By Kenneth Gloss
If you’re an avid fiction reader, you may spend a lot of time scrutinizing the best-seller lists before you select reading material. However, best-seller lists can also serve as a guide for book collectors. People intent on collecting the stories that have been loved by generations or that have had the most influence on popular culture will find collecting direction in these lists. If you have a penchant for the popular, best-sellers may be the collecting niche for you.
One word of caution before you run out to snap up a novel by James Patterson or Malcolm Gladwell: just because a book hits the best-seller list, it is not automatically collectible. Actually, the vast majority of best sellers never turn into collectibles. Rather, they are a hot item for a few months, only to be replaced in people’s minds by the next captivating story that comes along. To become collectible a book has to be more than a temporary good read that catches the interest of the masses for the moment. It must contain that intangible quality that makes it a little more lasting. It must have universal appeal, reaching readers across generations. For many collectors this actually adds to the fun of collecting, as they try to guess what the next collectible best-seller will be and buy it before everyone else begins searching for it.
Even though most best-sellers don’t become collectible, there is still a vast field of work to be collected because best-sellers have been around for hundreds of years. The first real American best sellers were Washington Irving’s short stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. These were written around 1820, during a time when technological advances brought the cost of printing down and allowing more people access to the written word. First editions of Irving’s classics can be purchased for thousands of dollars but most in the low hundreds.
The second notable American best-seller was James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826. Cooper’s classic tale of two sisters’ struggle through Native American territory to join their father at Fort Champlain during the Seven Years War originally appeared in small, poorly made editions. It’s almost impossible to find a first edition in good shape, but if you do, it will likely sell for thousands of dollars.
Another one of the runaway best-sellers of the 19th century was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe’s saga of slavery in the American South had huge social implications at the time of its publication and sold thousands of copies in its first year. A pristine first edition will bring as much as $10,000 or more. Less well-preserved copies can often be had for a few hundred dollars.
Mark Twain is an author with several best-selling collectible books, including Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain often wrote about history and the country, but layered his work with social commentary. When looking for copies of these books, be prepared to pay several thousand or possibly tens of thousands of dollars for a copy in mint condition.
Horatio Alger, a Boston local, is another author to make the collectible best-seller list. Alger was a prolific writer, penning well-received stories for adults as well as children. His work has timeless appeal because his stories embody the American spirit and the ethic that hard work brings success.
It isn’t only books for adult readers that become collectible best-sellers. In 1900, The Wizard of Oz, a children’s story, came out in time for the Christmas shopping season. It was tremendously popular, then as now, and a really fine, beautiful first edition is worth upwards of $20,000. It’s rare to find such a preserved copy because, as a children’s book, The Wizard of Oz was read often rather than preserved.
Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning epic, Gone with the Wind, is bound to come up in any discussion of best-selling books. It was a spectacular best-seller and went through as many as 100 printings in its first year. It is extremely hard to find a copy from the first print run, and almost impossible to get a mint condition first edition. People read this book many times over, wearing out the book’s pages without thinking of maintaining its value as a future collectible. An unblemished first edition sells for $2000-$5000.
Almost all of the collectible best-sellers have been by American authors. British author J. K. Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter series is an exception. When the first book was published, it wasn’t expected to be a great success, so only 300 copies were printed, most of which were sent to libraries where they were thoroughly worn out by young readers. Almost no perfect first editions of Harry Potter exist and those that do run $30,000 to $40,000 or more.
Collectors will encounter a wide price range when searching for best-sellers. The only books in this category that will consistently bring a truly high price are unread first editions in perfect condition. However, as an author becomes more established, the first run of their books often number in the millions rather than hundreds, guaranteeing that even a first edition of that particular book will never be rare. Currently the titles bringing the best prices are the ones that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, as that generation finds it has the time and money to begin collecting.
Movie adaptations are another thing that will affect price. If Judy Garland hadn’t appeared in The Wizard of Oz, I doubt the book would have remained as popular as it has. The same holds true for Gone with the Wind; it is a wonderful story, but when you look at it, you really see Clark Gable.
Collectors with an interest in popular culture will find that collecting from the best-seller list can be an enjoyable pursuit that doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. The list of collectible best sellers from the past is well established, but for those who like to try their hand at spotting trends, guessing which book will become the next collectible best seller can add even more fun.
Ken Gloss is the owner of the Brattle Book Shop, the oldest antiquarian bookstore in America. In 2013 The Brattle Book Shop is celebrating its 64th year of Gloss family ownership. For more info re getting books appraised, a list of open talks by Kenneth, visit the Website at: http://www.brattlebookshop.com, the shop at 9 West Street in the Downtown Crossing section of Boston or call toll-free 1-880-447-9595. Ken has been seen with some frequency on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.