As the owner of several antiquarian standard books, including a very early copy of The Virginian by Owen Wister, I began to wonder what impact ebook publishing would have on First Edition volumes. There are two types of First Edition owners: the true bibliophile and the investor. The former may be less concerned about the fact that a book may have originally been published as an ebook, but what about the latter? Of course, we may not particularly care about the investor’s attitude, if that’s all they are. I know that I would rather that all First Editions were owned by true bibliophiles, and especially those who loved the books for their content first and foremost. Even so, will we see a shift away from just ‘First Edition’ to ‘First Print Edition’? One thing is patently obvious: there will never be a trade in First Edition ebooks! There’s a better chance of eReaders becoming valuable collectibles. Does that leave a gap in the book trade?
I know that many authors enjoy owning every First Edition of their own works, and giving copies to family and friends. This obviously can’t happen in the same sense with ebooks. Is it something we should mourn? Are we going to be happy with the ‘First Print Edition’ alternative? Or are we resigned to waiting until we publish (ourselves or through publishers) printed books? And there’s another question springing from that. Many self-published authors opt for paperback editions (I know I have), because the cost of hardbacks would be exorbitant. But paperbacks, notoriously, don’t stand the test of time well (though I’ve bought hardbacks that have actually been even worse!). Are we, by the combination of producing our first editions as ebooks and self-publishing as paperbacks, devaluing our own collections of our own works?
I’m a great proponent of ebook publishing, especially as it gives genuinely able authors opportunities which might never otherwise occur. At a personal level, I’m perfectly happy to accept the ‘loss’ of a pure First Edition of any of my works. I’m also happy to accept the fact that any First Print Edition will be in paperback. To me, the value of a book must be, above all else, in its content. My ownership of antiquarian books has less to do with their age than those other qualities of printed books: the look, feel and smell! You may think me odd, but one or two of the old books I own that I cherish most are not antiquarian standard. In fact, they’re not even a high standard. They were printed during the two World Wars, when paper was not to be wasted on such things. The paper they’re made from is coarse, thick and very badly trimmed. All of which gives them a curious quality. More, they were obviously considered to be works of such importance that they were published! I wonder how many modern books would be so honoured in the same circumstances? I suspect that we would see just about all books being hastily converted to digital formats. Publishers are, after all, in existence to make money. Being prevented from publishing hundreds of books because of restrictions imposed by governments because of war would not sit well with them. What then for the First Edition aficionados?
In parting, let me make one thing quite clear! The issue of First Edition values has nothing to do with whether a book is self-published or not. Many famous authors would never have achieved their renown without self-publishing, and their First Editions are extremely valuable. It is only a question of the nature of the first edition of a work that is involved.
It will be interesting to see how the trade in First Editions develops in coming years.