Bound to Be Classics

Collectors of “hypermodern” literature bank on books


| May - June 2008


Ignoring first editions of the King James Bible, illustrated medieval manuscripts, and fine-press editions of Pride and Prejudice, I scoured the aisles of last spring’s New York Antiquarian Book Fair. I was indifferent to the museum pieces and objets d’art. I was looking for the small number of recent releases that make it into the fair every year, peering into display cabinets for glossy, colorful dust jackets. I went to the rare book fair to suss out the contemporary book scene.

Those who collect hypermoderns—books published in the past 20 years or so—are the cowboys of the antiquarian book trade, investing in the most speculative niche in this other­wise staid market. They scout and bet on future greats, scooping up first editions that they think, and hope, will eventually become classics.

Books both high- and lowbrow get tapped with the spending frenzies reserved for the most popular titles. A first U.K. edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, sold in 2005 for $37,000; when J.K. Rowling’s first novel came out, in 1997, it retailed for about $25. Other popular best sellers are prone to bubbles, liable to lose their value quickly.

So what makes a good investment? Literary fiction of lasting value—classics to be. Today, first editions of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner can go for six figures. Hypermodern collectors are wagering on what will be deemed classic 50 years or so down the line. At last spring’s fair, hot authors included Raymond Carver (Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: $2,500), Tim O’Brien (If I Die in a Combat Zone: $4,500) and D.B.C. Pierre (Vernon God Little: $400). But the clear darling of the hypermodern posse is Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is perfect for collectors: He is male, writes in difficult prose, attends few book signings (making signed copies scarcer), and once published in small print runs.

Collecting is a risky game, though. Some scored with McCarthy, but followers of William T. Vollmann lost big in the 1990s. Ken Lopez, a bookseller who specializes in modern and hypermodern titles, told me of a failed attempt to corner Vollmann futures: “A small group of young guys got together to monopolize the market,” he says. “They would travel to book signings, buy 10 copies of Vollmann’s books for $17.50, and mark the prices up to $100.” But they overshot, and today the market is overstocked, supply having outstripped demand.

Hypermodern collecting is a bit absurd, maybe even crass. Many collectors are only interested in trophy hunting, buying matching leather-bound volumes they may never read to line their bookshelves. But it’s also enormously compelling. I have been bitten. Since I know more about books than about financial markets, hardbacks are my stocks. After I read a book I admire, I purchase another copy to put on my shelf. I am a big Richard Powers fan, so I have collected all his novels. Shortly after Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex won the Pulitzer, I found a signed copy in my local bookstore for $50. Today, I might get $125 to $350 for it.