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Collecting Info: Collectible and Rare Books

Limited Editions as Manufactured Collectables

I came across a very rare book the other day. How do I know, you ask? Why, the book says so itself right on the copyright page: "This edition limited to 350 copies, of which this is #113." So there you have it...a rare book--one of only 350 in the whole world. Isn't that wonderful? Well, that depends on how you feel about limited editions, and on why there were only 350 printed.

Unlike regular trade copies of books, virtually all limited editions are produced with the intention that they will be collected. In some cases this notion is justified. In many it is not. To better understand what I mean, let's take an example from each end of the spectrum.

First, suppose Publisher A wishes to create something truly special. Maybe they want to produce an exquisite edition of "The Hobbit." So, this publisher commissions Barry Moser to do all new illustrations for the book. Perhaps they get Tolkien's son Christopher to write a new foreword and annotate the text. Then they print the book on a hand press using really fine, handmade paper. Then each copy is hand-sewn, bound in leather, and issued in a slipcase. Both Moser and the younger Tolkien sign each book in the edition, which numbers only 100 copies.

Now let's consider Publisher B's approach. They have a big bestseller coming out soon-something by one of their blockbuster authors. The book is finished and ready to ship but they hold onto it so they can release it when there are no other big books just coming out. In the meantime they have a limited edition of 500 signed copies for sale. These copies contain a page with a limitation statement and the author's signature. This sheet was printed up separately, sent to the author for their signature, and then inserted into regular copies of the book. In addition, this "special" edition has a different dust jacket than the trade.

There you have an example from each extreme, and there are many possible variations in between. In this case Publisher A's work is clearly superior, and though the difference is simple it is important. When evaluating a limited edition it is helpful to consider what the limiting factors are. Does the limitation arise from unique materials, craftsmanship, or content? Or is it limited just because someone decided to stop the presses at 1,000 copies?

Publisher A set out to produce a work of art and wound up with a limited number because of the quality of materials and the craftsmanship employed in producing it. Publisher B set out to produce a limited number of copies and cobbled together enough readily available material to fill the bill. In another life Publisher A would produce hand-sewn dolls and Publisher B would produce Beanie Babies.

It is also worth noting that just because a book states that only 1,000 (or whatever) copies were printed doesn't always mean that is so. Publishers have been known to sell more copies than the number stated on the limitation page, but it is something that is hard to prove. Elbert Hubbard of the Roycrofters Press in East Aurora, New York was often accused of this practice at the beginning of the 20th century.

I must confess that I am not a big fan of limited editions as collectables, though some certainly have their place. They are, to a greater or lesser degree, attempts at manufactured rarity, which I think is a bit of an oxymoron. Besides, where is the thrill of the hunt? Building a great collection from regular trade copies is certainly more challenging, and the value they acquire over the years seems more credible because none of it was built in from the start.
Content provided by Rock Toews, Back Creek Books.

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