The signed book is one of the easiest collectibles to write about. I could go on and on about this rare illustrated edition of The Wind in the Willows, or this classic of modern sociology of which we have been given in almost pristine condition. But anything I said would pale in the glow of saying I had a book autographed by Lady Gaga. It’s a matter of immediate identification: you know at once what I mean, whatever your opinion of the celebrity involved.
Let me just say here and now that we do NOT, so far, have a book signed by Lady Gaga. It could happen, but don’t make your plans for the end of July based on that.
This is true in spite of the Internet, which has, by and large, stomped prices on autographed books into the ground. Once upon a time, at this Book Fair, if we had a book autographed by an important mystery writer—let’s say P.D. James—we would get excited and put a goodly price on it. And our customers would get excited and pay that price. But online bookselling has pointed out that your average modern mystery writer has signings at bookstores all over the world. At any given time, hundreds of books autographed by P.D. James are for sale across the Net, many of them for under ten bucks, and a number for less than five. This is why, at the last few Book fairs, you’ll find signed mysteries mixed into the Mystery sections. Unless it’s a long-deceased leader of the pack—a signed Dorothy L. Sayers—it just doesn’t generate the excitement it did before we carried computers in our pockets.
The factors that go into making an exciting signature are rarity and demand. There is a demand for any books signed by a President of the United States: these usually carry at least a three figure price, provided you can prove the President signed it, and not a secretary. But living Presidents go for less than Presidents of the past, as a rule, because they’re still signing. Franklin Pierce commands more than Bill Clinton, even though most readers find Bill more interesting. It’s a matter of rarity. My paperback signed by Tony Blair runs fifty bucks, at best. Winston Churchill is a harder autograph to get: the price of the right book can get into five figures. (Did I ever tell you how disappointed I was to get a copy of his biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, with a letter tucked inside? It was not at all a letter from Churchill, but merely a letter written in 1732 by the Duke. Not worth nearly so much.)
We have had a few autographed books come in which still qualify as exciting. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes children’s books these days, but either he doesn’t sign many, or the signed copies don’t come on the market. We were given a bagful of books signed by popular anthropologist Ashley Montagu: his signature doesn’t get up into Churchill prices, but it’s nice to have so many of them to show off. A signed book by the poet and anti-capital letter activist e.e.cummings is worth about ten times Tony Blair, and, as mentioned earlier this year, this book signed by former Vice President Dick Cheney is worth a whole stack of this book signed by former Cabinet member Walter E. Hickel.
And somebody dropped off a copy of CBS correspondent Bob Simon’s account of his captivity in the Middle East, Forty Days. This is a book I don’t remember seeing before, so I was unaware of the prices asked for it online. One brave soul is asking five thousand dollars for a copy. Well, you can ask anything you want for a book online. But on Amazon, where they scold you if you’re asking too much for a book, someone is asking $1200 for the book-on-tape version. The Reader’s Digest condensed version is for sale at prices which (for a volume of that series) are bizarre.
And none of THOSE copies are signed. I may have to make room for this on my Churchill shelf.