(The Irish Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Rare book collecting has always been big business - a first edition of 'Ulysses' recently sold for more than 100,000 - but the web is changing the area. Eoin Burke Kennedy writes about pursuing his passion in an online world
The difference between an exclamation mark and a full stop can mean thousands of dollars in the idiosyncratic world of rare book collecting. A dispute over the earliest English-language printing of One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel GarcIa Marquez, came down to the difference between the two punctuation marks. On the inside flap of the book's original 1970 dust jacket, the first paragraph of the blurb ends with an exclamation mark in some copies and a full stop in others.
The question of which had precedence was contested until one errant bibliophile retrieved the original publishing plates from Harper & Row and found the exclamation mark was first. The books are otherwise identical, but you may pay up to 1,600 more for the privilege of owning a copy with the exclamation mark.
There are typically two kinds of market for old books, says David Cunningham of Cathach Books in Dublin. The older antiquarian trade tends to be the preserve of the mature collector who is looking for a specific volume to flesh out his collection. "The market for modern first editions or contemporary literature is more general and less specialised," says Cunningham. "People often come into the shop looking for gifts or may just want to buy something special by a famous writer."
The key figures of Irish literature, such as Joyce, Wilde, Yeats and Beckett, have huge international reputations and are continually sought by collectors across the board, says Cunningham. But interest in 1930s indigenous writers such as Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain and Liam O'Flaherty has bottomed out, he says. "We rarely get asked for them any more. They've simply gone out of fashion."
The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is the most popular contemporary writer, says Cunningham. The poet recently quipped he has signed so many books that he suspects his unsigned books are probably more collectable. Nevertheless, the poet's first major collection, Death of a Naturalist - published in 1966 - can fetch up to 2,000, depending on its condition and whether it is signed. Heaney's fellow Northern writers Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon are also proving extremely popular with collectors, says Cunningham.
A wave of interest in John Banville's The Sea, after the writer won this year's Man Booker Prize, saw signed first editions of the book selling on eBay for substantially more than 150. Before the announcement, copies were selling for less than 30.
Booker winners attract collectors more than the winners of any other literary award. One London-based collector routinely buys four versions of each of the shortlisted books - the proofs, the trade edition, the first US edition and the first UK edition.
But John Banville believes that "it is nothing to do with books themselves but rather their rarity". Banville has little interest in collecting books; he feels that "for the most part it's not enthusiasts of literature who are buying the books". He says: "People who put the prices of these books up are collectors, and they don't necessarily read the books. They are like stamp collectors or collectors of rare wine. I suppose it's a harmless pastime if you can afford it. After all, books are beautiful things. They are beautiful objects in themselves."
Speaking in Dublin recently, the Leitrim-based author DBC Pierre spoke of a book signing he attended in the US where he was asked to inscribe a copy of his 2003 Booker-winning novel Vernon God Little with the words "To a lucky eBay bidder".
If the encounter illustrates the brass neck of some sellers, it also shows how the market for collectable books has moved online. The largest web-based marketplace is www.abebooks.com, which claims to have 70 million books on its five sites from more than 13,000 sellers worldwide. The company, established in Canada in 1996 by a second-hand bookseller and computer programmer, sells more than 20,000 books a day. Booksellers pay a monthly subscription fee to list on the site and Abebooks takes an 8 per cent commission for every book sold via the site.
"We act as a dating service between people who want specific books and sellers who have them," says Richard Davies, publicity manager at Abebooks. "You have to remember around 95 per cent of all books are out of print. With the advent of the internet, antiquarian and rare books can be found in seconds. Before, you had to check in catalogues, visit shops and make telephone calls."
Davies says the bestseller lists on Abebooks are extremely eclectic compared with high-street sales. When the cult US author Hunter S Thompson committed suicide, in February last year, Abebooks reported a surge in sales of his books. According to Davies, Thompson was the most popular search term on the site the day after Thompson's death, and by March his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a bestseller again, nearly 34 years after its publication.
Harry Lyons, a collector from Dublin who specialises in modern Russian literature and books on the Spanish Civil War, says that although the internet offers an idea of a book's market value, one has to take people on faith.
"The real caveat emptor of book collecting is condition. Collectors want the book in the best condition possible," says Lyons. "But on the internet you are often dealing with people who do not know how to list a book properly or who do not accurately describe its condition.
"I am frequently forced to return books because the condition was not properly described," he says. "Not being able to properly assess a book's condition in the flesh - to feel it or handle it - before you purchase is the real snag with buying online.
"For a country with such a strong literary heritage, Ireland has so few good second-hand books shops, and the few there are deal solely in Irish-interest books, so as a European collector I am forced to buy more than I would like online."
And more and more sellers are moving their business online. As reported in this magazine last Saturday, Kenny's Bookshop & Art Gallery - located on High Street in Galway for 65 years - is today moving its entire operation online. The shop's owners said it was cost-effective to take this new direction, given the difference in overheads between selling online and maintaining a city-centre location. It is likely that increasing numbers of booksellers will follow suit.
In the future, if you want to be a collector, you had better be connected.
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY?
IN: SHOOTING STAR A copy of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was sold on Abebooks shortly after the death of the author, last February. The copy had a bullet hole through it, shot by the author himself. A collector paid $750 (620) for this piece of history
IN: THE PURPLE INK EDITION Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was published in 1865 with illustrations by John Tenniel. The first print run of 2,000 was cancelled because Tenniell objected to the print quality. Only 23 of the original suppressed Tenniell version are known to exist today. One of the 23 - annotated with notes in purple ink and believed to be Lewis Carroll's own copy - sold at auction in 1998 for $1.5 million (1.24 million), making it the most expensive children's book ever purchased.
IN: IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC Costing just GBP10.99 (15.97) when it was first published, in 1997, a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone will now set you back up to GBP25,000 (36,280), depending on its condition. The initial print run was reputed to be just 500, of which less then half went to shops, with the remainder being sent to UK libraries. Understandably, the library copies have all but disappeared.
OUT: MANDOLIN PLAYS THE BLUES First editions of Louis de Bernires's Captain Corelli's Mandolin sold for up 1,500 before the disappointing 2001 film version, with Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz. Now the book makes barely 450 at auction.
IN: COUNT THE MONEY One Irish book that stands out in terms of collectability is Bram Stoker's Dracula. The book is difficult to get in good condition because the paper and binding of the original 1897 Constable edition were of such poor quality. A nice copy might have gone for the equivalent of 950 in 1989, but nowadays a good copy will cost at least 8,500, and some have gone at auction for 25,000. The book appears to have shot up in value after Francis Coppola's 1992 film.
IN: PRICE OF A NATURALIST Seamus Heaney is probably the most collectable contemporary Irish writer. Death of a Naturalist can fetch up to 2,000. The poet has quipped that he has signed so many books, his unsigned books could be more collectable.
IN: REJOYCE? A Dublin woman is still kicking herself nearly 50 years after she gave away a signed first edition of Ulysses in exchange for a summer job at the US embassy in Dublin. A Shakespeare & Company edition of the book is the holy grail of Irish collectors; one recently sold for more than 100,000.
OUT: IRISH CLASSICS Interest in 1930s writers such as Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain or Liam O'Flaherty has waned. "They've simply gone out of fashion," says David Cunningham of Cathach Books.
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