Collecting Limited Editions: Take Your Book Collection to the Next Level

a course in miracles podcast collecting crosses all borders, all income levels, all religions, all ages. The love of books is a fire that burns in most people, but especially brightly in some. For this reason, publishers have seen fit from time to time to publish limited editions of a huge variety of books over the last century. Therefore, almost every type of book collection can and should include limited editions.

First, what makes an edition limited? A limited edition should include a two basic things: special care to the design and construction of the book; and a statement of limitation. I have published a few small books as an offshoot of my bookstore, and I can use these to illustrate the difference between a small printing and a limited edition. Just like big publishers, I made every effort to ensure that my books are nice-looking and well made. However, I used standard paper and standard binding methods; they were not printed using metal type; I commissioned no original artwork; no copies are signed by anyone involved. Although I only made 500 copies of a couple of these books, that is merely because the books were slow sellers and not worth my money to reprint. Had they sold, I would have printed more.

A limited edition, on the other hand, generally goes one (or several) steps beyond a good production. Paper is specially made, bindings are agonized over and often hand-made, original artwork is often commissioned, signatures abound, and real type is used on the best of the limited editions. Most importantly, the colophon states exactly how many copies were made, and it normally has a hand-written number for each book. (A side note: never pay extra for a something promoted as a “limited” edition unless it is stated exactly how many have been made. The numbering of each copy ensures that no extra copies have been made.) Oftentimes, a limited edition might have two or three different states: a mere handful of copies may be signed by the author, bound in leather, printed on vellum, and include a separate portfolio of plates signed by the artist, an additional 50 may be signed by the author and have one extra plate, and the remaining few hundred numbered-or something along those lines. In these cases, the very special copies are either part of a lettered edition, or merely the first n copies as stated in the colophon.

One question I am frequently asked is: how many copies should a limited edition be limited to? The answer to this lies partly in the particular book. If, for example, it is a limited reproduction of an important but esoteric 17th-century scientific document, the limitation should be small; a best-selling novelist’s “limited” edition, however, might number in the thousands of copies and still retain a good collector’s value. In general, however, a good round number for the limitation is 500 copies. For books using metal type, woodcuts, engravings, lithographs, or other such techniques, there may be slightly noticeable flaws after 500 or 1000 imprints. Although books printed with ‘modern’ techniques will not have these flaws, the fact that they are essentially computer print-outs lowers their value, so you will want to make sure the limitation is very small.

Why are limited editions important for a book collection? Aren’t they just “instant collectibles” like Hallmark ornaments? Yes and no. The limited edition book shows that the collector is not only interested in the subject matter, but is also a patron of the book arts. In this age of infinitely reproducible electronic texts and print-on-demand books, a book carefully made is even more of a special part of a collection than ever. For this reason, limited editions can add real value to a book collection, and might make an otherwise lukewarm collection into something out of the ordinary. Also, many limited editions contain features unique to that edition: introduction, illustrations, notes, etc. Most of all, however, a limited edition is just plain fun. It is fun to read, knowing you are taking part in a special ritual that began with the author, continued with the press, and ends with the reader. It is fun to own, knowing that your copy is one of just a few in the world.

One side note: those limited edition which are signed by the authors are almost the only books where the signature is assured to be genuine. Many dealers who specialize in high-dollar signatures are hesitant to buy and promote any signature unless it is guaranteed to be real. A signed edition is one of the only ways to be confident in the signature.

Of course, there are people who collect limited editions only. One fellow I talked to only collects number 13: he’ll buy any limited edition he can get his hands on if it is numbered that unlucky number. An interesting collection!

That last characteristic may need a bit of explanation. By “important” publisher, I mean one which has been influential in the artistic representation of text and the beautiful design of books. There have always been publishers of limited editions who merely mimic what others have done: although these productions tend to maintain a decent value, they only increase based on the content (i.e., if they happened to print a limited first edition of a book that went on to win the Nobel, or to become a cult classic) rather than the form. In modern times, the Easton Press produces books of this nature. All of their books not only look the same, but they are rehashing the forms of yesterday (and their “limited” print runs are very large, often running into the thousands.) The Arion Press, on the other hand, is producing spectacular books that continue to push the boundaries of form and construction (their rendition of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, being a prime example; Moby Dick, probably their most famous production, is not as extreme but still required an entire new font style cut.)

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