06 September, 2015

On Collecting Books from Fine Press in General and from Franklin Library in Particular


There are many reasons to collect books. Some collect for literary significance, some for sentimental reminiscence, and some, for the physical aesthetic. Like ladies who are wooed over by the immaculately crafted handbags from the Houses of Chanel and Dior, book collectors who go for the physical form regard meticulously constructed books with beautiful design and typeface as an art form. These books need not be first editions, and are often facsimiles, as long as they exude some form of allure - majestic gilt, stately leather, tactile paper, expert binding, traditional letterpress, commissioned illustration, and of course, limited edition, perhaps signed. The myriad combinations of these features give rise to variegated "fine press editions".

A good example of a fine press edition is Arion Press' 1979 version of Melville's "Moby Dick", limited to 250 copies and illustrated and signed by Barry Moser, that sells in the high four-figure today. The now-defunct Limited Editions Club's 1,500-copy limited edition of "Lysistrata" illustrated and signed by none other than Picasso, or its 1,250-copy limited edition of "Ulysses" illustrated and signed by Matisse also go for high four-figure today. Better yet, there are (at most) 250 copies of the same "Ulysses" that were signed by both Matisse and James Joyce, and these babies command a five-figure going price. Stepping down, The Folio Society's "Wind in the Willows", limited to 1000 copies and illustrated and signed by Charles Van Sandwyk, is selling at over $2,000 each. Another example is Folio Society's 2015-issued "Alice's Adventure in Wonderland", also limited to 1,000 copies and illustrated and signed by Charles van Sandwyk. And then we have the leather books from Easton Press and the defunct Franklin Library.

Strictly speaking, Folio Society, Easton, and Franklin are better categorized as quality press rather than fine press. Regardless, not all editions from these fine or quality presses are worth collecting nor do they appreciate in value over time. A good portion of these books are resold at discount, or are hard sells at best. A copy of Arion Press' "Age of Innocence" continues to find no taker on eBay after over six months of listing at a reasonable price, and many titles from the Limited Editions Club sell for under $100.  I recently read, with amusement, on a bookseller's website that books from the Franklin library are highly collectible. That is an overstatement for sure. So I'll talk a little more about collecting Franklin books below.

To be sure, the books from Franklin Library - bound in full or quart leather and printed in acid-free papers with all edges gilt, and sometimes the true first editions or signed, or both - are of higher quality than today's ridiculously priced paperbacks printed on crap paper that yellow in a matter of months. But one lament commonly heard from Franklin-phile is that Franklin books do not appreciate in value. Why? For one, Franklin Library was messy in its publication history, and printed numerous titles repeatedly under different series. For example, you will find Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny" in two different prints, one under "The Pulitzer" series and the other under the "Signed Limited Edition" series. Two, Franklin Library abused "Limited Edition", a term liberally applied to a lot of its books, often with no specification of print size, and judging from their abundance on Abebooks and eBay, it is likely they are not that limited to start. Inflation leads invariably to devaluation. Notwithstanding these issues, there are collectible Franklins but their prices continue to be capped in the low hundreds at best.

Franklin Library published books by series, and the most collectible ones are those from its "Signed First Edition", "Limited First Edition", "Signed Limited Editions", and "Oxford Library" series. To be sure, not every title on these series are in demand, and some routinely sell, or remain unsold, at price range of $10-50.


    
Franklin Library published true first editions under the "Limited First Edition" and "Signed First Edition" series. As the names imply, the former are unsigned first editions while the latter are signed first editions, making them more desirable and expensive. To illustrate the differences, we will use Philip Roth's Zuckerman books. The early titles like "The Ghost Writer" and "Zuckerman Unbound" were published under the "Limited First Edition" series. They are the true first editions, but with facsimile signature rather than actual holograph. Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby" was also published under this series. The print size is generally unknown for this series, and individual titles sell for $20-60 depending on condition and desirability.

  

Later titles were published under the "Signed Limited Edition" series with subtle chronological differences. For the earlier titles like "The Anatomy Lessons", Roth signed a blank page and there was still no information on the print size. Starting from "American Pastoral", the signature was made on the limitation page, and the colophon stated the printing size. Roth's "American Pastoral" trilogy are quite desirable today and sell between $200-400 depending on conditions. Toni Morrison's "Jazz", also under this series, sells for $100-200. EL Doctorow's "Billy Bathgate" and his other titles sell for $50-$150. Other titles like Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and Joyce Carol Oates' signed first editions can be gotten at around $50, while Alison Lurie's "Foreign Affairs" sells for $20-30 despite being a Pulitzer winner. In spite of the first edition and signed status, most of these books sell at price levels that hardly justify a "desirable" tag, let alone a "collectible" one.

    

Apart from the first editions, Franklin Library also published a "Signed Limited Edition" series. Books from this series were signed by the authors but were not the first edition. Of particular desirability from this series are "Slaughterhouse Five", "Catch-22", "Invisible Man", and "All the King's Men" and they typically sell for $200-400 each. "Goodbye, Columbus", "Rabbit, Run", and "Them" sometimes appear and fetched around $100. The remaining titles, like Herman Wouk's "Caine Mutiny", sell for $50-$100. Again, Franklin Library claimed that these books are limited without mentioning the print size.


Then there is the "Oxford Library of World's Greatest Books" series produced in collaboration with the Oxford Library. Of this series, there are at least two, likely three, variants. Nobody is certain if the titles in this series were published in all three variant forms, but they appeared in at least two. At the top of the range is the deluxe, full genuine leather version with elaborate front board design and heavier gilt (book on right). At the bottom range is the quarter leather version (book on left) with plain board design and lighter gilt. For some titles, there seemed to be an intermediate full leather, likely faux, version with less majestic front board design. The content of the book for each title is identical regardless of the version. The deluxe versions are usually priced at $150-$400 on eBay but they do not sell. Rather, based on actual auction prices, the real going rates were around $50-150. The quarter leather version sells for $20-30 while the intermediate version is usually offered at $50-70.

    


Finally, there are other limited editions like "The Pulitzer" series. The prices vary widely on eBay but can usually be gotten from estate sales at less than $20 each. These make for very good reading copies but have no collectible value. Also, each Franklin book typically comes with an information card, an editor letter or an editor note. Be sure to ask for it to get a complete set, or a discount.

    

Addendum (Nov 2015): Heritage Auction offered many Franklin Library and Easton Press books in a recent weekly auction, and the realized prices, including hammer premium, provide a good barometer of the economic collectibility of these books. To reflect the actual price paid by the buyer, add $20 per book for delivery charges. 
  • The most expensive Franklin was a lot of two Joseph Heller's titles, signed Catch-22 and unsigned first edition of Good As Gold, sold for $225. The price is probably reflective of the signed Catch-22 with Good As Gold a byproduct. The signed Catch-22 lists for $200-$675 on eBay, and the Good As Gold goes for as low as $25.
  • Next at $213 was Jean Paul Sartre's signed Five Plays. Ebay listings ranged from $160-$700.
  • The lot of three Kurt Vonnegut titles, signed Slaughterhouse Five, unsigned Jailbird, and unsigned Slapstick. Again, the price is reflective of Slaughterhouse Five, listed at between $230-450 on eBay, and the other two title are peripherals. Jailbird and Slapstick list for below $50, although there are sellers demanding $200-$300 for each of them.
  • Interestingly, Erskine Caldwell's signed God's Little Acre sold for $200 when it can be gotten on eBay at between $40-$275. The higher price in that range does not necessarily reflect better book quality, just systematic overpricing by the same few sellers. A decent copy can be gotten at less than $50.
  • Irving Stone's signed The Agony and the Ecstasy went for $138 and lists for $60-400 on eBay.
  • Arthur Miller's signed Collected Plays sold for $125 and lists for $100-$300 on eBay.
  • Other notable sales include John Updike's trio of Marry Me, Rabbit, Run, and Rabbit Reduxthat sold for $113, James Dickey's signed Deliverance for $100 and Herman Wouk's signed The Caine Mutiny for $85.
Most lots of Franklin Library titles, in bundles of 3-5 assorted copies, sold for less than $40 or just about $10 per copy on average. The most expensive lot of four Easton Press, comprising Dostoevsky's Brother Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and War and Peace, sold for a meagre $113, or just under $30 per book. So buy them if you are looking for very good reading copies or into collecting leather books for aesthetic value, but avoid them if you are collecting for resale value.

Addendum (Feb 2016): The fine press mentioned above are the more popular ones, and are clearly non-exhaustive. There are many others, some still operational and some defunct, that are collected by serious book lovers. Centipede Press does books on genres of horror and grotesque, and weird tales. Allen Press, defunct, did classics, as did Lakeside Press, also defunct, with "Moby Dick" its most sought-after title. Golden Cockerel Press, a similar UK press that closed in 1961, is also popular with collectors, and Folio Society actually produced facsimiles for some of Golden Cockerel's titles, including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The list goes on. If you come across a fine press book that you absolutely love, buy it for what it means to you and write off the money. But if you are looking to sell it later for a good value appreciation, be mindful of the treacherous nature of book investment

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