Why Are Famous First Editions Less Valuable?

If you’re new to the world of antique book collecting, being a book hound, or flipping antiques, you might be surprised to learn that quite often the most valuable first editions/first printings of an author are often times relatively unknown titles. Meanwhile, the famous books the authors are known for are valuable, but sometimes a fraction of the value as those other works.

So why are famous first edition books often less valuable?

With modern antique books famous first editions are often less valuable because they aren’t the author’s first book. Since early less successful books have much fewer printings, they’re much more valuable to collectors while famous books may have tens or even hundreds of first editions available, making them less valuable.

That doesn’t mean you should pass up on a first edition of The Old Man and the Sea, but it does explain why Hemingway works you’ve likely never heard of are worth many times as much as a first printing. Let’s dive further into this!

Extra bonus points if you know who really wrote this gem.

Extreme Rarity Equates to Higher Antique Book Values

Many authors like Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and others who were famous often had their first books that had print runs of 500, 1,000, 5,000 or less. In other words, there were very few of these books to begin with and it was at a time when those authors were not household names.

When there’s 10,000 copies of one early work and only 1,000 of another, the 1,000 copy first edition is going to be more valuable because there will be far fewer for collectors to pick up and that limitation sky rockets demand.

This can even be clearly seen when looking at the most valuable antique first printings from famous authors, as these examples show below.

Example One: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is a giant in the literary world, but you might be surprised to hear the names of his most valuable first editions. Hemingway is also an outlier in the fact that his first breakthrough novel (The Sun Also Rises) is very valuable in large part because a corrected misspelling caught in the original print one kept the first printing down to 5,090 copies before the corrected version had tens of thousands of copies run off.

But even then, it’s not the most valuable of the Hemingway works.

The five most valuable collectible first editions for Ernest Hemingway are (prices F/NF estimates):

  • Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923) $65,000
  • In Our Time (1924 version) $50,000
  • In Our Time (1925 version) $50,000
  • The Sun Also Rises (1926) $50,000
  • The Torrents of Spring (1926) $20,000

If you only recognize one or maybe two of those titles, that would make you a normal non-English major.

Example Two: Ayn Rand

Although Ayn Rand has a relatively small canon of works, she’s a prime example of how the lesser known works are more monetarily valuable because there were so many more copies in the first printings of Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged than We The Living or Anthem, when Rand was a relative unknown. The early works she published are often 2x to 4x more valuable than the first printings of her most famous works.

Related Article: How Much Is an Ayn Rand First Edition Worth?

The most valuable Ayn Rand works are (prices F/NF estimates):

  • We The Living (1936) $8,000
  • Anthem (1938 – UK) $7,500
  • Fountainhead (1943) $4,000
  • Atlas Shrugged (1957) $2,500

As you can see, Rand’s two most famous works, the ones that she is almost solely remembered for, are also the least valuable of the antique first printings.

Example Three: Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis is another classic example of how the unknown early books that have short runs take on a much higher value in the eyes of collectors than the works that made him famous works (Main Street, Arrowsmith, Babbitt). Lewis is mostly forgotten now, or known for It Can’t Happen Here, a much later work in his career.

Related Article: Early Sinclair Lewis Antique Book Collecting Guide

So what is Lewis’s most valuable antique book? Fun fact: it’s one that doesn’t even have his name on it. And you don’t even need the dust jacket for it to be the most valuable one.

  • Hike and the Aeroplane (written as Tom Graham) $10,500 (no known dust jackets have survived, if one did even in bad condition that could sky rocket this number)

This is well over double the value of his better known books. Lewis’s other earliest works either didn’t have book covers or had papery ones that didn’t survive so the prices for those are $350-$1,000 and that’s without dust jacket, which is impressive when you consider that most antique books with collectible dust jackets only hold 5-10% of value without it.

Learn the Early Titles

While there are less copies of early titles, that means that many casual collectors aren’t likely to recognize these titles – especially if they are under a penname. Studying early works and studying works under pennames can give you the ability to spot gems in used books stores, auctions, or estate sales that others would miss – and let you know to spend your budget on the true gems while other less experienced buyers bid up the more well-known titles.

Keep this in mind, supply and demand, and you’re knowledge of why lesser known antique books are more valuable will help you potentially score some serious antique books over a book hound career!

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