Signed Books

by Timothy Doyle

#2, 15 September 2003

Measuring Their Value

The assumption is that getting a book signed increases value. Why is this, and how do we define value? To begin with, I make a distinction between a book's dollar value and something I call personal value. In simplest terms, dollar value is whatever amount a seller can get for a book. The auction format of eBay can result in sales within 5 to 10 days but often yields unusually high or low dollar values due to unpredictable factors like bidding wars, summer doldrums, inadequate descriptions, and pure good or bad luck. On fixed-price venues such as Abebooks, or Amazon the seller determines the price but may end up waiting weeks, months or more before making the sale. A more useful definition of dollar value might be the average final sale value a seller can expect for a given book within a certain period of time.

The personal value of a book derives from many factors. Some are easily measured and pertain to most collectors: uniqueness, availability, first edition status, condition, subject matter, and so on. Some value factors are hard to measure and can be very personal. I once found a hardback copy of the fantasy classic Silverlock (Dutton, 1949) by John Myers Myers, which reliably sells for over $100 when available at all. Coincidentally, the copy I found had the bookplate of a favorite high school teacher of mine. This bookplate, which would normally decrease both the personal and dollar value to most collectors, significantly increased the personal value to me.

As a seller, your inventory represents an investment of time, money, expertise, and energy. One approach to maximizing the return on your investment is to focus on stock with the highest potential for appeal to the collector market. To do this you must understand the collector mentality - specifically, the hot buttons that define the collector's sense of personal value. Let's take a look at some of these value hot buttons to see how they are affected by the author's signature.

The bookselling world is not always logical but does tend toward consistency. For example, even if the second print run of a book is much smaller (hence rarer) than the first printing, the collector will consistently prefer the first printing. By the same token, a first printing with some condition problems will generally still command a higher price than a fine condition second printing.

However, the author's signature can trump these value rules. For example, I have in my collection a signed copy of a second printing of James Watson's The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968). I've seen unsigned copies in Very Good condition sell for $20 to $30; I've never seen a signed second printing offered, but signed copies of sixth and eighth printings list on ABE for over $200. While I won't commit to saying that a signed second printing is more valuable than an unsigned first printing, I'm quite comfortable saying that they are comparable in value.

A look at another Watson title illustrates another way the author's signature can "cheat" the value rules: DNA, The Secret of Life (Knopf, 2003) is a new title available from Amazon et al for approximately $25; it sells on eBay for $10 to $20. But, signed eBay copies have sold for between $41 and $76, and one rabidly optimistic soul has a copy on ABE for $1000! The lesson is that an author's signature can take an easily acquired, low-cost book and supercharge its dollar value. Another example: Clive Cussler's Sahara (Simon & Schuster, 1992) is readily available online at eBay, ABE, etc., for less than shipping charges, and I often run across $1 copies in Fine condition at the thrifts and sales I attend. Signed, this same title routinely sells on eBay for at least $40 to $50.

A third rule: collectors don't buy ex-library copies. Exceptions usually involve titles that are so scarce and high-priced that an ex-lib copy may be the only option for the collector on a budget. I recently sold a signed, ex-lib copy of Jeffery Wilds Deaver's Hard News (Doubleday, 1991) on eBay. I was lucky enough to find this title for $1, and I held on to it for a couple of months until I was able to get it signed. I've never seen a signed collector's-grade copy of Hard News on eBay. An unsigned copy sold for about $250, and signed copies list on ABE starting at almost $700. I've seen an unsigned, ex-lib copy on eBay fail to sell because collectors wouldn't spend $50 for it. Had I auctioned my copy unsigned, I might have gotten $30 or $40 after relisting. Instead, I got it signed and made an immediate sale for $125.

These three examples illustrate how author signings function in a business strategy of "buy low, sell high." With a relatively minor investment, you can buy lesser-condition, second printing, or ex-library copies of highly collectible titles or Fine condition first printings of mid-range titles of a highly-collectible author. If you've done your homework properly and picked the right titles, getting these books signed will allow you to turn a healthy profit.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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