Monday, March 16, 2015

Inscribed by the author

At the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg last Saturday, I was admiring the array of signed first editions in one of the booths when I entered into a conversation with the dealer. She told of the difficulties faced in acquiring all those signed copies. The difficulties lie not in getting the books themselves but in getting the signatures by living authors. Whenever an author of note comes to their city, they strive to get as many signatures as they can. Sometimes they travel to other cities or make arrangements with booksellers in those cities to get the signatures they desire. On rare occasions, she said, they will mail a book to the author to get a signature, the problem being to know for sure the signature is actually that of the author.

As she was talking, the phrase "penny-wise, pound-foolish" came to mind. Are not book dealers, by building up inventories of so many signed books, deflating the value of the very books they are trying to sell at inflated prices?

A signature of the author can enhance the value of a book, yet other factors are also important. Is it a first edition? Does it still have a dust jacket? What kind of condition is it in? And then there is the matter of supply and demand. How many similar copies are out there and how many people want them? At the book fair Saturday I saw a three-volume first edition of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, with an asking prices of $30,000. Were it signed by Jane Austen, it might be priceless, but it is still worth a lot because of its rarity.

Over the past number of years, virtually every bookshop has brought in authors for book signings. Customers who buy the book can get it signed for free. Sometimes, if they buy a book, they can bring in copies of books they already own to have signed, too. (That's how dealers like the one mentioned above can get so many signed copies.) Popular authors may sign dozens, even hundreds, of their books each day on book tours. Literary festivals and book fairs are also places where many books get signed.

I have never counted how many signed books I own, but there must be scores of them. Are any of them worth more than I paid for them? Probably not. Few are first editions, and those that are are mostly books nobody collects by authors few people have heard of. I have two signed books in front of me, both paperbacks. On the title page of Emily, Alone, novelist Steward O'Nan wrote, "These quiet moments alone, with much hope." Inside Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter wrote to me, "One of my former tribe," a reference to the fact that we were both journalists in our former lives. These inscriptions mean something to me, but they aren't going to make my son rich when he inherits my books someday.

Were I famous, that might be different, however. Sometimes who owned the book can be more significant than who wrote it. A catalog I picked up Saturday includes a listing for a first edition of a book called Recollections of a Baseball Junkie by former sportscaster Art Rust Jr, signed by the  author. Why would this book be worth $850? Not because Rust signed it but because he inscribed it to Joe DiMaggio. The book comes with a letter from DiMaggio's granddaughters attesting that it was actually found in the slugger's library. That makes it one of a kind and worth something to baseball collectors and DiMaggio fans. Most of the many signed volumes at the fair last weekend are better books by better authors, but with so many other books out there, the same books signed by the same authors, they are, in most cases, worth much less. And many of them are going to be worth less and less all the time as their authors keep signing more books.

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