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Collecting the First Edition Library

by Stan Shelley

#68, 15 May 2006

Frightening Facsimiles

In the late 1980s the First Edition Library (FEL) began publishing high quality facsimiles of famous first editions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sold via subscription, the FEL eventually produced over one hundred titles, ranging from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.

The degree of accuracy maintained in the duplication of original first editions was nothing less than extraordinary. FEL facsimiles had the same weight, size, typeface, art, dust jacket, finish and texture as the originals. Even mistakes were duplicated - for example, the infamous "jay" error on the front flap of The Great Gatsby dust jacket possesses the same capital 'J' that strikes over the lower case letter as the original. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Original Gatsby dust jackets surface about once in a blue moon, usually in less than perfect condition, and values are astronomical.)

There are, however, some distinguishing differences in FEL productions. Acid free paper was used, whether it was in the original or not - and often it was not. Also, an explanatory block of text appears on the facsimile copyright page:

The dust jacket possesses an "FEL" on the lower part of the back jacket flap.

Most FEL books were issued in slipcases; the originals were not, and each book arrived (see exception noted below) with a laid-in card of explanatory notes, including how the title came into being, background on the dedication, applicable issue points, the target copy from which the facsimile was produced, and some general notes about the book and its readership.

Sometime in the 1990s, FEL ceased production and sold rights for some of its facsimiles to Easton Press. Easton, in turn, produced 35 literary and 14 James Bond titles, also selling them via subscription. These are identical to those produced by the original First Edition Library publishers with one exception: There's no information card. Online sellers of FEL titles in their original shrink wrap frequently make the assumption that the book includes its information card. Not likely; most of these copies are the newer (and less valuable) Eastons.

In the past two or three years, Easton has made several other changes. First, they have discontinued FEL production of the James Bond series, and values now reflect this. Second, slip cases were discontinued. Regarding Easton copies of FEL titles, it should be noted that the explanatory block on the title page has not been altered - that is, there is no mention of Easton Press involvement.

The first three FEL titles produced - For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men - possess an interesting variation that subsequent publications don't: "FEL" was missing from on the back jacket flap on all first printings (2500 copies of each title). Understandably, book collectors expressed concern that this opened the door to fraudulent misrepresentation of the jackets, especially given the faithfulness of the reproductions. Consequently, starting with the fourth book, Look Homeward Angel, "FEL" was added to the back flap. Also, after the initial runs of the first three titles were exhausted, "FEL" was added to all future printings. Today, as you might imagine, copies without "FEL" are hard to find and much sought after.

In total, the First Edition Library produced 112 titles. Easton purchased the rights to produce 49 of them. The remaining 63 ceased production in the 1990s, and, as a result, this out-of-print status tends to increase their value.

The heart of the First Edition Library series is literary fiction, but there are four categories of exceptions.

  1. James Bond series: 14 titles.
  2. Mystery series: 13 titles.
  3. Science fiction series: 12 titles.
  4. Published in Paris (banned books) series: 3 titles.

The Published in Paris series (Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, and Ulysses) is relatively scarce and not as easily spotted because the titles were issued in clamshell boxes instead of slip cases. Also, none of the three books possess information cards; rather, there is a single informational brochure referring to all three.

The mystery series was done in collaboration with Otto Penzler, noted mystery publisher and proprietor of the Mystery Book Shop in New York City, who also published the titles, but again, no slipcases. Note also that a few titles in this series do not state "First Edition Library" on the copyright page. Instead look for "Collectors Reprints." This is further complicated by the fact that some Penzler productions possess the FEL information card and yet lack slip cases. Confused yet? It gets worse. As noted, some FEL books state "Collectors Reprints" rather than "First Edition Library," but not all Collectors Reprints books are FEL books.

A final observation concerning For Whom the Bell Tolls: This book was the loss leader for FEL marketing efforts and was frequently offered to potential subscribers, who could then observe the quality first hand, at $2.95 each. Since many of these Hemingways never scored subscriptions for the publisher, it's the most plentiful title in the marketplace and thus least valuable in the series. When I see it, however, I do check to see if it is the rare variation missing the "FEL" on the jacket flap. If the "FEL" is present, I generally do not buy it.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but titles not originally issued with dust jackets do not possess them in the FEL series. Examples include Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, The Jungle, and The Red Pony.

Who collects FEL books? There are two types - series completists (those who simply try to complete the set) and author completists (those who seek one or more titles because they collect the author). In my experience, the first group almost always seeks copies with information cards. The second group generally isn't as fussy about this. Because the first group comprises easily half of the market, the presence or absence of the information card is important. I generally buy so that I can price books without the information card at $20 to $30 less than books with it.

What about value? The three most valuable titles are the Published in Paris books, which I have sold several times for $500 to $600 each. Next, titles lacking an "FEL" on the dust jacket are generally the most valuable. I have sold these many times for over $100. Other titles that may or may not get into three figures include I Robot (Isaac Asimov), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith), Fer-de-Lance (Rex Stout), The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett), and Star Man's Son (Andre Norton). All of these FEL titles are out of print and were not reprinted by Easton. None of the Eastons will attract over $100, but here are the best of the group: Tarzan of the Apes (Edgar Rice Burroughs), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway), Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell), and The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand). Remember, copies in this last group that possess information cards have more value.

A final note: FEL books need to be in top condition to reach their potential. Slight wear on the slip case might be acceptable but any wear on the book itself seriously diminishes its value.

I have written a checklist for FEL books that identifies those in print with Easton and those that are out of print.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Stan Shelley's checklist can be purchased here for $9.99.

The price includes a checklist of all 112 FEL titles, indications of most and least valuable titles, indications of rarest and most common titles, detailed issue points (where applicable), explanatory notes, and the full text of Stan's article. Should any updates be necessary, there will be no additional charge. If you're an FEL collector, this checklist is of course essential, but I recommend it highly to serious booksellers too. Many FEL titles surface on scouting trips, and it will help to know your stuff.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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