Big bucks for old books


By Dwight Garner
November 21, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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When Charles Frazier's earthy, decidedly old-fashioned first novel "Cold Mountain" beat out Don DeLillo's "Underworld" and three other books Tuesday night to win this year's National Book Award for fiction, many in the book world expressed some mild shock and surprise. (Who is this bearded whippersnapper?) But not America's book collectors. They'd been betting on Frazier all along.

From the moment "Cold Mountain" was released this spring, it has basked in the glow of almost-otherworldly buzz. Strong reviews and good word-of-mouth translated into sales, and Atlantic Monthly Press' first printing -- 25,000 copies -- quickly vanished from bookstores. It's impossible to know how many of those copies were snapped up by collectors who saw a good thing coming, but as early as this summer antiquarian booksellers began advertising signed copies for $50, then for $75, then for $100.


When one bookseller recently tried to pass along a signed first edition of "Cold Mountain" for $150, Robin H. Smiley, the publisher of a monthly book collector's magazine called Firsts, felt compelled to step in and dismiss some of the smoke -- in much the same way that Alan Greenspan might try to soothe frazzled nerves after a particularly fevered day on Wall Street. "We are automatically skeptical about the long-term strength of new books at premium prices; time tends to bring them back to earth," Smiley intones in the magazine's November issue. "But it is always pleasant to have purchased such a book before it became a sensation."

Nice try, Robin. Now that "Cold Mountain" has garnered what is arguably America's most prestigious literary prize, that rumbling noise you hear is the sound of used booksellers rushing to jack up the penciled sticker price inside their few remaining copies. The stock of "Cold Mountain" can only soar.

The underground market in Charles Frazier first editions is indicative of the growing interest in book collecting in recent years. Americans love collectibles, and bookish Americans are apparently no exception. As each succeeding issue of Smiley's Firsts magazine indicates, there is almost no writer too young (Elizabeth McCracken) or too minor (Rufus King) or too commercial (Michael Crichton) to be actively hoarded.


The price that these writers' books can command has as much, if not more, to do with their rarity as it does with their literary value. What collectors generally seek out is a first edition copy of a writer's first -- not necessarily their best -- book. Other things can help boost a book's price: Is it in good condition? Is it signed? Was there a small first printing? Is there anything unusual about it, like maybe a copy of Jesse Jackson's autobiography inscribed to David Duke?

The more obscure a writer's first few books are, the more chance they have to become valuable to collectors once he or she becomes well-known. Take Cormac McCarthy, for example -- a writer to whom Frazier is often compared. Until 1992, when McCarthy's novel "All the Pretty Horses" won the National Book Award and propelled him into the acknowledged first rank of American novelists, copies of his earlier novels crowded used bookstore shelves and could be had for a couple of dollars. After "All the Pretty Horses," that changed rapidly. First editions of McCarthy's first novel, "Orchard Keeper" (1965), now sell for as much as $2,500.

The best gauge of what's happening in the fickle used book market is Allen and Patricia Ahearn's annual volume, "Collected Books" (Putnam), a reference book that is to active collectors what the Blue Book is to used car buyers -- a virtual bible. The 1998 edition of "Collected Books" is just out, and it makes for fascinating reading. For one thing, it's fun to check and see what early editions of various canonical -- dare I say priceless? -- works are currently worth on the open market. Got a first edition of "Paradise Lost" (London, 1667) kicking around the house? It's trading for about $60,000. How about a second edition -- the first is apparently lost -- of "Don Quixote" (London, 1620)? According to the Ahearns, it's worth roughly $15,000. Among this century's great writers, a first edition of Ernest Hemingway's first book, "Three Stories and Ten Poems" (Paris, 1923) sells for $20,000, while Flannery O'Connor's more widely accessible "Wise Blood" (New York, 1952) can be had for a mere $2,000.


Another way to read "Collected Books," however, is as a guide to the ever-fluctuating futures market in books by living writers. While there is no objective correlation between prices and literary worth, there is a sneakily subjective correlation. Collectors tend to have their fingers to the critical wind, gathering up books by the writers (and titles) that they think have the best shot at longevity -- and ever-increasing value.

It's interesting, for example, to note that of the five writers up for this year's National Book Award in fiction -- Frazier, DeLillo, Ward Just, Cynthia Ozick and Diane Johnson -- only DeLillo and Ozick merit a mention in the new edition of "Collected Books." A first edition of DeLillo's first novel, "Americana" (1971), sells for $350; Ozick's "Trust" (1966) goes for the same price.


Writers with broad and particularly rabid fan bases tend to do better, at least in the short run, than more literary writers. Pat Conroy's first novel, "The Boo" (1970), is listed at $3,000; Sue Grafton's "'A' is for Alibi" (1982) commands $1,250; and James Lee Burke's "Half of Paradise" sells for $1,750. Contrast this with first books like Richard Ford's "A Piece of My Heart" (1976, $350), Louise Erdrich's "Jacklight" (1984, $250) and Oscar Hijuelos' "Our House in the Last World" (1983, $150).

But First magazine's Smiley, in a recent interview, pointed out the ways that popularity can backfire. "When 'The Bridges of Madison County' became popular," she said, "first editions were selling for as much as $400 because there weren't many of them. But then the word of mouth on the book just died. No one talks about it anymore, it's not catalogued, it has simply dried up."

"It's a goofy market," Smiley said. "Like any market, from bottle caps to vintage cars, the prices are entirely market-driven. Our first advice to collectors is: Collect what you love. And as in any investment, don't use the rent money."


Smiley also offered some prescient advice for those who will rush to hoard first editions of "Cold Mountain" now that it is a National Book Award winner. "Many prize-winning writers are now forgotten," she said. "Louis Bromfield won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for his novel 'Early Autumn,' but by his sixth book the critics turned on him. Now he's forgotten."

Smiley also feels that, in terms of collecting, a lot will be riding on Frazier's second book. "When Pam Houston's first book, 'Cowboys Are My Weakness,' came out, there was a small first printing and first editions were hot. But she hasn't written another book, and the price of the first editions has stalled at around $75. Now it might be too late."

While the annual edition of "Collected Books" tends to list only established authors, Smiley's magazine often features advertisements for books by very young writers. A bookseller in San Jose, Calif., lists McCracken's "Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry" (1993) for $100 and Edwidge Danticat's "Krik? Krak!" (1995) for $60. A dealer in Boise, Idaho, offers both Rick Moody's "Garden State" (1992) and Chris Offutt's "Kentucky Straight" (1992) for $150. On the other hand, a first edition of Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting" (1993), originally published by a tiny London press, sells for $1,400.


For young writers, watching the prices of your books go up and down can be a queasy-making experience. "Writers are a twisted, paranoid lot under the best of circumstances," says novelist Geoff Nicholson, author of "Footsucker" and "Bleeding London." "But this can send you over the edge. Most writers will tell you they pay no attention to it -- but how can you not be flattered to see that people are indeed collecting you?"

Jonathan Lethem, the author of such novels as "Gun, With Occasional Music" and "As She Climbed Across the Table," is another young writer whose name has begun to appear on used booksellers' lists. "I'm very happy to see my books there," he says. "I didn't feel fully like a writer until I saw my stuff in used bookstores and in collections." Yet Lethem does sometimes worry about the attention: "They're placing bets on me, as if I were a new company," he says. "To see them disappointed would really be bruising."

No one who loves books will be disappointed at the news that "Cold Mountain" took home the National Book Award last night -- it's a serious novel that deserves the attention. Whether those people who own one of the many signed first editions of "Cold Mountain" should rejoice is another question.

As Doris Lessing puts it in her new memoir, "A Walk in the Shade," the booming interest in signed books has to peak soon. "A couple of summers ago," Lessing writes, "there was a joke going around the Oxford students: 'I have the only unsigned copy of ...'"

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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