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A Guide to Selling Anthologies

by Michele Behan

#96, 11 June 2007

This is a tale of two books - both sharing the same title and both listed in as eBay auctions in the same week. By sheer coincidence, both books had been upgraded by their sellers to a Featured Plus! listing, which guaranteed each a coveted high ranking at the top of its literature sub-category page. Additionally, each auction was not a bare-bones listing; on the contrary, the sellers devoted careful description to their respective tomes. With so many similar factors, you would expect the two books to end up at about the same final price, wouldn't you?


One book sold for $31.99. The other sold a couple of days later for $152.50. That's a whopping difference of over $120 price for what was essentially the same book. These auctions closed during the final week of March, 2007. It is impossible to isolate every single factor that accounts for the massive price differential, but even taking into account minor differences between the books in printing status (although neither was a first edition), bindings and condition, the fact remains that one seller differentiated their book sufficiently to achieve a selling price which was nearly 5 times higher than the other book.

Impossible, you say? Not if you learn how to successfully sell an anthology. How many times have you gone to a book sale and picked up an anthology - one of those boring-looking volumes consisting of a compilation of stories (often by different authors) or a collection of poetry? More often than not, you may have found yourself putting the back where you found it. Or, if you did purchase one and prepared an online listing, you may have dutifully typed in the title plus a basic description and hoped for the best. If you were very ambitious, you might have taken the time to include a table of contents in the description, but that's a lot of work for what would likely be a low return.

We often assume that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," and that is the approach we often take - give a good general overview of the book and its contents. However, when selling an anthology, the parts that lie inside the book are often much greater than the whole if you know how to recognize the flashpoints that lurk in anthologies and successfully exploit them through the use of clever and imaginative titling.

Back to our tale of two books.

The seller of the $31.99 poetry anthology used the title of the book, The Poets of the Nineteenth Century, to draw in potential bidders. In addition, the keywords "Gilt," "Fine Binding" and the publication date (1878) were included in the title. Their description included bibliographical information plus numerous images of the lavish Victorian binding and the beautifully engraved illustrations inside the book.

Meanwhile, the seller of the $152.50 anthology did not use the title of the book as a selling point. In fact, the book's title did not even appear in the eBay title. Instead, one poem within the book was used as the primary draw to potential bidders, and the seller relied on that poem's appeal to sell the entire book of poetry. This seller's title read: "1860 Visit From St. Nicholas ~ The Night Before Christmas."

Therein lies the key to selling anthologies successfully: If you can isolate one winning flashpoint inside the book - for example, one particular poem or story in the collection - it pays to zone in on it, sell the book on the basis of that single flashpoint.

It is important to note that this tactic can only be used to its best effect on venues such as eBay that allow sellers to title their auctions or listings any way that they choose - not relying on a book's title to catalog the book as many of the fixed price sites require.

In the case of the poetry volume cited above, the seller recognized that St. Nicholas, the early precursor to our modern Santa Claus, is a flashpoint that appeals on several different levels. First, the nostalgia associated with iconic childhood symbols such as Santa Claus is often a compelling factor in persuading buyers to part with their money. Second, there exists a large collector base for early St. Nicholas books - a niche within the more general and flourishing Christmas collector's market. By focusing on the St. Nicholas poem in the anthology, the seller was able to trigger an emotional response from bidders and, in turn, realize a higher sale price.

The poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is believed to have been written by Clement C. Moore in 1822, although he didn't acknowledge authorship until 1844. (Some now dispute Moore's authorship of the poem, with the leading alternate candidate for authorship being Henry Livingston.) It was originally published in the Troy, New York Sentinel newspaper in 1823 and later appeared in book form in 1837. (An 1837 edition of The New York Book of Poetry containing the first appearance in book form of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" sold recently on eBay for $1,350.00.) The first stand-alone printing of the poem in book form was believed to have occurred in 1848 in the form of a chapbook bound in paper wraps by Henry M. Onderdonk and illustrated with woodcut engravings.

Although St. Nicholas is European in origin, the transformation of St. Nicholas into the American persona of Santa Claus was due in large part to the influence of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." This iconic poem was the first to mention St. Nicholas using a sleigh for transportation driven by eight reindeer and also detailed St. Nick's role in bringing toys to children, set forth his annual visits on Christmas Eve and even gave detailed descriptions of his clothing and appearance.

The poem is now more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas." If you check completed eBay listings under the book category for "The Night Before Christmas," you will see that the popularity of St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus, is not merely a seasonal phenomenon confined to the holidays. High prices are realized year-round.

Given their proximity to the first appearance of this poem, 19th-century volumes containing it command the most value. Any 19th century collection of poetry should always be checked for it, keeping in mind that the earliest printings of "The Night Before Christmas" were titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

Following is a bibliography of some of the earliest printings of the poem:

The Troy Sentinel, December 23, 1823.

Four Almanacs. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1824.

The Troy Sentinel, December 1829.

Carrier's Address. Troy, New York, 1830 (first illustrated version).

Rural Repository, January 1836, p. 218.

The New-York Book of Poetry. NY: George Dearborn, 1837.

New York Mirror, 23 December 1837, p. 207.

Parley's Magazine, 1838, pp. 374-375.

The Troy Budget, December 25, 1838.

Saint Nicholas's Book, for All Good Boys and Girls (also Kriss Kringle's Book). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Thomas, Cowperthwait, & Co., 1842.

Clement C. Moore, Poems. NY: np, 1844.

Clement C. Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas. NY: Henry M. Onderdonk, 1848.

A Visit from St. Nicholas. NY: Spalding & Shepard, 1849.

Robert Merry's Museum, December 1853, p. 174.

The St. Nicholas flashpoint in the tale of two books underscores the fact that, whereas poetry is not a genre that usually brings high prices on eBay, you could be making a major mistake by overlooking poetry anthologies at book sales. First published works of important writers such as Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe, for example, are sometimes discovered in nondescript anthology volumes or what were quaintly known as Victorian gift books.

Victorian gift books, also called literary annuals, were extremely popular for Christmas gift-giving in the middle of the 19th century, particularly between the years of 1820 to 1850. These anthologies contained poetry by both famous as well as deservedly forgotten authors compiled and bound in attractive hardcover bindings, often blindstamped leather or ornately decorated cloth.

Most annuals were issued in November of the year preceding their stated date - in other words, an annual dated 1846 would actually be published in November of 1845 for holiday gift giving prior to the new year. Gift books were a profitable industry in their day, and publishers paid generous sums to author/contributors for their stories and poems to appear alongside beautifully engraved lavish illustrations. Today, you may find a once-ornate Victorian gift book past its prime with worn and frayed leather binding and heavily foxed engraved illustrations, but if you see Poe listed as one of the authors, don't pass it by.

Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Imp of the Perverse," which was first published in the July 1848 Graham's Ladies Magazine, made its first book appearance in the 1846 The May Flower gift book, originally offered for sale in late 1845. One of many Victorian gift book annuals competing for customers' dollars in the decade of the 1840s, The May Flower was issued in three annual volumes from 1845 to 1847, each containing different literary selections along with steel engravings. Even with condition problems including heavy binding wear, a missing illustration plate and two pages missing from the text, a copy of this 19th-century anthology was definitely worth picking up for resale. It sold on eBay in October, 2006 for $180.00.

The following is a list of 19th century anthology annuals and gift books containing first printings or authorized reprintings of works by Edgar Allan Poe (courtesy of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore):

The Gift. Philadelphia, Poe items in the volumes for 1836, 1840, 1842, 1843 and 1845.

The Baltimore Book. Baltimore, Poe item in the volume for 1838.

The Opal. New York, Poe items in the volumes for 1844, 1845.

The May Flower. Boston, Poe item in the volume for 1845.

The Missionary Memorial. New York, Poe item in the volume for 1846.

The Irving Offering. New York, Poe items in the volume for 1851.

The American Keepsake. New York, Poe item in the volume for 1851.

Not every 19th century anthology will yield a treasure. There are countless antiquarian anthologies out there with nothing to distinguish them other than their attractive Victorian bindings. Nevertheless, as noted above, many times a pretty volume with a florid title like The May Flower will be discounted as a piece of fluff, when in fact, it is can be so much more than is indicated by title alone.

Of course, it is not necessary to memorize every anthology issue containing a work by Poe or the presence of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," but do be sure to flip through a table of contents before walking away from any 19th century anthology. If you recognize an author, at least give the anthology a second glance.

There is one anthology title that should be committed to memory: The first appearance of Emily Dickinson's poem "Success is counted sweetest" can be found in the 1878 poetry anthology A Masque of Poets. "Success" was the only poem by Emily Dickinson to be published in a book during her lifetime - it was submitted by Helen Hunt Jackson, a close friend, without the author's approval - though several poems were published in newspapers.

A Masque of Poets was published in 1878 as part of the Roberts Brothers of Boston "No Name Series." The concept was to "select the very best title possible for a series of Original American Novels and Tales, to be published Anonymously. These novels are to be written by eminent authors, and in each case the authorship of the work is to remain an inviolable secret ... No name will help sell the novel, or the story, to success. Its success will depend solely on the writer's ability to catch and retain the reader's interest ..."

Because the premise of the "No Name Series" was to present poems anonymously so no prejudgment could take place based on knowledge of the authors' names, there is no designation in A Masque of Poets that points to Emily Dickinson as the author of "Success."

So, the next time you run across a 19th century anthology, remember that, while the lowly non-descript anthology can seem be the worst of tomes in cloaking its secrets, it can also be the best of tomes if you know what to look for.

Happy Hunting!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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