Somebody asked me if his first edition of a book by a Really Big Name was worth much. “Well,” says I, “A lot can depend on how early it is.”
He broke in, “It’s really old. It goes back to the 1970s!”
After burying the body, I realized I could have been a bit clearer. What frequently matters when pricing a first edition by a famous author is how early it came in the author’s career. See, after an author hits it big, the publisher will print a couple million copies, but for a first timer, 20,000 may well do. Thus the book published when Nobel Laureate Jan Doe was a Hamburger Hotel hostess with literary dreams winds up being 100 times harder to get than the one from twenty years later, when she was on the Bestseller Lists month after month and owned controlling stock in Hamburger Hotel. The price is often (not always) correspondingly higher as well.
Famously, the British publisher of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone printed only 5,000 copies. That, as much as the fact that the book set off a worldwide phenomenon, is what makes the price so high. The same goes for other phenoms. The Stephen King market has its ups and downs, as do Anne Rice sales. But for their first books, Carrie and Interview With a Vampire, the price will always run high.
What’s even better is if the author’s first book is something completely different from what brought fame and (one hopes) fortune. Nobel winner William Faulkner, known for his tales of a grim, steamy south, started off with a couple of books of (reportedly fairly sentimental) poetry. Jim Thompson, whose books were steamier and darker yet, began with uncredited works on Oklahoma for the WPA. And E. Annie Proulx, Pulitzer winner for The Shipping News, and author of the story which became the movie Brokeback Mountain, got her start with the Rodale Press, writing How To books. Her first book was on the making of cider, and her second was a dairy cookbook.
Of course, it’s the prom picture syndrome. We all want to know what our icons were like when they were starting out, when fame and perhaps even skill were still something to be reached for, but youth and determination were trying to make up for that. Whether the reaction is “Wow, even then!” or “Who would’ve guessed?”, one likes to see those trial efforts.
And the appeal for booksellers is that it gives us an excuse to say, “No, for Hemingway, 1973 is way too recent.”