also sport elaborate exterior foil stamping, color onlays or inlays, and clasps. They are usually constructed of pressboard with a cloth wrapping. Leather(ette) traycases are also a possibility. And some companies have manufactured far more ornate wood, acrylic, and even metal traycases. Traycases are key enhancing elements which separate lettered editions from their numbered kid brethren. However, not all publishers elect to produce traycases for their lettered books. And every once in a blue moon, a company will include a traycase for a numbered edition (though this usually means no lettered volume is planned).

If you find a book you'd like to own, you need to evaluate your options. Since these are limited by their nature, they may sell out quickly. Some become out-of-print almost immediately, like just about anything by Stephen King. Other lesser-known authors trickle-out to the marketplace more slowly.

Once you've targeted a book, you will also have to determine your spending limit if both a numbered and lettered edition is announced. Lettered editions typically run three to five times more expensive than their associated numbered volumes. In the case of an ongoing series, you may not even have the option to buy a S/L edition, as the purchase / first-refusal rights may already be held by others. As such, the S/N edition may be the only one available. However, that doesn't rule out lettered states showing-up on eBay or from reseller web-based storefronts, so it pays to look around.

Speaking of eBay, if you want to get the best deal on a book, you can do a bit of gambling by waiting for the true market price to emerge, especially via auction sites like eBay. Books by more obscure writers can drop precipitously. However, titles by famous authors can rise sharply from the published price and stay at those levels indefinitely. Except for people like King, whose books turn gold upon announcement, there are no guarantees. If you wait, you may find great bargains...or you might have to pay premiums.

Keep in mind that a book may appear to be readily accessible while enjoying a flurry of speculation on auction sites and e-tailers, but its long-term availability may be anything but. A newly-published, high-profile title will often be exchanged between several hands for the first few weeks or months after being released. This activity will usually taper-off and then finally cease. By that time, the book's print run has usually settled into the hands of long-term investors or people who will never sell any part of their collection. When this happens, if the book is still desired by a good percentage of people, its market price will spike dramatically should one actually appear for sale, sometimes rising to stratospheric heights.

A classic example of this was Frank Frazetta's illustration trilogy Icon, Legacy, and Testament, published by Underwood Books between 1998 and 2001. After several months of intense trading (many times well below the MSRP), the books finally all but disappeared from eBay listings and online bookstores. When any of the three appear now, they usually command steep premiums, especially Testament, which saw a much smaller edition run than the previous two volumes.

To become comprehensively informed about released and soon-to-be-released titles, you can do several things. The first - and arguably best - is to subscribe to a publisher's mailing list. Breaking news will often be disseminated there, to be followed-up shortly thereafter on the company's website. Browsing those websites is another essential method to stay ahead of the game. Reading the upcoming releases of resellers' webpages is another good, collated data source. Also, becoming friendly with publishing and retail employees is a fantastic way to gain insider-like knowledge, but it takes time (and money) to cultivate such contacts.

These, then, are the basics you should know before venturing too far down this rabbit hole. Be sure to read part 2 (below) before making any purchase commitments.

Part 2

Now that you've read part 1 (and you have read part 1, right?), here's where the other shoe drops. This site's primary purpose is to warn you about limited-editions made on the cheap, or books that cleverly masquerade as limited-editions. Here is where the objective portion of this essay ends and my personal rants begin.

A limited-edition, S/N or S/L book should differentiate itself in several important ways. At the very least, it should sport the following elements:

Lettered editions should contain much fancier elements, such as traycases, additional artwork and text (if extant), and extremely high-quality binding and paper. Some companies have taken their lettered titles to fantastic heights of publishing excellence, while others do virtually nothing to distinguish them from their numbered versions while unjustly charging a premium.

You should be EXTREMELY diligent when evaluating the purchase of a limited-edition, ESPECIALLY a lettered title, as it will typically be hundreds of dollars more than the numbered edition. You must make the determination as to whether or not either will be worth it. Some publishing houses will go the extra mile, while others won't even cross the street. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. Publishers who otherwise enjoy a stellar reputation for quality productions may churn out a lackluster package (for whatever reason). The opposite could also happen - a company not known for its handsome volumes may throw a great deal of time and energy into a particular title.

(More to come.)