July 16, 2018
How much is a signed book really worth?
by Michael Seidlinger
It’s a question that comes to mind more often than I’d like. I am consistently enamored and curious about the inherent value and excitement fans exhibit when they get the a) opportunity to have their copy of the author or artist’s creation signed (and hopefully personalized) and b) meet their influences. The latter isn’t all that difficult to figure out why someone would become so excited, and yet the act of obtaining an author or artist’s signature continues to baffle me, especially when it comes to the astronomical prices that various signed pieces of books (and memorabilia) go for in the marketplace.
Duncan Leatherdale at the BBC recently covered a story about the going rate of a complete set of signed Harry Potter books, which is estimated between 11 and 19 thousand dollars, and proceeded to explore the value of signed books in general. As a product on the marketplace. As a phenomenon. The discussion happens frequently because the very phenomenon itself is rooted in familiarity, nostalgia, fandom — human emotion and memory that goes far and above anything inherently tangible. Except for the memorabilia a person buys in an attempt to capture these emotions and memories.
Pom Harrington, a book dealer and collector, claims it’s about “the author touching the book. It’s knowing they have held it in their hands, that they have blessed it.” Of course, it varies depending on the author and even the type of signature. You’ll find that a signed copy of a book by Harper Lee will go for more than a signed novel by Philip K. Dick (sorry Phil; sorry, fans of PKD). Likewise, it’s the type of signature that matters most — and it’s on a case-by-case scenario. There are four classifications:
- The autograph (self-explanatory)
- Inscription (the whole “hope you enjoy the book” part)
- Association (author inscribed book to another author)
- Gift (similar to association often to a charity, a family member, etc.)
The book becomes more attractive when there’s an inscription, especially if the author’s signature is less recognizable, and add points if the association is to someone famous, perhaps another author. Gifts can add a sort of value that depends entirely, much like the association, on the recipient (it varies if it’s to a family member versus an organization or charity). Add in some of the less measurable factors, like the scarcity (how often the author signs books), and you’ve got a marketplace in flux, all depending on, you guessed it, the demand (read: desire) of readers and fans for the work that changed their lives.
The phenomenon of an author “leaving their mark” began in the late eighteenth century, with authors like Charles Dickens signing books. Fun Fact: According to Harrington, “Dickens would tour the country reading his works and signing copies for people. He was undoubtedly one of the first to do book tours.” Of course, it all depends on the book. Beyond the author, it comes down to the book. Just like you’d rather have a signed copy of a Harry Potter book over, say, The Casual Vacancy, the book’s perceived place in collective consciousness ends up determining the rate of its rarity and value. “It has to be the book they are best known and loved for,” says Harrington.
It’s true. No one remembers a book that doesn’t affect them, and nobody’s going to want a signed copy of something that fades from memory like any other weekday. We want these signatures the same way we want our bookshelves packed with familiar and exciting titles: we want our memories to have meaning.
You’ve got to wonder: Are you willing to spend thousands chasing that literary high?
Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.