Collecting Fine Press Books

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Fine Press Books.

1I have been a bookseller for 20 years now. But ten years ago I went to a book fair that specialised in fine press books.

And it was love at first sight. These beautiful creatures gradually pushed aside their greyer companions and began to take over my bookshelves.

This is the story of how I came to specialise in selling fine press books. I hope to share my passion for them with you.

All the photographs have been taken by me from books in my own collection.

Books, Books, Books!

2An early life ambition was to run an second-hand bookshop. But even thirty years ago I realised that second-hand bookshops were struggling to survive. Today, in a harsh economic climate, and with online shopping the norm for many people, running an independent bookshop – whether it be for new and/or second-hand books – is a very big risk.

But I wanted to sell books. So in the mid 1990s I began to buy and sell second hand books, with a particular emphasis on nature, at book fairs and online.

However, I soon ran into problems trading from home. Big problems.

My house became overtaken with books. I soon had over 1000 overflowing from boxes; boxes stacked in every available corner. Loading and unloading boxes to take to book fairs became a nightmare – hours of preparatory work, sitting around at the fair all day, often for little financial return – sometimes the sales did not match the space rental fee at the fair. If I received an online order, I often had to hunt through scores of boxes to find the book, pack it, post it – all for just a pound or two profit.

Things had to change.

They did. I began to specialise in fine press and limited edition books. I still sell a range of other books, particularly books signed by the authors, and art/design related, but fine press books are my real passion. But it is a business too – I enjoy their company and am sorry to see them go – but they pay my bills when they do.

Fine Press Books

3Fine Press (or ‘Private Press’) books are printed in limited numbers, sometimes just as few as 12, but more typically around 200-300 copies. Often, within this limited print run, there will be a number of ‘special’ editions produced – with fine bindings, often in quarter, half or full leather.

They are published by small, independent private press businesses, typically only one or two people, often working from their homes. The books are usually commissioned by the printers, based on their instincts of what will sell (or, idiosyncratically, just what they like to read), printed by hand, then carefully and individually bound together using high quality materials, for example, marbled and hand-made papers, leather, decorated cloth covered boards. The illustrations are often especially produced or gathered for the book and an artist will usually sign the colophon page, along with the author, and sometimes the printer. The book may come with a matching slipcase, and the ‘special’ editions often come with a portfolio of signed prints.

I like the independence of these printers. They never know if a book will sell, so it takes guts to do what they do. Most are interesting characters with a story to tell. And after a few pints, or glasses of wine, they will tell it.

Fine Press books commemorating the life and work of well-known artists are particularly popular, but you will find limited edition books in a wide range of subjects, with a predominance towards the arts and humanities. My own particular favourites are books illustrated with wood engravings.

The books can be expensive. But many of them are highly collectable, as once the print run has been sold, there is no second or subsequent printing. In an age of mass production they stand out from the crowd.

There is a growing niche market for these books. The people who buy them love books – as I do.

They love handling them, are drawn to the illustrations, and admire quality of the typography and binding. They will often pay a high price to collect a book that is long out of print.

The longer the book is out of print, the more attractive the binding, the more interesting the contents, then, generally, the higher the price it commands on the second-hand market.

(The image shown above is ‘Water’, from Incline Press)

The Beauty of Books – Image from ‘Faithful John’, published by Old Stile Press

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Caring for the Books

5Careful handling and storage of limited edition books is essential. The customers for these books are, rightly, concerned to get a book in the best possible condition.

The quickest way to anger and lose customers is by giving misleading information about their condition, and/or skimping on the packing protection when you mail it out.

Storage: The enemy of these books is the sun. A row of books on a shelf exposed to the full glare of the sun will quickly bleach. I have curtains I can draw across my book shelves (see picture), which protects them from the sun, and to a certain extent from dust. I also try and protect books with acetate covers, as this gives them some protection from handling and rubbing against other books. One of the reasons I rarely go to book fairs to sell my books these days, is to ensure I can sell them in the best possible condition, straight from my shelves.

Books (any book) should NEVER be stored in damp conditions, such as in a garage, otherwise the pages and boards will buckle and bow if subjected to damp for any length of time.

Try and avoid storing them in boxes. If they are stored in boxes, you will have to hunt through them each time to find the item you want, which risks bumping and scraping the others around it.

Postage: The books need to carefully packed in different layers of paper, bubble-wrap, and preferably contained and posted in a cardboard box. Customers, receiving a book in a damaged state through poor packing, will, again rightly, demand their money back, and this will damage your reputation. You will also need to ensure, wherever possible, that the package is tracked on its journey to the customer. These are expensive items and need safeguarding in transit. Customers are usually willing to pay extra to ensure the safe arrival of their expensive book.

Where to Source Fine Press Books

6There are four main ways to acquire fine press books.

First, you can buy them new from the printer. A recognised book dealer will usually pay a trade price for the books, but the printer will usually expect the dealer to buy more than one copy, unless it is a ‘special’ edition. You are advised to join a professional booksellers association, such as the PBFA, and to keep in regular contact with the printers. This will give you credibility and build trust between you and the printer. Pay your bill from the printer promptly and you will have a friend for life.

Once you have bought the books you can decide either to wait until the book is out of print before offering it to sale, or including it as a new item in your catalogue. You might ask though, why buy a new fine press book from a dealer, when you could buy it new from the printer? The reason is that your customer may not have heard of the printer, but does know you – they may have bought books from you in the past, and discover the book on your site or on your online site at a book fair where you are exhibiting. If you do decide to sell it new, I would advise you to sell it at the printer’s recommended selling price, rather than an inflated one of your own. Why? Because if your customer subsequently learns that the book could have been bought for a cheaper price direct from the printer, you will be in their bad books. (see section on ‘Pricing’).

If you decide to wait until the book is out of print, then this is a long game and the dealer may have to wait years for this to happen. I have some fine press books I bought ten years ago that are still on sale direct from the printer, so there is no guarantee of selling these books at a profit. But this is where the bookseller skill comes in – judging which books are likely to go out of print quickly, and buying enough of them. I am still learning.

Second, you can buy fine press books from other book dealers. A book seller who specialises in selling them will have a good idea about their selling value, so you may find there is little profit margin for you if you wanted to re-sell the book in the short term. But other more general book dealers can offer bargains – if you hunt around for them. Book fairs can still be good places to find fine press books. And the bigger the fair sometimes the bigger the bargain, because of the fierce competition in the sales hall. At the larger fairs you often have100+ dealers all competing for business.

Third, you can find these books at the better auction houses. You would need to search auction house online and printed catalogues, and get to know the auction house book specialists to build a working relationship with them. If they know you are interested, they can let you know when these books are put into sales. You can find these books too, on general online auctions, such as Ebay.

Fourth, you can buy them from individual book collectors. Many of my best acquisitions have been made this way. I have a note on my website to the effect that I am always interested in buying these books – and will pay a fair price for them. This is important, as the owners of these books know their value. They understand that a book dealer must make a profit on them – but will want to be offered a price in line with their worth. Negotiating a price can be tricky sometimes, but the combination of experience of the book dealer – and pragmatism of the seller – can usually see a deal made to the satisfaction of both parties.

Links to Sources

The links below are the main sources for buying new and/or fine press books:

The Beauty of Books – Image: ‘In Place of Toothpaste’, published by Incline Press.

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The Beauty of Books – Image: ‘A Christmas Carol’ published by Barbarian Press.

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Cataloguing

9Accurate cataloguing of these books is essential. Book collectors will read your descriptions carefully and will expect to receive exactly what you describe. I always add at least one photograph of the book to my site – a photograph is worth a hundred words. In addition to the title, author, publisher and date of publication, you will need to describe in detail the binding, size of book, page numbers, details of artists, printer, and other relevant information. As mentioned earlier, there is usually a colophon page at the rear of the book with this information, and for signatures of the principal people involved, usually the author(s) and artist(s).

Here is my description of the book shown in the photograph.

Angels‘. Author: Adrian Roberts. The Celtic Cross Press, Yorkshire. Limited Edition, 2000.

Hardback book, size: 230mm x 310mm, 96pp, ISBN 0 948261 40 4.

Subject: The role of angels and their appearance in the Bible. Only 75 copies printed (60 produced for sale), this being numbered 35. Woodcuts in colour by Pauline Jacobsen and hand printed by David Esslemont. Text printed letterpress by Simon King, on Velin Arches paper. Bound in brown quarter leather by David Esslemont, with orange dominated patterned paper and contained in a light brown cloth clamshell case. Descriptive leaflet laid in. The book is signed by Adrian Roberts and Pauline Jacobsen. This is a beautiful book in fine condition.

Pricing

It is tempting to put a high price on a out-of-print limited edition book. If someone wants it badly enough they will usually pay the price you ask. But this can rebound on you. Sometimes it is better to put a lower-end price on the item, as this can lead to repeat business. The customer will know you are asking a fair, rather than exorbitant, price and is likely to return to you to buy other books. This is how I have built my customer base. The expression, ‘Smaller profits, quicker returns’ applies equally to bookselling as it does to other businesses.

I have seen very silly prices on the Internet asked for books. What can happen is that an inexperienced book dealer, finding few, if any, of the book in question for sale online, will assume it is scarce and put a very high price on it. Other inexperienced dealers, with the same book for sale, will then follow suit, using the overpriced book as their benchmark. Soon you will have a choice of the book for sale, but all at overblown prices. It is important to remember that books for sale online are UNSOLD – and there may be a good reason for that. Uncommon books offered for sensible prices are quickly sold.

Recently, I wanted to put a book for sale on the Internet. I found that the cheapest copy of five was £250, all in a similar condition to mine. However, my gut instinct was that this was over-priced for this particular book. I began to research online the past selling price of the book at auctions and found that it was in the region of £100. This is the price I asked for it – and one that would still make me a good profit when sold. Which book would you buy?

Research prices by looking at past auction records, professional dealer catalogues, and by visiting book fairs.

Selling Prices – be sensible; be fair

Don’t forget, sensible prices can lead to repeat business.
Don’t just be ‘guided’ by online prices for books.
Research prices by looking at past auction records, professional dealer catalogues, and by visiting book fairs

The Beauty of Books

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The limited print run of fine press books allows for experimentation in relation to book covers. Here we see a very attractive version of the Olive Schreiner story, ‘The Story of an African Farm’ produced by the US based Limited Editions Club in a limited edition of 1500 copies. In keeping with the book’s subject, it is bound in dark brown African texture cloth and has a very pleasant tactile element, as well as attractive visual dimension.

The Beauty of Books – Image: ‘Existentialists and Mystics’ by Iris Murdoch, published by The Delos Press

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The Beauty of Books

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The limited print run also allows fine press publishers to select subjects hitherto neglected. Above we see a page from ‘For Books that Never Were: Jackets, Title-pages, Illustrations made in the 1940s and 50s by Bert Isaac‘, printed in a limited edition of 100 in 2005 by The Old Stile Press. It highlighted the somewhat neglected – but very attractive – design work of Bert Isaac and gave it the attention it deserved.


Colin Neville is a retired university teacher, author of four non-fiction books (on education and local history topics), online seller of art & design-related fine and limited edition books, gardener, chef, granddad.He lives in West Yorkshire, near Ilkley. Currently working on developing an information database of Bradford (Yorkshire) born artists, past and present.

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