Over the past few weeks I’ve discussed some interesting patterns I’ve seen among paperback SF and fantasy collectors. These are hardly profound observations — they’re obvious to anyone who’s been collecting science fiction paperbacks for the past twenty years. But it has been interesting to see some well-known trends quantified.
The catalyst for all this was a sequence of similar online auctions by a single seller, for roughly comparable lots of paperback books by some of the most popular genre writers of the 20th Century. All were in virtually perfect shape — the kind of auctions that bring out die-hard collectors. The results were fairly predictable.
|32 books by Arthur C. Clarke||$27.00|
|35 books by Isaac Asimov||$82.17|
|56 books by Philip K. Dick||$536.99|
Click on the links to see the actual books in question. What we’re seeing here is a pretty fair representation of the popularly and demand for each of these writers some two to three decades after their deaths. So while there’s a wide disparity in prices, that’s to be expected. But I think the really interesting result came from the Heinlein auction.
Most casual observers, of course, are startled by that Phil Dick auction (especially since, unlike the other two, the books weren’t virtually brand new). But that $537 price tag is not really a surprise for anyone who’s been collecting SF for any length of time.
Most high-value collectors are concerned with first editions, and especially first editions of rare books. Asimov and Clarke had plenty of hardcover first editions, and the paperback reprints of those books (especially in later decades) became bestsellers. So while early first editions of Foundation and Childhood’s End still command high prices today, the 12th printing of the fifth paperback edition in 1985 doesn’t, regardless of what shape it’s in. Those bidding on the Asimov and Clarke collections above are folks, like me, who would love to have pristine copies of some of their favorite books by best-loved authors, and especially cherish the editions they first read them in.
Philip K. Dick is a totally different ball game. Virtually none of his books first appeared in hardcover, and he never had a bestseller in his life. The first editions of his 40+ novels were unassuming paperbacks with low print runs from publishers like Ace and Bantam, and not many survive today. Asimov and Clarke’s fame peaked while they were alive, but Dick has experienced a growing renaissance since his death, and he’s most popular now than ever.
Factor all of that together, and you end up paying, on average, nearly 10 times more for a typical Philip K. Dick paperback than an Asimov paperback — and 20 times more than a Clarke paperback. And that’s exactly what you see reflected in the table of prices above.
None of this is surprising to those with a rudimentary grasp of the concepts of supply & demand. In fact, with just these three examples, you can probably fashion a decent enough yardstick to spitball the selling prices of others collections of similar vintage.
What the hell… let’s try it out. The picture immediately above is another recent auction, by the same seller, for a pristine set of 51 Robert A. Heinlein books (click on the image to see just how flawless these books are).
This should be a cinch. None of these are first editions. There are no rare books here — and in fact, these are all late editions, so there’s really no truly vintage books here at all — so we’re clearly looking at an Asimov-Clarke situation, rather than another Phil Dick. Though Heinlein has held up pretty well, and there are more books here than in the Asimov or Clarke collections, so I would tend towards the high end of our scale (say, 50% above the selling price of the Asimov collection, or slightly over $2/book).
So going into the auction. my estimate of final selling price was in this ball park:
|51 books by Robert A. Heinlein||$80 – $125 est|
In fact, when the auction closed on October 5th, the final bid was more than twice my estimate.
|51 books by Robert A. Heinlein||$255.00|
Where did we go wrong?
We went wrong in the usual way — by underestimating Robert A. Heinlein.
Truthfully, I’ve never been much of a Heinlein fan. I’ve never enjoyed him the way I do Asimov or Clarke, for example. I thought Stranger in a Strange Land was highly overrated, and despite multiple attempts I could never finish The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
On the other hand, I thought Orphans in the Sky was brilliant, as was much of his short fiction. If I were paddling towards a long stay on a desert island and could only grab one Heinlein book from ship’s stores before they went down, I would grab his monumental future history collection The Past Through Tomorrow without hesitation.
The point is that I don’t have the emotional connection to Heinlein that his true fans do — and he has a lot of true fans, even today. While many collectors talk about “The Big Three” of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, the first SF writers to consistently break into bestselling lists, many serious fans – such as Charles N. Brown, founding editor of Locus — argued that the other two were never as popular or as important as Heinlein.
Whatever your opinion on their relative merits, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Heinlein has endured longer than Asimov and Clarke… and virtually any other Twentieth Century genre writer except H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Philip K. Dick. Much of his work is still in print in mass market paperback today.
Even more impressively, Heinlein has stayed popular and in print with virtually no help from the film industry. With the notable exception of 1997’s Starship Troopers (and the much lesser-known films The Puppet Masters, from 1994, and Predestination, 2014), Heinlein has endured chiefly on his own steam.
It’s too early to tell if Heinlein will experience a 21st Century Renaissance on the scale of Dick and Tolkien, or if he’s simply held on longer than Asimov and Clarke, and will eventually slide into obscurity. There are already signs that some of his midlist paperbacks, kept in print for the last 30 years chiefly by Del Rey and Baen, are beginning to go out of print. Likely his fate, like that of Dick and Tolkien, will be decided by Hollywood. If filmmakers begin to mine Heinlein the way they have those two (and there’s a great deal to mine), Heinlein could be discovered by many generations to come.
Our other titles in the Collecting series here at Black Gate include:
Collecting Karl Edward Wagner
Collecting Robert A. Heinlein
Collecting Philip K. Dick
Collecting Arthur C. Clarke
Collecting Isaac Asimov
Collecting Lovecraft, Part I
Collecting Lovecraft, Part II
Collecting Lovecraft, Part III: The Arkham Hardcovers
The Collections of Tanith Lee
The Novels of Tanith Lee: The Wars of Vis
James Bond in Outer Space: The Croyd Spacetime Maneuvres Novels of Ian Wallace
Clones, Deep Space Ships, and Surviving the Apocalypse on a Submarine: The Pocket Richard Cowper
Below are a few more close-ups of assorted Heinlein paperback collections. Enjoy. As always, click for bigger versions.
See all of our Vintage Treasure posts here.