Where Are All The First Editions?

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Unobtanium Revisited

Last year I wrote a series of articles on the Top 100 Collectible American Picturebooks. In the course of writing the articles I queried the various online bookselling sites to see how many first editions of each book were on the market thereby providing fresh market price and scarcity data.

Surprisingly thirty-two of the books were not offered for sale. These I called Unobtanium, the mysterious metal in James Cameron’s mythical world of Avatar, the movie. While the market value of the Top was $237,000, I ventured that an experienced book scout could not acquire a complete first edition within a year’s time if they were so commissioned. Money can buy the mythical unobtanium, however not so the real thing, being books currently not on the market for sale.

In January 2012 I performed a search for first editions of the first 20 Caldecott Medal books, and in March for the second 20 Caldecott Medal books. Of the first forty Caldecott Medals, awarded from 1938-to-1979, ten were found not offered for sale.

Where Are All The Books Hiding?

Here’s a spattering of classic children’s books which are not currently on the market in first edition with dust jacket:

Where Are The First Edition Books Hiding?
Title (Year) Title (Year)
Angus And The Ducks (1930)
The Little Engine That Could (1930)
The Little Family (1932)
The Little Auto (1934)
Horton Hatches The Egg (1940)
Pat The Bunny (1940)
Runaway Bunny (1942)
The Carrot Seed (1945)
The Little Island (1946)
Cinderella (1951)
Put Me In The Zoo (1960)
Go, Dog, Go! (1961)
The Snowy Day (1962)
The Giving Tree (1964)
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967)
Drummer Hoff (1968)
Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969)
Sylvester And The Magic Pebble (1969)
Arrow To The Sun (1975)
Streganona (1975)
Just For You (1975)
If You Give A Mouse A Cookie (1985)
The Rainbow Fish (1987)
The Tale Of Three Trees (1989)
Stellaluna (1993)
Guess How Much I Love You? (1995)

Some of these books are truly rare (less than 10 known examples). Some are scarce. The value of some of these books is only known within the children’s book market. And some of these books are not considered valuable within or outside the children’s book collecting market.

The imaginary book scout would be busy finding each of the Top 100, and especially so the Unobtanium 32. It is likely that $237,000 would not be sufficient to purchase the complete collection, since many of the books are priced in a seller’s market (see the table,above). When there are no or few competitive & comparable books on the market, the bookseller holds the keys to the kingdom. When this is the case, the price can be predictably steep to enter the castle.

Do I think the Unobtanium 32 and other contemporary American picturebooks are so very scarce? No, I don’t. It’s ridiculous to think that first editions of David Wiesner’s 1993 Caldecott winning Tuesday are scarce. The fact that none were offered for sale at the time I did the search could be a quirk of timing. Or maybe booksellers have the book in stock and just haven’t listed it yet. Or more likely, some people have a first edition copy they are willing to sell, they simply don’t like the current price they have to sell it at. The booksellers need enticement. At some point, prices will increase – Enticement, enticement! – and the supply will emerge.

Scarcity Ratings and Assessed Value

Reiterating an earlier point, most experienced book collectors and booksellers know the scarcity of a book has a major impact on its value in the market.  The following table summarizes the average value of the books within each Scarcity rating.

  • Readers might be surprised to see The Little Engine That Could on the list. For years, it was thought the first edition point is the listing of titles on the front free endpaper of the book, with eight titles ending with TLETC. This was found to be incorrect, as this book was discovered on four different issues of the dust jacket. In my twenty years of collecting picturebooks I have seen only two true first edition, with blank DJ flaps and advertising ‘BEAUTIFUL ONE DOLLAR BOOKS FOR CHILDREN’ on the back dust jacket. Time will tell if the scarcity should be a ’10’.
  • Millions of Cats is another book where the accepted identification point, with ‘By the Jersey City Printing Co’ on the title page, was found to be incorrect. This same book has been found on three different issues of the dust jacket. The true first edition has a blank back dust jacket.
  • As I mentioned above, the two Eric Carle illustrated books, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and the Very Hungry Caterpillar are very difficult to find in first edition, especially for books of moderately recent vintage.
  • Shel Silverstein’s beloved classic The Giving Tree is very difficult to find in first edition, again especially for a book of moderately recent vintage. The dust jacket price IS required to identify the true first printing ($2.50 on front flap).

Getting People’s Attention – Price Appreciation

┬áThere are some books which are just rare, and no matter the price, first edition copies don’t surface very often, or at all. First editions of Curious George or Goodnight, Moon comes to mind.

Then there are books which while scarce, are starting to bubble to market one at a time as prices appreciate. The Little House and Make Way For Ducklings are examples of this. A couple of years ago one would hardly ever find a first edition Make Way For Ducklings for sale. Currently there are two on the market, one offered for $28,500 and another for $17,000 (the former in better condition than the latter). The same can be said for The Little House, the norm used to be none, and currently there are two on the market, one offered for $17,500 and another for $12,500 (the former an exceptional copy, and the latter’s DJ lightly restored).

Why this sudden relative plethora of these two scarce gems?

Price is why. When the value of both books crossed a threshold value, the information pollinated the
market. The knowledge of the value of these two books was not constrained to children’s book specialists: general booksellers became aware. As this awareness disseminated to collectors and scouts, sequestered books came to market.

What is the particular threshold value? Probably not a clear cut answer, which probably varies for various books (Note: The dual “probably” in the previous sentence means I’m only making an educated guess).

There are undocumented tiers of booksellers within the collectible book market. From the bottom beginning bookseller up to the top-shelf high-end antiquarian bookseller. The beginning bookseller
has less than 2-to-3 years of experience, while the latter has more than 20 years of experience. But experience is not the only determining factor. The average selling price of their books would be another indicator. The depth and breadth of the customer rolodex would be another. As would auction house experience. As would front-of-mind with peers (i.e. I don’t want the book but THEY might be interested). And so forth.

Books crossing into the $100-to-$200 range will likely reach the attention of a certain type of bookseller. Books crossing the $1,000 range will likely get the attention of a certain type of bookseller. Books crossing into and above the $6,000-to-$8,000 range will likely begin to reach the attention of top-shelf booksellers.

Collectible books bubble up through these tiers, as one bookseller’s selling price is another bookseller’s buying price. And collectible books move out of bookseller’s stock and into the hands of collectors and institutions.

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