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.
Powers and Eugenides are big names with large publishing houses behind them. Another way to go is to find up-and-coming authors publishing with small presses. After I read a borrowed copy of Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, I bought a collectible copy on the Small Beer Press website. McSweeney’s is another great press to support and potentially reap gain from. Collectors love its stable of authors, especially mastermind Dave Eggers.
Another strategy is to sign up for book-release clubs. If you had been a member of Square Books’ Signed First Editions Club in 2002, it would have sent you Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which now goes for $200 to $3,000. Many small presses are launching similar release clubs to help guarantee their own income. It might help yours, too.
This Shape We’re In
by Jonathan Lethem (McSweeney’s)
Lethem is a consistently strong novelist, and this title is his prettiest.
Tom Thomson in Purgatory
by Troy Jollimore (Margie/Intuit House)
A collection by North America’s next great poet, this book was a surprise winner of the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Magic for Beginners
by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press)
Surprising, wacky, smart stories from a rising star.
The World to Come
by Dara Horn (Norton)
The second novel by an underappreciated, lyrical writer. Horn goes backward in history and forward to the afterlife and also manages to pen a page-turning mystery.
Anne Trubek (www.annetrubek.com) is a professor of rhetoric and English at Oberlin College. Reprinted from Good(Nov.-Dec. 2007). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from 9155 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069; www.goodmagazine.com.