Buying And Selling Autographed Books – Past, Present & Future


Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

[Note: IOBA in no way endorses the contents of this article. It was printed here as an alternative viewpoint, and is left here in the interest of archival integrity.]
For the past five centuries, regular people like you and I have enjoyed the pleasure of collecting autographs of both the well known and the not-so-well-known. The hobby began when 16th Century German students maintained albums of correspondence from family, friends and noblemen. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that autograph collecting, in its modern sense, had evolved into a worldwide past time for millions of people from all socioeconomic levels of humanity. While the number of collectors continued to expand, the hobby went through a natural transition to focus on the most popular figures in human culture – those in power and those in vogue. The subjects of our affection have changed very little – politicians, religious leaders, sports heroes, and literary greats.

Many people have invested small fortunes in the hobby. This has been true when the economy and markets have done well as well as when the economy and markets have done poorly. Many people have hedged their portfolios by investing in Americana; signed books, unsigned 1sts, art and other collectibles. The educated consumer of autographs is becoming more and more discriminating, the result being that the quality of the autograph is now highly important. Details are significant – such as whether it is a full signature, or just the family name and first initial (the famous A. Lincoln versus Abraham Lincoln variation), and if the autograph has a good provenance or history that is verifiable and/or special. Important content, like historical references or the mention of well-known persons included in a note, means increased value for an autographed piece. A signature from a United States President is usually more valuable if the signature can be dated to the time the President was in office. The phrase “Signed as President” is used to distinguish this and we tend to value these at a premium price.

Recently there has been a “great-debate” between the old-guard and the avant-garde about autographed books and their values with inscriptions versus Flatsigned, which is the author’s signature alone, without being personalized to some stranger. Many booksellers, who have been selling signed books far longer than I have been, have stated that inscribed is better. I do not believe this to be the case. While I find there are exceptions like a lengthy inscription from Lincoln or Hemingway for example, the marketability and hence the value of a Flatsigned modern book is far superior to those that are personalized to some stranger. This has proven to be one of the keys to my successful venture of selling online and has also been a target of attack from those who dismiss and attack internet booksellers in general.

This is an exciting time to be an autograph collector. Many of our most prominent people are recording their thoughts for posterity and then signing their works. The medium that has generated huge interest (and prices) among collectors recently is signed books. The collecting of books was a recognized hobby long before autograph collecting became popular, but it wasn’t until the invention of the printing press that those other than the very wealthy could afford to own even a small library. Then, in the 19th century, the idea of having authors autograph their books struck gold and now is one of the most popular and most rewarding forms of autograph collecting. Signed books are the medium through which I first became hooked on the love of select, special autographs, and how I phased away from my previous full-time profession into my current multi-million dollar business of selling books, art and Americana, mostly Flatsigned, via online and especially on eBay.

Selling online began for me via Amazon.com auctions. I owed the IRS twenty thousand dollars and decided to sell part of my collection to pay off the government. After selling a few of my books via Amazon.com Auctions it became increasingly apparent that there was a need and a market yet untapped for the selling of autographed books online. Within a couple of weeks I had the money to pay the IRS and began reinvesting my revenue into building an even larger collection. Within six months it was apparent to me that this was an obvious career move.

In the early days of Amazon.com auctions, the prices conceived for signed books was incredible. There was little competition and good marketing led to monthly sales that were close to my annual salary. I hired two part-time employees to do the computer-related tasks and to do packing while I then focused on buying and marketing. Within a year I quit my “real-job” and began selling online full-time.

All during this time I was being attacked by the old-school of booksellers who wanted to completely do away with online book sales. While most fellow on-line booksellers stuck together and worked together for the greater good, many decided to go on the offensive. Within a few months Amazon.com Auctions were basically dead…….no customers, no sales, no revenue. That is when eBay really came alive with booksellers, including myself.

Along with selling books from my long-term, personal collection I had been buying books on eBay and selling them on Amazon. All during this time I found literally thousands of people who wanted to learn more about the hobby and who wanted to invest in what was an incredible future. Many of those people have remained in contact with me over the years and many are still loyal customers of mine, making the shift from Amazon to eBay with me.

Since that time literally thousands of people have become “booksellers” resulting in a flooding of the market for the lower end, collectible books and a devaluation of the prices. However, the high-end, non-replaceable, collectible books have continued to go up in price and value. The logic here is simple. When the internet became an option for people to sell books, thousands of people searched their world and found more and more product to sell. But, there were few or no Hemingway’s or To Kill a Mockingbirds which resulted in the low-end books going down and the high end books going up as there were more and more collectors and still few high-end books. This entire flooding and devaluation has begun to level off as should be expected with the advent of a new technology that resulted in a new marketplace.

For those of you who are meek at heart, I do not advise a life of selling on eBay. It is expensive (I pay about $7,000.00 per month in fees), difficult and puts your future out of your control and into eBay’s. For those of you who are already there then I encourage you to grow by providing the best service and product available. That is how to distinguish yourself from those who truly harm the trade. Beware those who do not show signatures online and beware those who do not give their real, physical address and their real telephone numbers. eBay is a wonderful and scary place to work, visit and buy.

Selling on eBay has now allowed me to become a family-owned business with four full-time employees. We have been featured in national magazines and in a nationally televised infomercial about making money online. We have met and made friends of some of the most wonderful people in the world. We have made enemies of those who hate that online book sales have taken away from used to be a very controlled and monopolized business. To paraphrase a wonderful line of literature, “These have been the best of times and the worst of times” but I would change few of the things that I did along the way.

When it comes to eBay, my success has been due to a number of things. One of the most important was the addition of the bulk-loading services offered by http://www.auctionwatch.com (now http://www.vendio.com). This company provided the ability to bulk-upload, schedule in advance, schedule repeat auctions, monitor hits and bids as well as preview capabilities long before eBay or companies like Andale (I do not like Andale at all) ever were on the scene. This company also provides post-auction management services, which I don’t use. My system is very simple; upload the auctions, PayPal sends out an automated “congratulations” email, customer pays and we ship. We truly do “keep it simple.” The MOST important aspect of this business is providing almost 24/7 customer service and we provide many, many free services like an informative newsletter, free opinions and we answer almost any questions posed by our members, customers and strangers.

I believe the area of signed books is the fastest-growing segment of the autograph collectibles trade. After carefully watching the autograph and book markets for two decades, I observed a very intriguing trend that is quite significant in this time of economic instability. When the stock market went up during the booming years of the late 1990s, signed book values climbed, as did most collectibles during that era. However, as the United States economy and collectibles in general began to move toward a recession, the price and value of most signed books continued to go up. The rationale behind this apparent paradox is simple: When the market goes up, more people have more money available to invest in long-term collectibles that they really enjoy. When the market goes down, people look for other investment potential and restrict their spending to areas that they really enjoy (i.e., long-term collectibles).

Investors and collectors have been speculating and investing in collectibles of all types for decades. While many collectibles, such as baseball cards and beanie babies, have large followings, they have provided a market with peaks but mostly valleys. However, many collectible books have enjoyed relatively upward-spiraling increases in value over a long time, and they reward investors with hours of pleasure as well as a nest egg for the future. While there are never guarantees, collectors have seen some of their signed “first edition” books increase in market price from two thousand to twenty-five thousand dollars in a decade or so. One example of this is a First Edition, First Printing of “Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway.

There are two things to be very mindful of when purchasing an autographed book for both collecting and/or investment: condition of the book and popularity of the title. As with most collectibles, books in As New/Fine condition command a premium price in the market. It is especially true of what we call “hyper-modern” books that condition plays an incredibly important role in determining value. By hyper-modern, we mean in the last twenty years or so, since there are so many more people who have been carefully storing their treasured copies as they come off the bookstore shelf. For more rare books, it isn’t unusual to find just Good condition copies of titles in demand by such legends as Hemingway or Salinger that still command prices of over a thousand dollars

For best values, always pay close attention to new authors and their new books. If you are able to get an As New hardcover signed first printing for $50 or less, what have you got to lose? At worst, you have another interesting and collectible autographed book for your library! There is no doubt some of today’s newcomers will be the literary giants of our future!

How does someone best predict which autographed books will go up in value? One of the most certain signs that an autographed book will significantly go up in value is when that particular book and/or author wins a prominent award. This may be a national book award like the Shamus or a worldwide award like the Pulitzer Prize.

Other signs of particular interest, when buying books for long-term investment potential, would be those that have already held their own during decades of collecting. Examples are books by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Those books will experience less volatility in the marketplace since they have withstood the test of time. More recent books are much more likely to have large price swings.

We cannot know for certain if our investment in autographs or autographed books will provide us a fortune when we retire. However, we can certainly improve our chances by being smart collectors. Always remember to collect what YOU enjoy! That way you will always have a wonderful collection whether book values go up or down.

Just like all other autograph collectors, I still get a real thrill when I see and hold that long-desired signature of that famous person who I have always admired. Today’s newsmakers and yesterday’s heroes all continue to help us have a wonderful hobby and for some, a satisfying career. For me, I am fortunate enough to have both. My best wishes to you on your collecting adventures!

Tim Miller is an author and entrepreneur who regularly advises collectors of rare books and fine art. He is a life-long collector of autographs. Miller is the publisher of his own newsletter and magazine who has contributed to many other publications in the field of autographs. Miller is a fully credentialed member of the International Society of Appraisers, a Certified Member Trainer of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce and an Ambassador of the Junior Chamber International, an affiliate member of the United Nations.

The term FLATSIGNED was originally coined by the world’s most popular author, Stephen King. This word has now become a worldwide, recognized symbol of the best quality of rare and collectible books. Visit the website at http://www.FLATSIGNED.com or phone Tim Miller toll free at 888 568 3048 to discuss your needs for rare, autographed books, art or other rare, autographed collectibles. A full-time staff of professionals is available to assist you.

Tim Miller
unitedpublishing@surfnetcorp.com

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website