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ABE, Easton Press and Fantasy Rare Book Collectibles

by Stephen J. Gertz - 10 Mar 2008

I visited ABE’s Rare Book Room earlier today for the first time; a member of the rare book trade, I felt it my civic duty to finally see what’s up.

As it turns out, plenty. Of fantasy. But not rare fantasy literature: ABE’s Collector’s Corner is touting Easton Press editions as highly collectible books:

“With each book bound in genuine leather, it’s easy to see why Easton Press is one of our most popular requests.”

No, it’s not easy to see why. A nice, leather-bound book is a good thing indeed but it is not a compelling enough reason to collect a book, any book, unless you are collecting fine master bindings.

Easton Press books are decently but not finely bound and while the bindings are okay they are not by great masters of the art and craft. Easton Press books’ attractiveness is strictly superficial.

Serious collectors of individual authors eschew Easton Press editions unless the collector is a completist and simply must have any and everything associated with a particular author. The completist, however, would have an Easton Press edition at the very bottom of their must-have list, if on such a list at all. Here’s why:

Unlike the volumes of Limited Editions Club, established in 1929 (still in business, and with a few volumes quite collectible) to reissue past and contemporary fiction and non-fiction classic literature in editions featuring the work of some of the best contemporary artist-illustrators and book designers, Easton Press books are simply mediocre reprints dressed up to lend what marketers call “added value” to lure the unsophisticated collector.

But here’s the major caveat emptor for rare book collectors: Easton Press books are not just reprints, they are primarily reprints of earlier Limited Editions Club editions! Examples: Easton’s edition of Huck Finn illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton reprints the LEC’s edition of 1942; Easton’s edition of Moliere’s Tartuffe and The Would-Be Gentleman is a reprint of the LEC edition of 1963 illustrated by Serge Ivanoff. The list is long.

And here’s the kicker: Unlike the original LEC editions, however, the Easton Press reprints of LEC books are not signed by the illustrators and/or designers!

Easton Press volumes are not rare books; they are used books, can easily be acquired, and are worth no more than $15-$35, despite ambitious fantasy pricing I’ve seen by secondhand booksellers on the Internet.

Easton Press (and Franklin Mint and Heritage Press) are manufactured collectibles, meaning they have no intrinsic collectible value to anyone but the credulous. They are priced up to $70 upon release as a marketing/merchandising con to promote an upscale image. A true collectible anything is determined in the marketplace from the ground up (the public), not from the top down (i.e., a publisher).

The publisher’s hope (alas, as experience has taught) is that there is a large enough group of gullible marks willing to fall for their “Collectible Editions” pitch. The idea is virtually the same as Franklin Mint issuing Elvis Commemorative Limited Edition plates and the books have the same market value as Elvis Commemorative Limited Edition plates (or The Harvard Classics), which is to say, none.

The Easton Press books had absolutely no genuine collectible value when issued, have none now and will not in the future. A true collectible will increase from it’s original retail price, not decline; that has been and will remain the fate of Easton Press editions.

But they are bound in “genuine” leather, which, according to ABE, some how elevates them. Alas, not bound in fine leather; if they were bound in calf or morocco, Easton Press would most certainly tout them as such.

As a result of the above, ABE’s credibility as a source for rare books and rare book collecting advice takes another well-deserved hook to the body. If you are currently collecting Easton Press editions with the expectation that they will appreciate in value, you have been led astray. Collect ‘em if you like ‘em but don’t be fooled by claims of collectible value.

The moral to this Aesop’s fable of Easton Press collectibility: Never depend on ABE for advice on rare books and collecting. If you want to collect used books, however, ABE is a vast source, no doubt about it.

  1. Comment by Peter

    Aren’t you being a little harsh here? Where does a person with limited means buy leather books if not from publishers like Easton Press? I certainly can’t afford a $500 calf leather book that was made 100 years ago.

    As to the value, check online sites, even in this recession Easton Press sell for a premium and older ones go for multiples of the original price. At minimum they will appreciate over time and it is far better than purchasing paperbacks or hardbacks. I priced a hardback at the store, it was $39.95, the Easton Press equivalent was $10 more, the former will be worth $5 used, eventually $1-$2, the latter will go up over time.

  2. Comment by Steve

    Pete:

    If you’re happy with your Easton Press books then I’m happy.

    But I stand by my story. Easton Press books are not rare books; there are over 900 copies of EP books being offered online, from as low as $1 to, yes, $3000, but the higher numbers are wishful thinking for only a handful of EP titles in EP’s sea of reprinted reprints. These are, indeed, used books, and while bound in leather, it is very inexpensive leather and will not last the 100 years you cite.

    There is a glut of Easton Press books in the used book marketplace. There is virtually no way that prices can go up in that circumstance unless, all of a sudden and for no rational reason, there’s a huge herd stampeding to start collecting them. There is little chance that the $49 EP edition you mention will appreciate in value; it will, more than likely, decline to $15-$20 retail – which you will never get if you wish to sell it yourself: a used book dealer will offer you a wholesale price in the basement, and a rare book dealer will decline to buy in the first place. Ebay auction? Lucky to get $10. If you list directly to a website, you’ll have to price it below the lowest posted price to sell it in your lifetime.

    And, remember, Easton Press books are issued in “limited editions” of 3000! That’s a lot of copies; hardly a “limited edition.”

    I’ve been doing this a long time; the situation with Easton Press books has not changed.

    Final note: The rare book collectibles market speaks: Auction records are not kind to EP if/when they even appear at auction.

    Enjoy your EP books but be under no illusions about their collectible value.

  3. Comment by Patrick

    I really appreciate your honesty when speaking of Abe and Easton Press. I agree with you wholeheartedly. They are simply nicer than normal reprints of reprints. I currently only own a few myself, and until recently was under the assumption that they would appreciate. I don’t think I will lose money on them if I were to sell them, but I didn’t pay that much for them to begin with. The world of internet sales has induced a delirium all across the world, creating “experts” daily. These “experts”, in turn, apparently feel the duty to charge others for all the “research” they’ve done. While I don’t claim to know that much about collectible books, I am able to understand the idea of market value. There are some instances where I’m sure someone will be able to sell an Easton Press edition for more than retail or at least for more than they paid themselves. This, however, does not a “collectible” book make. I appreciate the fact that your family has been doing this for so long, and with the digital era in full swing, it’s good to know there are people out there willing to be honest and share their information.
    Thanks

  4. Comment by Kat

    Thanks for sharing this. You’re the only person out there who seems to be making any sense. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Eastern Press books are being offered for so much used when there’s no indication that the seller isn’t just buying them from EP themselves and then turning around and upping the price! Although, to be fair, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that they’re actually *selling* at these prices.

  5. Comment by Mari Peterson

    Ok. I get it. EP books are superficially beautiful. However, I want to start a library where my children and I can enjoy the feel of a REAL book that will last and be read over and over again. However, I want my cake and eat too and not have to pay a fortune. Where do you suggest I start looking for classics?

  6. Comment by Roger

    I share Mari’s question. What book brand would you suggest a casual collector buy? I’m looking for classics that will be both aesthetically pleasing and last the test of time. I’m willing to pay $20-$50 a book, so what alternative Press would you suggest?

  7. Comment by Chris

    Hi,

    Read the article and comments with interest. While I think Steve’s points are valid, I think he is also missing the point that Peter and others have made.

    Some, like myself, have bought Easton Press books because they represent a good value for a home library, to be enjoyed. Period. I never bought them for ‘collector’s value’ or any such pretension. I bought them (online for $20-50) as they represent a nice hardcover version of classic stories that myself and my children will enjoy. The books are well-made, attractive and I do think they will outlast regular hardcovers and paperbacks. That’s it really.

    A true book collector would not be looking at Easton’s at all I would presume. No need to bash them for what they are – good value for families and ‘casual’ collectors who want an attractive and sturdy book to be read and enjoyed, not sealed away in a vault.

  8. Comment by SteveHonse

    When you wonder in disbelief why so many people collect Easton Press books, does it occur to you that you have inadvertantly agreed that Easton Press offers a product with a strong and enduring demand? Apparently demand does not play into your supply and demand analysis of how price is set. I believe the internet will soon make books obsolete, but there will always be a place in the home for attractive books containing timeless literature. The demand for easton Press books is historically strong and the advent of technology is likely is likely to increase, not decrease, the demand for these superior books. Do you really think it will cost less the fill a bookcase with Easton Press books in 25 years? My friend, even you find something beautiful about that bookcase.

  9. Comment by John S

    I think Stephen makes some good points, but he is overgeneralizing. Most Easton Press books will end up selling later for less than their retail price, but not all. Here’s an example:
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Easton-Press-Starship-Troopers-Heinlein-New-Sealed-/120988012374?pt=Antiquarian_Collectible&hash=item1c2b728f56

    In case the link breaks, what I am linking to is a completed ebay auction for an unopened Easton Press edition of “Starship Troopers” by Heinlein. The auction had 5 bids and SOLD for $214.50. This is several times the original retail price. There are a few other titles I could use as examples of Easton price appreciation. However, there are even more examples of Easton books selling for $20-$30. If you eschew buying directly from Easton and watch ebay carefully, I think you can do well with Easton books, and they are a joy to own too, at least for me. Now having said all this, it might make more financial sense to buy true first editions on ebay. However, I prefer the Easton books as they have no dust jackets: have you noticed that 80% of the value of a first edition book is in the dust jacket? I’d rather collect books than dust jackets, but maybe that’s just me.

  10. Comment by David

    Signed Easton Press books have intrinsic value to autograph collectors, as the authenticity is guaranteed. That is almost certainly value added, just as a PSA/DNA or JSA authentication stamp is value added. Also, authors die. I don’t think Margaret Thatcher will be signing too many more copies of her books anytime soon, and Bradbury is dead.

  11. Comment by admin

    Well, the fact that the authors are dead has no bearing on the value of Easton Press books – they’re reprints, not first editions. And, not so by the way, eBay is a lousy place to get a sense of what collectible books are truly worth. The best place is either used.addall.com or vialibri.net, what the international trade and sophisticated collectors use on a daily basis. I’ve been a rare and antiquarian bookseller for thirty years and a member of the ABAA; please trust me on this.

    As an alternative to the Easton Press, allow me to suggest volumes from The Folio Society, out of London, also reprints of classics (yet not reprints of reprints as Easton) with original illustrations but limited to 100-200 numbered copies signed by the artist, in fine leather bindings, with original illustrations to each edition. They are, in contrast to Easton Press, beautiful, finely designed and produced volumes.

    Better still, collect the books from the Limited Editions Club, whose original list was reprinted by Easton Press. Great printing, binding, illustrations (original to LEC), each volume limited to 1500 copies and signed by the artist.

  12. Comment by Kevin Kozlowski

    Reading with interest. Value is what people will pay for something. so if someone pays over 200 bucks for an Easton Press book, then it is worth 200 bucks. At that moment, to that person. I understand that “real collectors” get irate that Easton Press books fetch grand amounts of money, but it is erroneous for those collector’s to say it is silly to buy Easton Press books. I bought an Easton Press book on Ebay for 20 dollars. Two years later I sold it on Ebay for 135 dollars. Was it worth 135 dollars? To the person who bought it from me, yes. I started the bidding at 30 dollars, by the way.

    The whole concept of buying books to make money is foolish. Even if I bought a rare, first American edition Frankenstein for 40 grand, I am not retiring on that in 30 years. Even if it quadrupled in price. So, I am content buying 20 dollar Easton Press books and two years later getting a very nice steak dinner with a lady friend out of it. That is collecting I can get behind.

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