In 1999 Ken Lopez, a specialist in modern first editions, wrote a long analysis of the rare book collecting world as it looked on the cusp of the 21st century. The article appeared at a time when the internet was just starting to be a universally used in the trade, and many of the established verities of the book selling world were in flux.
At the time the article caused quite a bit of comment, but many years have gone by since Lopez gazed into his crystal ball. He is a dealer who started working in bookstores in 1976 and issued his first catalog in 1981. In the intervening years he went on to be an expert in his field and is a past president of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA).
Lopez is now 64 and it’s been 17 years since his article Trends in Modern Book Collecting first appeared. One morning in August, Rare Book Hub (RBH) called him and asked for an update on his views.
The passages quoted in black type are excerpts from his original 1999 analysis. The material that appears in blue are his comments made by phone in an August 2016 interview. A link to the original 1999 article appears at the end of this story, along with links to other thoughtful pieces on the book trade written by Lopez over the years and to other topics mentioned in our story.
“My main impression,” Lopez wrote in 1999, “was that there has been a shift away from what I would call ‘in-depth’ author collections’ toward the collecting of a relatively small number of ‘high spots’ of modern literature.”
Today he believes that the trend has “both continued and changed.” In his view the move away from completist (style of collecting) is more clear cut and dramatic, i.e. it puts greater emphasis on high spots, and really good association copies. What has also happened is second and third tier items (lesser titles by well known authors) have fallen off the rare book dealer radar because they are readily available on the internet. “Today’s collectors follow their own nose, (they go for) high spots, but also collect things that don’t fit into easy categories such as photos, ephemera, artwork, etc. The closer it gets to being ‘unique’ the more interesting it becomes (to the collector).”
“There is less of a need for completist,” according to Lopez, “because more bibliography and detailed information is readily available. The internet hasn’t replaced printed bibliography (nor has it replaced truly rare books). More often what has happened is ephemera, manuscripts, letters and other less common items have become more desirable. Pricing,” he commented, "is hard. We deal with that issue all the time, what is the realistic price?”
In his original article Lopez made many mentions of Catcher in the Rye and other similar high spot titles, which in the late 90s had risen to astronomical prices for contemporary fiction.
Looking back, he recalled, “Catcher in the Rye hit a peak in the $33,000 to $35,000 range,” he said. But the trend did not continue indefinitely, and in his opinion is not currently being replicated (except for exceptionally scarce and highly desirable items in superior condition).
“That doesn’t mean we don’t see very high prices asked online, but what you see online are ‘unsold’ books, these are the asking prices, not what has actually been paid. In today’s market,” he said, "interest has been broadened to authors’ archives, a field where he has substantial expertise. As an example of the strength of this interest he cited a New York Times article about a transaction of this type that brought a hefty price. That was the sale of the literary archives of Ian McEwan, which sold to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas for $2 million. McEwan is a well known British author and a winner of the Booker Prize.
Regarding the values for books like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or On the Road, all considered to be high spot collectible rare books, he wrote at the end of the 1990s: “I didn't exactly choose to ponder these questions out of disinterested intellectual curiosity: most often, I was being grilled by customers and prospective customers, and they deserved some kind of answer.
"And that answer tended to be that these days, as a result of a shift in collecting trends that has been taking place over the last two decades, there is much more demand for the high-profile titles that comprise today's definition of a truly striking book collection and, in a market driven almost purely by supply-and-demand, that increased demand translated very readily into increased prices.
"It was an easy answer and true as far as it went, I guess, but it seemed to me to beg not only all the questions listed above but also a host of other ones: How did this situation come about? Is this trend in collecting a sign of the 'dumbing-down' of the book market -- away from the more scholarly, thorough, 'completist' exploration of a particular author or field?"
In 2016 Lopez doesn’t like the term ‘dumbing down.’ He sees the trend more as a shift in emphasis that comes with changing times: “People are more oriented toward visual rather than exclusively text.” To him this is not dumbing down but “expanding the context,” often to items that are “illustrative and go beyond just the text.”
In the book trade, he said, "The field of artists’ books is thriving.” These he described as “almost sculptural artwork,” including editions of short stories and poetry, characterized by “fabulous craftsmanship.” He named Priscilla Juvelis as a US dealer who specializes in books by book artists. He also noted interest and strength in more visually oriented ancillary material like posters and advertising.
“Some of what’s changing now is happening under the surface, happening at a low dollar level. It doesn’t catch the notice (of dealers in our price range). It’s not going to make it into our catalog. But,” he added, “it’s definitely expansion of what’s considered (collectible), more inclusive.”
Commenting on institutions like university libraries and well established special collections, Lopez said, “We still have these kinds of clients, but their interest has shifted away from individual books and toward archives and things that are more more unique.”
“The acquisitions people want one-of-a-kind type things and they want them pretty avidly.” He mentioned a comment by a prominent librarian at a recent round table to the effect: “If it’s available online, they don’t need to come to us.”
“The days of libraries building their own specialized inventories of printed books is in the past. They have other visions now, digitization….digitizing what they already have. This is essentially making their holdings available to those not physically present, more global, more usable. So this is driving money away from acquisitions to funding digitization. I sell books and manuscripts. I’d rather they buy from me than pay employees to digitize things they already have, but they have to try to do both.”
In his original article Lopez wrote: “Assumption number one: there seem to be a lot more dealers selling modern firsts today than there were when I started doing it, 20 years ago or so. I say this because it seems that all the dealers I first met when I started out are still doing business, and there are dozens -- maybe hundreds….The second assumption is really a corollary to the first: there must be more collectors today if there are more dealers and the dealers seem to be surviving and making a go of it.”
RBH asked: Are there really more dealers and collectors or are we all fighting over the same people and are we all just getting older? To which Lopez replied: “There are a lot of collectors who are active but perhaps less noticeable; they have less money, and their interests are not in the typical fields. The situation is not that different from the early 60s, when people were interested in the Beats and comics, but those things were under the radar for established rare book dealers."
According to Lopez, “Now some of the new interests include graphic novels, highly literary, crossovers like Frank Miller, the graphic novelist whose work includes Ronin and Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil. Original stuff (by Miller), like Sin City and underground collectibles, can each bring a few thousand dollars” Another name he mentioned was Raymond Pettibon, an illustrator associated with the LA punk scene in the 1980s.
“The prices of ‘high spots’ of modern literature have increased dramatically in recent years,” was his observation as Y2K approached. Did this trend continue or did it crash in the recession?
“Some high spots have crashed,” Lopez said. “In some situations supply outstripped demand. But other (books) that are really rare...have gone way up.”
He mentioned a long time collector of work by British novelist Graham Greene, who is still missing a few things. “This is a man who has willingly paid thousands of dollars for a book, but even he balks when the asking price for Rumour at Nightfall is in the range of $60,000 --- which is what it's listed for on ABE." Lopez also mentioned early books by George Orwell as rising in value and consistently bringing high prices.
…."I think there is a tendency to disparage the collectors of high spots as people mindlessly following someone else's idea of what a ‘good book’ is and, conversely, to imagine the completists as noble-minded individuals pursuing a collection for the intangible greater benefit it may provide to humanity.
“My gut reaction to such stereotypes is that they must be wrong -- they're just too easy. ...
I tend to think of all book collectors as noble in some degree or another: choosing to surround oneself with books -- special books, of one sort or another -- seems to me to be an admirable thing.”
Today his thinking is, "It’s not so much the author anymore as it is the book. It’s not everything by Hemingway, it’s The Sun Also Rises. It’s not all Fitzgerald, it’s Gatsby and to some extent Tender is the Night. With Steinbeck it's Grapes of Wrath and to a lesser extent Of Mice and Men. With Mailer, The Naked and the Dead hasn’t faded, but just about everything else he wrote has.”
Discussing a more quirky author like Hunter S. Thompson, Lopez mentioned early works like Hell’s Angels or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (especially if signed) as high value books. "But later books much less so,” he said.
Again the trend to broaden out the collecting sphere is apparent with a writer like Thompson. Lopez pointed out that the campaign poster when the author ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado commands a hefty price, as do his handbills and his appearances in tiny literary magazines. He recalled that he listed Thompson's contribution to his high school literary journal for $10,000 and sold it (to a dealer).
As for lesser material in general, "I don’t even want the second tier books from the 70s-80s-90s. A while ago we got an invitation to look at a collection of about 2,000 books. In the end the offer was ‘There are 50 books we’ll give you $15,000 for, or we'll give you $10,000 for everything.’ The seller didn’t accept either offer, though they did eventually send portions to auction and moderated expectations. The lesson here is a lot of books don’t belong in the rare book market any more.”
In 1999 Lopez wrote, “Collecting modern first editions essentially began in the late 1920s and early 30s, as the Depression hit and the bottom fell out of the rare book market or, more correctly, the top end of the rare book market collapsed almost entirely. There was one particular auction in the late 20s at which the values of the books didn't even come close to approaching the values they'd realized only a few years earlier, and throughout the 30s there were virtually no significant auctions of extremely valuable rare books.
“The implication of this was twofold: it meant that the tried-and-true ‘valuable’ rare books of the past -- which had largely been borrowed from British book collecting traditions going back into the 19th century -- no longer seemed so reliable.
“And it opened up the possibility for collectors to decide, based on their own interests and tastes, that such modern writers as Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Conrad -- who were all except Conrad still alive at the time -- were legitimately "collectible." Their prices weren't very high, but they show up regularly in first edition and auction catalogues from the 30s. The first bibliography of Hemingway was published in 1931, only eight years after his first publication; Hemingway may have been the first ‘hyper-modern’ author to be seriously collected.
“In actuality, it was another specific chain of events, in 1978, that triggered what we now call ‘hyper-modern’ book collecting. Like the change precipitated by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Depression, this change originated far from the world of rare books.
“An obscure tax ruling in a case involving a power tool supply company -- Thor Power Tool -- dictated that businesses that depreciated their inventory for tax purposes had to actually offer the depreciated goods for sale at the reduced prices or lose their tax writeoffs. For book publishers -- who had traditionally depreciated the value of their unsold inventory based on future sales projections -- this meant they either had to offer their books for sale at reduced value or get rid of them altogether.
“There was no way for them to survive selling the books for even less than they had been priced when they were new, and they dumped huge amounts of books into the remainder market and began the process whereby the life cycle of a book is now one year or less -- at which point remaining copies are sold off for pennies on the dollar to the discounters or the authors, or pulped altogether.
“The significance of these changes for book collecting was, in the 1930s, that there was a whole new, young generation of writers who were now collectible and in the 1970s, that now there were suddenly books that were legitimately scarce only a year or two after their publication.”
Alas, according to Lopez, the run of “hypermodern” is over and done. It started in 1978 with the Thor IRS ruling and was dead by 2000 when the internet made many books formerly considered scarce widely and inexpensively available. “ When there were 75 other dealers with copies, suddenly it became question of distribution, rather than scarcity.”
Dust Jackets were also a topic of discussion as the century turned. Then Lopez wrote… "a few years ago, there was a minor uproar at an ABAA book fair when a dealer was seen offering first editions with dust jackets that were color photocopies of the original dust jacket. The books were clearly identified as such by the dealer and the prices were very modest compared to a first edition in an original jacket, but there was still a fairly general consensus that this was not appropriate.”
But times have changed and apparently eyebrows have lowered. “A certain amount of dust jacket restoration is (now) accepted, just so long as the disclosure of restoration is made clear. Likewise, we’re seeing more facsimile copies of dust jackets, making the unjacketed book more visually attractive and therefore more salable,” he said.
Small distinctions aside, the key question then as now is, "Why is this book that I want so expensive?" His answer is: ‘Because you, like hundreds of other people, want it.’ That, of course, raises the question of whether these books are good investments or, more importantly, good ‘values?’ If I buy these books now, will I stand a reasonable chance of getting most or all of my money back, or even making a profit, if I decide to sell them later?"
“Here the usual disclaimer -- the one your stockbroker or mutual fund gives out, most often in very small print -- is in order. Something to the effect of "past performance is no guarantee of future results…….In my estimation, the price structure for collectible books is remarkably low, compared to many other fields of collectibles.”....( though) It's dangerous, and often misleading, to compare…. say, for example, that the price of one of the most significant postwar novels -- and one of the scarcest to find signed -- is, even at $35,000, less than the price of a second-tier watercolor by an artist you wouldn't have heard of unless you were already deeply involved with collecting art.”
And in Lopez’s view this is still true today. "I take an optimistic view of the book collecting world, he said. “The prices are comparatively low and so is the point of entry.” He gave as an example an Americana collection he had purchased jointly with a group of other dealers which contained an important American Indian treaty, an original document with a signature of each of the chiefs. We found no master copy in the National Archives and it had important historical associations with the Plains Indians. We priced it at $275,000 (and later sold it for a lesser amount). That was still a very strong price in books and manuscripts, but in other areas not so much. At about the same time I noticed an antique gravy boat was estimated at auction for roughly the same price!”
“The book trade today probably offers a wider range of avenues to pursue, and satisfactions to be had, than it did a generation ago, and is thus appealing to collectors with a wider range of tastes, temperaments and ambitions than was true in the past.”
“Lopez reiterated that in today’s market the demand has moved away from books to a more diverse definition of what’s collectible including “ephemera and writers who cross fields and genres. He sees it as an interweaving of cultural forms and styles, and interest coming from many sectors as diverse as collectors, academic, hip-hop, music and dance. The definition is changing. Individual collections are more inclusive, not just text.” In his opinion, “The transitional period is over. Rare books are rare. People collect for reasons that won’t go away. Overall, collectible books will tend to appreciate.”
LINKS: The original 1999 article TRENDS IN MODERN BOOK COLLECTING by Lopez ran over 7,000 words. It can be found at: lopezbooks.com/articles/trends/
Other Lopez articles on a variety of topics mostly from the late 90s, but still extremely interesting reading are tucked away in a nearly invisible section of his web site: lopezbooks.com/articles/
Of these Some Thoughts on the Maturing of the Rare Book Market at the Start of 21st Century is a good read: lopezbooks.com/articles/fabs/
A half hour YouTube video interview with Lopez made by the ABAA is also available online.
Articles referencing Ian McEwan’s literary papers 2014 to UT for $2 million:
Link to Priscilla Juvelis web site: www.juvelisbooks.com/
Link to recent article on work of Frank Miller: www.techtimes.com/articles/78146/20150820/deep-cuts-frank-millers-ronin.htm
Wiki: Ray Pettibon: 80s LA punk illustrator: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Pettibon
Ken Lopez - Bookseller (ABAA)
51 Huntington Rd
Hadley MA 01035
By appointment: Specializing in Modern Firsts, Authors’ archives, Native Peoples, Vietnam War, Beat and Counter Culture, Nature Writers