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Collecting Science Fiction
Exceptions to the Rule
The Science Fiction Book Club, Part I

by Timothy Doyle

#114, 18 February 2008

There is a thread on the BookThink forum started by someone asking advice on the value of a book club edition of a collectible cookbook. Regular contributor WoodTek Books replied with this:

"The rule of thumb is that book club editions are nearly worthless. The problem is that in bookselling 90% of the big breaks you'll ever get are exceptions to one rule or another. Welcome aboard our ship of contradictions!"

This is an extremely important observation, and one that I believe is one of the keys to becoming a successful book seller. First, learn the rules - then learn when they don't apply.

Coincidentally - or synchronously, if you will - when I read this post from WoodTek Books, I was in the middle of researching this column, in which I present a number of Science Fiction Book Club editions all of which have good to excellent resale value. I was trying to think of a good intro to the column, and the BookThink forum served it up ready-made.

My method for compiling this list was simple. I started with the Abebooks advanced search page. I entered "SFBC" in the keywords field, and then selected Highest Price as the sort order. A quick scan of the first several pages of results gave me an initial list of titles and authors to work from. I then researched individual titles on both Abebooks and on Amazon. I find that checking both of these sites is a good method for getting a feel for value - sometimes a title with just a few high priced listings on ABE will have several more moderate priced copies on Amazon, or vice-versa. And a title that is scarce and high priced on both ABE and Amazon is much more likely to sell in the neighborhood of that higher price.

To anyone who repeats my search strategy, be aware that there was a UK publisher known as the Science Fiction Book Club. This was in no way associated with the US publisher of the same name, and many of the UK titles are scarce and collectible. When looking at the results from the search described above, pay attention to the publication city. The UK publisher will show London, while the US publisher will show New York or Garden City.

In researching the results of the search, I was struck by two observations. First, the highest priced titles from the US SFBC were for signed copies of highly collectible authors such as Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Philip Pullman. I've excluded these from my research, since a large part of the value lies in the signature and not in the book itself.

Second, I noticed two major themes in the list of exceptional SFBC titles. First, many of these titles were from "classic" SF authors - names like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and E.E. "Doc" Smith. Second, nearly all of these titles are omnibus editions - that is, editions in which two or more titles previously published separately have been released together in a single volume, sometimes with a new introduction. These two themes combined may be considered a flashpoint, though more research is needed to show how accurate it is.

The omnibus format represents both a great value and a handy format - they are the one-stop-shopping-spot of publishing. The reader gets multiple titles for the price of one in a nice hardback format that will last longer and wear better than paperbacks. Completist collectors will want the SFBC titles, because by definition completists buy everything. And the SFBC hardback editions make excellent reading copies, whether for the SF fan who is tired of wearing out paperbacks, or for the collector who wants to read the story but doesn't want to risk damage to fragile first editions.

It is also worth noting that some SFBC editions have associated ephemera, with posters and the club prospectus most common. These are best thought of as "bonus" items: Their presence or absence will not affect the value much either way but could help make the item more attractive and so result in a faster sale.

As always when discussing value, condition is very important. For a book that lists for $20 or so in Fine condition, minor problems like light edge wear, small chips or closed tears might drop the price by as much as 50%. A major issue like a missing dust jacket would effectively drop the value to nothing. A good example of this is the SFBC omnibus edition from Robert Heinlein titled To The Stars (ISBN 0739442600), which brings together the novels Between Planets, The Rolling Stones, Starman Jones, and The Star Beast. As of this writing, there are eight copies listed on ABE. Four copies are described as Fine or Near Fine in the $25 to $35 range. There are two others in this price range that are described as having minor condition problems - these are unlikely to sell any time soon. There is one copy described as Very Good with "light rubbings" listed at $10, which stands a great chance of selling to someone in the market for a bargain priced reading copy. Finally, there is one copy described as "acceptable" and "ex-library", listed for $1.

Prices for the rest of the titles discussed below assume Near Fine or better condition.

The Past Through Tomorrow Heinlein, Robert A ISBN: 0739410512 1987 SFBC editions start at $25 to $35. Any hardback copy of this title is worth picking up.

Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein Heinlein, Robert A ISBN: 1582881847 2005 Starts at $60

The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr Asimov, Isaac ISBN: 0739419412 2001 Collects David Starr - Space Ranger, Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, and Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn $35

The End of Eternity (Science Fiction Book Club 50th Anniversary Collection) Asimov, Isaac ISBN: 0739435574 2003 $20+

The Empire Novels Asimov, Isaac ISBN: 0739431056 2002 Omnibus edition collecting The Stars Like Dust, The Currents of Space, and Pebble in the Sky $25

The Complete Skylark Smith, E.E. "Doc" ISBN: 0739436023 2003 Omnibus edition: includes The Skylark Of Space, Skylark Three, Skylark Of Valeron and Skylark Duquesne Starting at $50

Chronicles of the Lensmen Volume 1 Smith, E.E. "Doc" ISBN: 1568658044 1998 Three books in one - Interplanetary - First Lensman - Galactic Patrol $25

Chronicles of the Lensmen Volume 2 Smith, E.E. "Doc" ISBN: 0739402625 1998 Three books in one - Gray Lensman - Second Stage Lensman - Children of the Lens $25

John Grimes: Rim Commander Chandler, A. Bertram ISBN: 0739460013 2005 Collects three novels: Gateway to Never, The Dark Dimensions, and The Way Back $60+

In the second part of this article I'll show you another 14 Science Fiction Book Club editions that sell for anywhere from $10 to $90, and I'll discuss how they fit within the context of the "classic author/omnibus edition" flashpoint identified above. In the third and final part of this series I will try to apply this flashpoint to predict more book club editions with resale value, and I will research the titles to see how good I am at fortune telling.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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