by Timothy Doyle

#107, 5 November 2007

Learning to Learn

Collecting Science Fiction

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Over the past few years as BookThink Science Fiction Editor, I've received many emails from readers. The majority of these fall into two categories - one, help in identifying a story based on a reader's fragmentary memory of plot and characters, or two, questions about first edition identification and/or value. And while I certainly make no claim to knowing everything about the genre, I can claim something much more important - the ability to find out what I don't know. I thought it would be instructive to take a real world example of one reader's query and break down the methods I used to arrive at an answer.

"I have a copy of Heinlein's The Menace from Earth, (New York: Gnome Press, 1959). It is a stated first edition, but there is no price on either dust jacket flap. Did Gnome do this? I have a published source (reliability?) that says that the price was $3.50, but doesn't say anything about that price being printed on the jacket. Any help would be appreciated."

This question appealed to me on several levels. For one, I am in the process of writing a BookThink article on Gnome Press. I had already done a good amount of research on the publisher and came across some vague references to Gnome book club editions. Second, I've made a few good buys recently on Heinlein material for my personal SF collection, and I've been doing some research on first edition identification and pricing with an eye towards buying more.

As an aside, I will point out that collectors and sellers, especially of high value items like Heinlein first editions, must enjoy spending time doing research. Research will tell you the difference between variant bindings of a particular first printing, and the difference it makes in the value. Research will give you the edge on your competition. Research will take you beyond the basics, and teach you the exceptions to the rule. Take Random House books as an example. Until very recently Random House designated first printings with the statement of "First Edition:" and a number line that counted down to 2 - not to 1. Over the years many people who knew this fact have made great buys on true first printings, because the seller and the competition thought it was a second printing. More importantly, there are exceptions to this Random House rule, and doing the research to learn the exceptions gives you a tremendous advantage over the competition. Research gives you the knowledge that will let you make bargain buys, and will keep you from wasting money on the bargain that wasn't.

Savvy Search Tip: Spend some time figuring out exactly what question you want to answer.

In the case of the reader query above, the issue can be stated as "Does the Gnome first trade printing of Heinlein's The Menace From Earth have a price printed on the dust jacket?" My first step was to look at listings by other dealers, and for this I usually first turn to AbeBooks.