There was a lot to learn when I went into the rare book business 34+ years ago. A lot. And 34+ years later, I am still learning.
One thing I learned so long ago now is that there are certain rules to be applied in evaluating books, but I also learned that some of these rules don’t apply to certain authors.
The first exception to the rule was Stephen King. In 1980 when I started in business, King was a hot, up-and-coming author with a number of good books to his credit such as Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand. He was not the veteran author he is today. Back then, the print-runs for his books were a lot smaller. Today his massive print-runs dwarf the print-runs of yesteryear.
A lot of the rules that seemed to govern bookselling just didn’t apply to him. The key book, or culprit, in this variation on a theme was a book published first in 1982 by a specialty press titled The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger. Donald M. Grant, a specialty press devoted to science fiction/fantasy/horror titles, printed an edition limited to 500 numbered copies signed by King and the book’s illustrator, Michael Whelan, that came with a dust jacket and slipcase. There also was a 10,000-copy trade edition issued with a dust jacket. The published price of the signed/limited edition was $60. The trade edition cost $20. The price today for those books would be something like $7,500 for the signed/limited and $2,000 for the trade, assuming the book has all its original equipment and is in fine condition.
What happened was that these books could not be found in your normal bookstore. An underground market suddenly came into being wherein the price of these books went up and up and up. There seemed to be no stop in their price rise. It was a price bubble that refused to burst.
The demand for the book was so overwhelming that Grant published second printing of another 10,000 copies in 1984. This is unheard of for such a specialty press. Even the price of these books skyrocketed to unbelievable levels.
Word of mouth spread about the book to the point that all future books by King were thought to be gold mines, and they were. The demand for his future trade editions was enormous, but it was even more voracious for the signed/limited editions of those books. A signed/limited edition might be published at $150, for example, but the underground market might see a price rise to $300. Then $400. Then $600 and so on. This would happen year after year after year. There seemed to be no stopping this runaway train. King’s books were rule breakers.
Of course all this took place before the internet. My, how times have changed. The general inability of your average book collector to find King’s latest and greatest book led to an underground market that knew no rules, knew no bounds. That gravy train started to slow, however, once the print-runs for King’s book started to skyrocket to the same degree that his book prices did. Soon his print-runs were 500,000 for the first printing, then a million copies. There has to be a lot of attrition for those books to have much value, even if you could get King to sign the book which was never easy.
Today, the rules that govern the value of King’s books has returned to normal, partly because of the large print-runs, partly because nothing lasts forever, and partly because of the internet with easy access to almost any book a collector desires. But back in the day….Wow!
Next week: Jack London