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Doing your homework

How can you know what titles will benefit most from getting an author's signature? The answer is research. To begin with, you will need to learn about upcoming author events well in advance; this gives you time to acquire stock. Contact all of your local bookstores and get yourself on their events mailing lists. The big national chain stores tend to have more author events on the whole, but the small local stores (particularly ones devoted to specialized genres such as mysteries or science fiction) often host author signings, and the owners of these genre stores are terrific resources for you to get to know. Search for websites or newsgroups devoted to particular authors you are interested in or contact the author's publisher for more information, especially when they have a new book coming out and are more likely to be doing a book tour.

Once you've learned about an upcoming author event, next go to www.google.com and search on the author name and the keyword "bibliography." This should lead you to sites listing all the books by that author with publication data (year, publisher, etc), often with alternate editions (i.e., US versus UK). With the bibliography in hand, start researching each title. Use fixed price sites like www.abebooks.com to get a feel for availability and what other sellers think the title is worth, both signed and unsigned. Disregard unusually high or low prices to find an average value, and note unusually low-priced copies, as they might be good candidates for your inventory. Pay attention to condition descriptions and how sellers identify the first printing. As you work down the bibliography from oldest to most recent, there is usually a point where the average price of Very Good to Fine copies breaks from relatively high to relatively low. The titles that border the high side of this break point are the ones that you have the best chance of both finding at a reasonable price and reselling at a very good profit when signed.

As an example, I was recently researching Ian Rankin titles. Unsigned copies of Rankin's first book The Flood (Polygon, 1986) listed between almost $800 and $1000 on ABE. Only two signed copies, priced between $1750 and $2000, were available. No signed or unsigned copies were on eBay. While the Abebooks numbers suggested a $1000 profit on an $800 investment, I decided the risk was too great and started looking down the bibliography list. I eventually found and purchased a Fine copy of Strip Jack (St. Martin's, 1994) on Abebooks for an incredibly low $15. After getting it signed, I listed it on eBay, where it sold for $127.50.

A more aggressive strategy would involve investing significantly more money in collector's-grade copies of an author's most valuable books, then listing the signed copies in fixed-price venues such as Abebooks or Amazon at prices that yield the profits you want. This strategy could take months or more to pay off, but the potential rewards are high. To use Rankin's The Flood as an example, I could have invested $800 in an unsigned copy from Abebooks, then had it signed before listing it in the same venue at $1500, a full $250 less than the next copy. This strategy might result in an instant sale, or it might take six months or more to move it. Even if you can afford to tie up capital in a single book for months at a time, you have to ask yourself if that money couldn't have worked better for you elsewhere.

Variations on the signing theme

If you're going to a convention or other venue with multiple authors, look for anthologies that include some or all of the authors. While multi-author anthologies as a rule don't build in value the way single-author works do, those signed by several well-known contributing authors are sure to appeal to collectors.

History, biography, and other nonfiction - try to get the signature of someone associated with the subject matter or with the author of the book. As an (implausible) example, who wouldn't want a copy of Monica's Story signed by Bill Clinton?

Also, look for opportunities to get artists to sign books they've illustrated. For example, James Gurney, author and artist of Dinotopia fame, appeared at an opening of an exhibit of his work at the Smithsonian. I had in my collection author-signed hardback first editions of Tim Power's On Stranger Tides (Ace, 1987) and James Blaylock's The Last Coin (Ace, 1988), both of which have cover artwork by James Gurney. I took my family with me, and we were treated to a spectacular slide presentation and talk. I was able to get my books signed, and we spent the rest of the afternoon touring the Dinotopia exhibit. Not only did I make a cool addition to my fantasy and science fiction collection, but I also spent the day with my family and made some great memories for my children.

Finally, try for association signatures. At a signing with John Sandford for his recent Naked Prey, the author mentioned that the book's dedicatee was present. When I asked her to sign the dedication page by her name, she seemed genuinely pleased, and we had a very pleasant conversation. There are dozens of signed copies of this recent title available, but I haven't seen any with the dedicatee's signature. It is unique features like this that appeal to the collector mentality and maximize your profits.

Signed or inscribed

Much has been made in recent years about the comparative values of signature-only (or flat signed) books and inscribed books (books bearing both a signature and an inscription). Proponents of the signed-only school argue that "To Tim " is less collectible (read, less valuable), except perhaps to all the Tim's of the world. Sadly, many new collectors accept this reasoning and have ended up with sterile, generic signed books, sacrificing the personal connection an inscription can provide.

This idea that a signed book is preferable to an inscribed one is a fairly recent affectation and runs counter to the well-established tradition in book collecting that "more is better" - that is, the more an author writes in the book, the better, simply because it's easier to forge a signature than an inscription plus a signature. For an excellent perspective on this issue, see Ken Lopez's article "Signed vs. Inscribed" at http://lopezbooks.com/articles/signed.html For my personal collection, I prefer inscribed because the books are for my enjoyment and satisfaction and ultimately to pass on to my children. For the books you intend to re-sell, a good compromise might be to request a non-personalized inscription (e.g., "Best wishes") plus the signature and date. In selling and buying signed books, provenance and authenticity are the key issues. For this reason alone, more really is better.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
editor@bookthink.com

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