Not all signed first editions are equal

I was distinctly chuffed the other day to receive what I regard as a particularly special signed first edition of a book I very much enjoyed. What makes it ‘particularly special’?

As the mantra goes, all books have a first edition, but not all first editions are valuable. It’s about supply and demand. If no one else wants what you have to sell, it’s worthless. What about signed copies?

A page of a book. The title, Inhibitor Phase, is at the top. A signature is on a label, pasted onto the page
Alastair Reynolds' signature pasted into my copy of his current novel Inhibitor Phase

For me, the point about a book being signed is that the author has physically handled it. They have added a little extra – it’s more personal. That’s why this signature doesn’t actually add a great deal. The book itself is terrific as is everything Alastair Reynolds has written. But a signature on a label that, presumably, was stuck on by a member of the publishing team, well, OK, thanks, but, it smacks of production line.

One step up is where the author(s) work through a pile of pages that will become the frontispiece. This tweet from Hannah Fry is instructive. Again, she and Adam Rutherford are extremely good at what they do, but the personal touch is diminished.

2,000 down, 1,000 to go. @AdamRutherford and I signing special pre-order copies of our book for @Waterstones today #SouthgateYoureTheOne

— Hannah Fry (@FryRsquared) July 8, 2021

Next step up is when the author has actually signed the finished book. I know that this was the case, for example, in these excellent novels I got from Goldsboro Books which specialises in signed first editions and routinely posts pictures of authors signing piles of their work in the shop. Eva Björg Ægisdóttir and Claire North both handled the book itself and for reasons hard to define, that’s important.

Author signatures on recent novels by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir and Claire North

All the cases so far are what’s called ‘blank signed’. That is, it’s just a signature, not a personal inscription. I was lucky to meet Claire North (Cat Web) a couple of years ago at a book signing. She very kindly added a note and signed all my first editions of her novels so those are very individual additions to the work that, whatever the financial lift, definitely make them even more valuable to me personally.

So what about that ‘particularly special’ one I received the other day?

Well now… there are lots of features here.

First of all, this is a book by Charlotte Philby who, by dint of birth, began her writing career with a degree of instant name recognition (she's Kim Philby's granddaughter). That makes her books highly marketable from the outset.

Secondly, this is her first novel. Not all first novels are sought after. Red Mars wasn’t Kim Stanley Robinson's first novel, The Satanic Verses wasn’t Salman Rushdie’s nor was We Need to Talk About Kevin Lionel Shriver’s – but those are the first editions that command the big bucks as they’re the ones that made them famous. But in some cases – Casino Royale, Behind The Scenes at the Museum, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone etc. – the author’s first novel is the most sought after.

In this particular case, the book is also the first of a triptych. Not a trilogy but three books through which the same core events are explored from different characters’ perspectives. First editions of the first one in a set are generally the hardest to get and the most sought-after.

Three hardback books side by side: The Most Difficult Thing, A Double Life and The Second Woman
First Editions of Charlotte Philby's triptych

Thirdly, the publishers have changed the title. If you look up Charlotte Philby’s novels as published today you’ll see that the ‘first one’ is called Part of the Family. But go back a little and it was first published as The Most Difficult Thing. If you have a copy of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith published before the author was unmasked as J K Rowling, that’s worth the big bucks. Finally, there’s that signature. Before setting it free into the world, Charlotte Philby took the trouble to hold the actual book, to hand-write the quotation from which the book takes its title, date and sign it.

That’s what makes it special.

Charlotte Philby's inscription and signature on the first edition of her debut novel, under its original title

Finally, a thank you to Rascal Books of Kansas City, Montana, from whom I bought this via AbeBooks. Either they or I have seriously under-estimated the value of this book as it cost less than the shipping. I'm pretty sure it's them.

And don’t ask. It’s definitely not for sale.


Icing on the cake …

This was fascinating to read and I’m so glad you got one of The Most Difficult Thing with the line - I only did very few of those 😊

— Charlotte Philby (@PhilbyWrites) September 14, 2021