What's better: a simple author signature, or an inscription? As a longtime bookseller -- a veteran of Borders, Waldenbooks, and independent bookstores -- I thought I knew the answer. But, once I began working for antiquarian booksellers, I discovered the question is much more complex.
A comment on the ABAA Facebook page recently asked why some booksellers appear to prefer plain signed books, rather than inscribed ones? While trying to find the answer, I encountered an interesting tale of changing fashions and the dark side of book collecting.
The prevailing wisdom in literary circles over the past decade or two has been to ask an author for a plain signature when getting a book autographed (some collectors even purchase two copies, asking the author to inscribe one to them for their 'permanent collection,' and to simply sign their name to the other one, which they will hold onto in the hopes its value appreciates -- sellers of new books have no qualms about endorsing this point of view, although antiquarian booksellers know there is no certainty of modern firsts becoming valuable collectibles, and strongly caution collectors against viewing them as such). To my shame, I've organized and helped run hundreds of book signings and never previously gave this standard advice much thought.
The theory was that such a plain signed book might be more valuable or 'collectible' than one inscribed to an individual personally because some later potential buyer might be more interested in a book signed "Stephen King," than a book signed "To Harry, Best Wishes from Stephen King." While I myself might appreciate looking back over my library and recalling an entertaining dinner with Greg Keyes when he signed a book for me and we gossiped about the book industry over several bottles of wine, why would anyone else be interested in the cryptic comments added by an author? (My advance copy of Greg Keyes' The Briar King is inscribed "Hope you still have this one in six years." Baffling to anyone but me.*)
Antiquarian booksellers look at inscriptions in a different light. ABAA-member Ken Lopez writes "when you buy a signed book you are purchasing a signature, but when you buy an inscribed book you are getting a story." Part of the skill of the antiquarian bookseller is to be able to decipher and tell that story. One of the issues with a plain signed as opposed to inscribed book is that it lacks provenance. Inscriptions -- even if they are not to a famous household name -- often have a story behind them that can prove provenance. (The inscribed copy of Brion Gysin's The Process below illustrates just such an interesting story. [Note: the book itself has now been sold.])
by Brion Gysin
London: Jonathan Cape, 1970. First British Edition. Fine/Near Fine. First British edition, first printing. Signed by Brion Gysin to Stanley Bard, owner and manager of the notorious Chelsea Hotel in New York, with a second inscription to Richard Aaron reading "For Stanley Bard of The Chelsea Hotel in present time, [signed] Brion," "And now for Richard Aaron, Paris, 31 March 1979."
At the time of publication, Gysin was living at the Chelsea Hotel on the 7th floor near William S. Burroughs. Bard often accepted works of literature of art in lieu of rent. Bound in publisher's black cloth with spine lettered in gilt. Fine, in a Near Fine dust jacket, lightly edge-worn and lightly soiled, with fading and light staining to spine panel. The painter and composer's first novel. Gysin is best known for his discovery of the cut-up technique, which was famously used by his friend and collaborator, William S. Burroughs.
Offered by Burnside Rare Books.
Since the advent of the internet, anyone can put an alledgedly signed book for sale online, and most online auction sites like eBay do little to police the authenticity of their offereings. Some unscrupulous online sellers offer so-called certificates of authenticity with their signed book; these are simply not worth the paper they're printed on. The ABAA guarantees that a signed book purchased from one of its members is genuine, and that is one reason that obtaining membership for the ABAA is a long and exacting process -- only the most experienced, ethical, and knowledgible booksellers are accepted!
Lopez adds some historical context to the current confusion over the relative value of signed versus inscribed books by explaining that for "a long time -- generations, literally -- there was a clearly established hierarchy of values that pertained to books signed by their authors. The best copy was the 'dedication copy,' and usually there was only one of these. Next best were 'association copies,' that is, books inscribed by the author to someone notable or important in the author's life -- a relative, a friend, a mentor, another writer. After that were 'presentation copies,' which simply meant those books inscribed by the author to someone who was not important to the author, or whose importance was unknown. And finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy, were books that were just signed, with no further inscription, no other writing, etc."
Various factors owing to attempts to game the system and people enticing authors to inscribe books to them despite having no personal relationship began to cause booksellers to look askance at certain inscriptions to these "false fans" in the 1970s and '80s, and collectors picked up on this new sense of suspicion over certain inscriptions, and some began to view plain signed books as more desirable. Then came the internet, and the largely unregulated marketplace of eBay and other online auction sites. Some antiquarians now feel that the pendulum is starting to swing back, and once again the principle of, in Lopez's words, "the more writing by the author in a book, the better" is beginning to reassert itself. (You can read Ken Lopez's more detailed thoughts on signed books versus inscribed ones here...)
The Remains of the Day (Signed, First Edition)
by Kazuo Ishiguro
London: Faber and Faber, 1989. First Edition. Near Fine/Near Fine. First edition, first printing. Signed by Kazuo Ishiguro on the title page. Bound in publisher's original black cloth with spine lettered in white. Near Fine with light softening at corners and spine ends. In a Near Fine dust jacket with light shelf wear and faint sunning to the spine. A fantastic copy, signed by the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Offered by Burnside Rare Books.
The recent popular wisdom favoring plain signed books not only flies in the face of long-established preferences, but, Lopez believes, also "diminishes and demeans collecting, and collectors":
"For not only can a presentation copy to an unknown third party "turn into" an association copy after a little research, but a collector's own copy can become an association copy if the collector stays with it long enough and seriously enough for the collection to become recognizably important. Hemingway's first bibliographer was Louis Cohen, a fan and book collector. A Hemingway book inscribed to Cohen would, at the time, have been a simple presentation copy to a person of no particular consequence. Today it would be viewed as a highly desirable association copy."
ABAA members go to great lengths to research inscriptions and establish whether a book has genuine literary associations or not. One terrific example of the fruits of this research is the description provided by James S. Jaffe Rare Books for a presentation copy of Sylvia Plath's first book of poetry, The Colossus, which she inscribed to Lucas (Luke) Myers, a fellow poet and intimate of Plath and Ted Hughes, who was in their circle when Plath first met Hughes in Cambridge in 1956. Plath was influenced by Myers' poetry, and in fact wrote that she was dancing with him at the launch party for the St. Boloph's Review just moments before meeting Ted Hughes! Clearly this is a copy with great significance for collectors of Plath and Hughes. (Read that description here...)
An appreciation of the history behind a certain volume and how some inscriptions reflect the larger currents of an author's life or work shows that such dedication, association, or presentation copies are far more desirable than any plain signed copy.
Coda: Recently, I (briefly) joined a large Facebook group focused on rare books, and was horrified to see a lively discussion about inscribed books wherein so-called experts advised people to erase the inscription if possible, glue a bookplate or blank piece of paper over it, or simply tear the page out (!) in the misguided notion that these methods would magically make the books in question more sought-after. ABAA members and informed collectors would never advocate such things! Defacing a book does not make it more desirable.
Video: "Presentations and Provenance: How Signatures Add Value to Books"
ABAA-member Joshua Mann of B&B Rare Books discusses the value signatures bring to rare books at the 2023 New York International Antiquarian Book Fair.
* The story behind the inscription in my copy of The Briar King is that I had met Greg Keyes years earlier, at a science-fiction convention just before his first novel, The Waterborn, came out. I brought a promotional blad (an excerpt from the novel bound for promotional purposes) which the author had signed at our first meeting to the dinner six years later, which spurred a great discussion about his career and experience over the intervening years.
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Some signed and inscribed books of interest:
by John Lewis
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. First Edition, first printing. Hardcover. Octavo; VG/VG; Black jacket spine with white lettering; 496 pages; Book has been SIGNED by Lewis on the title page; Jacket shows minimal wear to the edges, bookstore sticker on rear of jacket, jacket now protected by mylar cover; Boards straight, Binding tight; Text block clean.
Offered by Second Story Books.
by GABALDON, DIANA
New York: Delacorte Press, 1991. First Edition. Hardcover. Fine/Near fine. First edition, first printing. Signed by Diana Gabaldon on the title page. The first in a series of eight historical multi-genre novels centering on Second World War-era nurse Claire Randall, who travels through time to 18th century Scotland and finds adventure and romance with the dashing Jamie Fraser. Octavo. A crisp, unread copy. Typical light lifting of the laminate around the raised lettering on the front panel of the dust jacket, which is otherwise fine.
Offered by johnson rare books & archives.
The Bingo Palace (Signed)
by Louise Erdrich
Northridge, California: Lord John Press, 1994. Hardcover. Fine. First edition. Fine in quarter gilt morocco in marbles boards with fine cloth slipcase. One of 26 lettered copies Signed by the author. Although not marked in any way, this copy is from the distinguished modern first edition collection of Bruce Kahn.
Offered by Between the Covers Rare Books.
by Thomas Hardy
London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1903. Hardy, Thomas. THE WOODLANDERS. With a map of Wessex. London: Macmillan, 1903. Early reprint edition in original publisher's blue cloth with gilt decoration and lettering. A FINE, fresh copy INSCRIBED by the author on the front free endpaper and dated 1907. The presentation is rather enigmatic. "For Alliance sake (I. K. H7. VI)." Hardy seems to be quoting Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1, Act Two, Scene Five in which an unjust death is blamed as being "for alliance sake." THE WOODLANDERS is itself filled with Shakespeare allusions, especially Hamlet, and Henry VI Part 1 is alluded to in other of Hardy's works. A mystery only partially solved and a recipient as yet entirely unknown. Purdy p. 57.. Inscribed By Author. Decorative Cloth. Fine.
Offered by Lakin & Marley.
by William James
Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1885. First Edition. Hardcover. Remnant of a newspaper clipping of Henry James, Sr.'s obituary on the front endpaper with resulting shadow to the front pastedown. Rebacked retaining most of the original spine which is now a little dull.. Illustrated with a frontispiece portrait of the subject, the father of William and Henry James. Edited with an introduction by William James who has INSCRIBED and SIGNED the book on the front blank: "Miss Jane Norton/with affectionate regards/Wm. James." Grace Norton, sister of Charles Eliot Norton, was an expert on Montaigne and the works of other French authors. She was a frequent correspondent of both William and Henry James. Books signed by this great American psychologist and philosopher are excessively scarce.
William James, brother of the noted novelist Henry James, Jr., is generally considered to be, along with Emerson, the greatest philosophic American mind. He is best known for his book VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE and his theory of Pragmatism, an advanced philosophy based on the doctrine that truth is based on experience and observation.
Offered by Charles Agvent.
The Handmaid's Tale (Inscribed)
by Margaret Atwood
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985. Advance Reading Copy. Very Good+. Signed by Margaret Atwood on the half-title, inscribed to former owner. Advance reading copy of the first American edition, also referred to as an Advance Uncorrected Proof on the front endpaper. [xii], 240 pp. Illustrated wraps. Very Good+ with some creasing and offsetting to spine, slightly bumped corners. The basis of the hit TV series, a dystopian novel.
Offered by Burnside Rare Books.
by Robert Lowell
London: Faber & Faber, 1973. 1st UK edition, full tan gray linen cloth with gold embossed lettering to spine, with illustrated dust jacket. Inscribed by Lowell to his close friend and fellow author, J. F. Powers and Powers' wife, Betty. The inscription reads "For Jim and Betty / with love / from / Cal / May 1973" in blue ink on the half title page. Additionally, "with the author's compliments" slip from Faber laid in.
James Farl Powers (1917 - 1999) was a novelist and short-story writer, who won the National Book Award in 1963 for his first novel. Powers and Lowell met in 1947 at Yaddo, the artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. Powers and Lowell remained friends throughout their lifetime, exchanging letters often. They shared a strong interest in Catholicism. Provenance: from the Powers' estate, and signed in pencil by his daughter, Katherine Powers, who edited a collection of Powers' letters. Fine condition.
Offered by Jett W. Whitehead Rare Books.
by HEANEY, SEAMUS
New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. First. hardcover. fine/fine. 80pp., blue cloth, d.w. New York: Oxford University Press, (1973). First American Edition, Fine. The scarce American edition of which only 500 were printed. Heaney autographed the book on the title page, and has also written out on the half-title, 4 lines beginning "My granny was Doherty/ She was the stuff-" in presentation "with good echoes from Tara". Another hand, signed "David" has written out 8 lines from "The Orange Lilly" on a facing flyleaf.
Offered by Argosy Book Store.