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Collecting Science Fiction
Learning to Learn

by Timothy Doyle

#107, 5 November 2007

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.

Searching AbeBooks

Savvy Search Tip: The biggest mistake that people make when using the AbeBooks search function is putting in too much information.

On the Advanced Search screen, I entered "Heinlein" as Author, "Menace Earth" as Title, and "Gnome" as Publisher. Every piece of data you enter will potentially exclude listings from the results. This is a good thing - to an extent. You could just enter "Menace From Earth" as the Title, but the results would include an unmanageable number of reprints and paperbacks. You want to strike a balance between too few search criteria that forces you to wade through page after page of listings and too many search terms that exclude something that you really want to see.

Savvy Search Tip: Selecting Hard Cover as the binding type in AbeBooks searches will sometimes exclude copies that are hardbacks. This is most likely due to data entry problems - i.e., the seller incorrectly put "paperback" as the binding or used some odd binding description that the AbeBooks systems don't recognize. This happens far more often than you would think.

In the example at hand, selecting "Hard Cover" and specifying "Gnome" as the Publisher is redundant - as a rule, Gnome only published hard backs. [Exercise for the Reader - research Isaac Asimov's I, Robot from Gnome Press, in paperback format; then tell me if it is worth knowing exceptions to rules.] The only thing that selecting Hard Cover will achieve is preventing you from seeing the copies that are incorrectly catalogued as something other than Hard Cover. At the time of writing this article, there are 10 copies of The Menace From Earth that show up when I specify "Gnome" and "Hard Cover." If I remove the Hard Cover filter, there are eleven copies. If that extra listing happened to be a newly listed and bargain priced copy, my search savvy might well have given me first shot at buying it.

Savvy Search Tip: AbeBooks searches work on partial matching.

That is, you don't have to key in "The Menace From Earth" as the title; "Menace" or "Earth" will do. I like to use as few words as possible, again on the principle that entering too much information might screen out copies I'd want to see. For example, I suggested using "Menace Earth" in the Title field; this would show me a listing even if the seller entered it incorrectly as "The Menace Form Earth." Common typos will often doom a listing to obscurity. But some search savvy and a little luck can turn up these "lost" listings, along with some bargain buys.

So, on examining the 11 AbeBooks listings for Gnome copies of The Menace From Earth, I noticed something interesting: While 9 of the descriptions make no mention one way or the other of a price on the dust jacket, one listing explicitly states "no price on dust jacket" and one listing states "NOT price clipped." That the majority of listings make no mention of a price suggests that either there is no price or there is a price but it is not a significant point in identifying the first printing. The listing with "no price listed on dust jacket" doesn't tell us much, since from the original query we already knew that there are copies with no price out there. The real puzzler is the "NOT price clipped" listing - on the face of it, this seems to indicate that the copy has a price on the dust jacket, but if so it is not explicitly stated. Time to look elsewhere for more data.

Searching eBay

The nice thing about eBay is that if you find a listing, especially for higher priced items, it is likely to include pictures. It is also easy to contact sellers, and they are usually willing to answer questions. At the time I looked, there was only one relevant listing. A photo of the front inner flap did not show a price, but the image cut off the top and bottom of the flap. The text description gives a lot of detail but makes no mention of a price on the front flap. So, eBay information was inconclusive.

Savvy Search Tip: Completed auction results are available through eBay for 30 days or for 90 days with the Marketplace Research service at $24.95 per month. But you can search closed eBay auctions and get results even older than 90 days, and do it for free. Perform a Google search for the title you are researching, and include the keyword "eBay." For any results that appear to be completed eBay auctions, clicking on the "Cached" link will bring up a saved version of the page, even if the regular link is no longer active.

Searching the Internet

To mis-quote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "The Internet is big, unbelievably big. You would not believe just how enormously and mind-bogglingly big the Internet is ...." This is why you must believe and live by one simple truth - Google Is Your Friend. The ability to winnow specific bits of information from the data-verse is a critically important skill and one well beyond the scope of this article to address fully. There are, however, a few specific strategies to discuss.

Savvy Search Tip: I use Google Images a lot when researching books. It is very easy to look at the images and pick out potentially interesting sites to click through to - easier than wading through a lot of text. And the presence of images can be associated with a well researched site with good information or a seller's site which may have items available that aren't on the common venues like Amazon, eBay and AbeBooks.

Googling on "'Menace From Earth' Heinlein" and then clicking Images led me to with several blurry images of the dust jacket in question. One image shows the front inner flap, which does not appear to have a price on it.

Savvy Search Tip: When looking for publication information about an author's work, include the keyword "bibliography" - thus, "'Robert Heinlein' bibliography."

Most of what you'll find is garbage but some is good. A vanishingly small number of links will lead you to excellent sources of information, and the best of these should be bookmarked for future reference.

Savvy Search Tip: Do a Newsgroup search.

Use your favorite reader to search newsgroups. Or, when you do a Google search, click on More, then Groups. Two newsgroups I've found very helpful over time are rec.collecting.books (RCB), and rec.arts.sf.written (RASW). The RCB newsgroup is effectively dead now, having been taken over by trolls, but is still an amazingly rich archive of material. A search at RCB on "Gnome Bookclub" returns a thread entitled "Did Gnome Do BCEs?" with some obliquely useful information. The RASW group is still very active, and the natives are fairly friendly. There are many very well informed SF readers (and some writers) there, which makes RASW a good resource for asking questions.

Searching Reference Works

There are two main reference works that I consult for SF and Fantasy bibliographic questions. The first is Lloyd Currey's Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First Printings of their Fiction and Selected Nonfiction. For The Menace From Earth, Currey simply says "First edition so stated on copyright page." The second source is Donald H Tuck's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1974). Tuck states: "Gnome, New York, 1959, 255 pp., $3.50)." The latter would seem to be proof that there should be a price of $3.50 on the jacket, but when one source states something and no other source is forthcoming with supporting evidence, then you have to question the statement.

At this point, I had a strong feeling that there was no price printed on the Gnome trade edition of The Menace From Earth. My main reasoning was that if Gnome had issued a trade edition with a price and a book club edition with no price, then for an extremely collectible author like Heinlein there would be some mention of that fact somewhere. Remember, this is not an obscure work by an obscure author that no ones knows of or cares about. This is Robert Heinlein, arguably the father of modern science fiction - or as Gary K. Wolfe (professor, critic, and Locus book reviewer) says, "[He] invented the language of modern science fiction." But there was enough doubt - the reference on AbeBooks to a DJ that was "not price clipped" and Tuck's citation of a $3.50 price - that I just wasn't sure.

When All Else Fails, Ask For Help!

It so happened that I needed to email Lloyd Currey on another matter, so I took the opportunity to ask his opinion on the whole Menace From Earth price question. Coincidentally, someone had recently asked him the exact same question. Currey's answer was that no price on the jacket is "probably correct." He notes that there were a couple of Gnome titles that came out in that period with no price and that there was no SFBC edition of Menace.

As to Tuck's citing a price of $3.50 for The Menace From Earth, Currey speculates that he may have gotten that from a rear panel advertisement on a later Gnome title (EB Cole's The Philosophical Corps, Gnome, 1961).


No one can expect to know everything there is to know about a subject. Specializing helps somewhat - limiting the width makes it easier to increase the depth of knowledge. A great memory certainly helps; some people are better at remembering facts, while some have terrific visual memory. And years of experience will increase your store of knowledge. I can only hope in time to have a fraction of the ready knowledge of someone like Lloyd Currey, who has been involved in the book trade since his mid-teens. But educators will tell you that the education process is only partially about filling a student's head with facts and figures. A well-educated person develops a love of learning, so that the process never stops. And most important, s/he learns how to learn. Learn how to ask questions, surround yourself with the tools to access information, learn how to use those tools, and develop the critical and intuitive faculties that will lead you to the answers you need as well as help you to identify and avoid incorrect information. And finally, cultivate relationships with colleagues so that you can help and be helped by them.

It is also important to realize that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you simply don't find a definitive answer. This is somewhat the case with the question regarding the presence of a price printed on the dust jacket of the Gnome edition of Heinlein's The Menace From Earth. My research led me to conclude that Gnome did not put a price on the trade edition, and this was confirmed as "probably correct" by Lloyd Currey. But one day I may come across an example of this book with the $3.50 price printed on the DJ, and all the careful reasoning will be thrown out. Which is fine, because on that day I will have learned something new.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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