Anatomy of a Flashpoint

by Craig Stark

#53, 3 October 2005

There's Bookselling Gold in Letters

When I was in my 20s, I lived with my wife in a small, remote farmhouse on the windswept Illinois prairie. Rent was $90 a month. We grew or foraged for most of our vegetables, bought eggs, beef, etc., for next to nothing from a neighbor who raised chickens and fattened cattle on his farm, drove a VW (which, thanks to John Muir's now classic guide, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, I maintained for years), and otherwise lived as cheaply and simply as we could.

What this allowed me to do was to write - spend days on end at a desk, producing one bad story after another, when I could otherwise have been making money. Foolish or not, I was content living this near ascetic existence, and yet who wouldn't trade mere stuff for the rare, unfettered opportunity to do what you love? Truly, I had begun to think like an ascetic as well. There were few things I felt a pressing need to acquire; if anything, I wanted to be free of many of the things I already had. Amidst this, however, there was a lavish exception: The Oxford English Dictionary.

My thinking was that no would-be writer could sensibly expect to succeed without having the definitive dictionary of the English language at his side. Even though Oxford had just published a 2-volume, microprint version of the OED that was far cheaper than the magnificently unaffordable 20-volume set, it was still (if I recall correctly) a $90 hit - exactly one month's rent. Difficult to justify to myself or my wife, let alone afford.

Enter Book-of-the-Month Club. An offer I couldn't refuse arrived in the mail one day: the prize for joining was none other than a microprint set of the OED, boxed, magnifying glass included! Yes, I had to buy a half dozen books in the coming year to satisfy my membership obligations, but this was doable, spread out much like loan payments over 12 long months. I signed up immediately.

Oddly enough, of the books I subsequently bought that year I remember only one - Franz Kafka's Letters to Felice. It was my first encounter with Kafka, and I have to confess that the only reason I ended up with it was because I was late sending in the form that notifies BOMC not to ship the current selection.

But, wouldn't you know, it turned out to be one of those books, the one-in-a-hundred (or thousand) that inexplicably hard wire you to the author's psyche almost immediately. Kafka knew me, it seemed, knew precisely what it was like to sit at a desk on a late winter's night, warm his hands in a pool of light from a small lamp, and be so dug in with what he was doing that neither howling winds outside nor the bitter drafts that crawled through the cracks in the window were of any consequence, if acknowledged at all. He also knew what it was like to agonize over almost everything, doubt himself at every turn, especially so with the then object of his affection - Felice Bauer.

Ultimately, however, the letters weren't about Felice. Yes, Kafka wrote in painfully exquisite detail about her, dwelled on her almost to the point of obsession, yet all that this accomplished for me was further illumination of Kafka himself and a strong, growing desire to begin reading his fiction. He was a fabulously gifted and riveting letter writer, and it's fitting that these particular letters were written during an unusually productive period of his short life - a time when he also penned what has become one of most arresting opening paragraphs in the history of literature:

"One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes."

The Metamorphosis

In all, Kafka produced a comparatively small body of work, a significant portion of which is either missing or destroyed, but its impact has been huge, so much so that he's now revered as one of a handful of major 20th century writers. In turn, unfortunately, he conforms to the typical great-writer bookselling pattern: so much of his work has been reprinted so many times that not much of it has significant resale value. The few exceptions are first German and UK editions, which are far less commonly encountered than blue moons, and more recent Easton Press and Franklin Press offerings.

End of story? Not exactly. While Metamorphosis, The Trial and other Kafka blockbusters can be had for pennies at online venues, to snag a nice paperback copy of Letters to Felice you'll need to cough up almost $10, or about $15 for a fine jacketed hardback. Not exactly bookselling gold, you might be thinking, but wait. Collections of letters are one of the more overlooked but genuinely profitable bookselling niches I know, a solid bread-and-butter flashpoint, especially if the author is a gifted writer to begin with.

There are reasons for this. Print runs (and initial sales) of letter collections are typically small, so if interest in an author's main body of work heats up over time, values can skyrocket. Also, letters are often fascinating to read in their own right and/or give collectors insight into authors that the author's books rarely do. Perhaps Kafka's letters aren't in the stratosphere, and certainly there are many other author collections that fall into the same price range, but what's noteworthy is that relatively few of these move much below the $10 level - i.e., most are still worth listing at fixed-price venues. More importantly, in a matter of minutes at Amazon, you can cull 100s of titles that hit BookThink's 50/50 mark or better (note author diversity):

Scott Fitzgerald: Letters to His Daughter - $49.19
Selected letters of James Joyce - $218.82
Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt - $46.69
Soul of the Age: Selected Letters of Herman Hesse, 1891-1962 - $51.45
Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay - $49.99
Selected Letters (Edward Thomas) - $69.99
Selected Letters of William F. Cody, 1879-1917 - $98.74
Selected letters of William Faulkner - $60.00
Selected Letters and Journals of George Crabbe - $97.96
Franz Liszt: Selected Letters - $246.49
Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore - $76.62
Selected Letters of Samuel Johnson - $40.00
The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson - $93.60
The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick - $228.70
Selected letters of Walt Whitman - $47.50
Selected Letters and Papers 1776-1790 (Lafayette) - $70.00
Elizabeth Fry: Selected Letters And Writings - $78.27
Selected letters of Edward Wilmot Blyden - $134.34
Dear all: The selected letters of R.H. "Pat" Uhlmann - $64.95
The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 1 - $79.85
Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: 1926-1927 - $109.99
Collected Letters (C.S. Lewis) - $51.78
The Collected Letters of A.W.N. Pugin: 1843-1845 - $59.94
Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - $124.99
The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge - $73.00

And many, many more.

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