It says here that a little book called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows holds the record for largest initial printing in history. The US publisher printed 12 million copies for the rush of customers. (They then released it right during the set-up for the Newberry Book Fair, forcing the manager to sneak out to the Newberry bookstore and peek inside while trying to attend to his duties. I sent them a memo, but probably they haven’t gotten through all their email yet.)
Various people draw various lessons from this. The particular lesson I would like to point out on this occasion is for those people who hurried out and bought a copy to tuck away on a shelf. Having read what a first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, in England) goes for now, they seized the chance to set aside a little legacy for their declining years.
My suggestion is that you prepare a shoebox of Krugerrands to sit with it. This will provide a bit of an income over the three hundred years you are waiting for Deathly Hallows to reach premium prices.
There are still plenty of people in this wonderland we inhabit who feel that the words “first edition” are to a book what “Tiffany” is to a piece of jewelry. The fact is that the word “Tiffany” does appear on some mighty cheap jewelry (partly because the Tiffany folks didn’t put that name there, but that’s a whole nother blog.) Once upon a time, a donor sent us six boxes of books, each labeled with a note informing us “Every Book Here Is a Stated First Edition”. Every book there was also about a two-dollar book.
It’s one of our Rules of Life here, remember: Every book ever published had a first edition. Your high school yearbook was a first edition and, on top of that, a limited edition. But a book needs more than that to bring in drooling customers.
Some people, hearing that, go completely the other way, of course. One of our beloved volunteers, gone now, used to tell people she met, “First editions aren’t actually worth anything. Uncle Blogsy said so.” I hope not too many people took action based on her recommendations. There was that big Sherlock Holmes collection…well, that’s water over the bridge.
Here’s how it works. If a book really grabs attention, makes a claim for itself as one of the eternal benchmarks in its field, be that fiction or investment advice or pictures of old houses, some people want the first edition of it. This first edition is a piece of history, the first appearance of a classic. People like this are called “Collectors”, and will pay a little extra for this. Note the word “little”. Collectors, contrary to popular belief, are not totally off the signal, and would like their prize at a reasonable price.
Thus, if there are twelve million copies of something, as in the case of Deathly Hallows, they are not likely to pay much more than they would for any hardcover copy in good shape. This is as opposed to, say, the first English edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, of which there are no more than a couple thousand copies, many of them loved to death by their first owners. For a first edition to be worth really good money, it needs to be a) hard to find and b) something people want. (My college yearbook is hard to find, for example, but since the editors wouldn’t use that cheerleader picture I put in it, nobody wants the book.)
So don’t use your first editions to hold up the flowerpots this summer, but don’t buy an extra large safe deposit box for them, either. You’re allowed to open them up and read them. In fact, that might be the quickest road to profit.