Rare Books: Collecting in the Digital Age


I find old and rare books fascinating. There’s something about the duality of them — the story of the object that goes with the story between the covers — that piques my interest. I cannot claim to know much about collecting rare books as a serious hobby, however. The practical side of my personality insists I’m better off spending my money on many new books rather than just a few precious old ones, so I try not to delve too deeply into the subject for fear of temptation getting the better of me. But this weekend I ducked into the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, which takes place each year in Pasadena, a stone’s throw from where I live, because an entire exhibit hall filled with books is just too much for me to resist. It was like someone delivered a book museum to my doorstep.

Wandering the aisles, I came across too many treasures to describe them all, but a few stuck out in particular: A first edition of Charlotte’s Web going for $25,000, inscribed by author E.B. White to actress Elizabeth Taylor; a beautiful four-volume, leather bound edition of Middlemarch; several lovely early editions of works by Jane Austen; a complete set of first edition Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Most of the truly valuable books were in glass cases, but plenty of fairly impressive volumes were out in the open where anyone could thumb through them. Booksellers had come from all over the country, as well as England, France, Germany, etc. In addition to the books, there were comics, beautiful maps, framed illustrations and cover art, letters, autographs, and the odd novelty item on display. This year’s theme was Alice in Wonderland, so many of the displays included editions of Alice’s Adventures and Through the Looking Glass, and the lobby boasted a wonderful Alice collection, including several of the printing plates for the original Tenniel illustrations.

With so much emphasis on the shift in publishing from paper to digital, it’s impossible not to wonder what these sorts of events might be like in the future. New book sales seem to be settling, with paper editions still holding onto a fair share of the market, but there’s no denying that print runs have shrunk in recent years. Smaller print runs, in part, lead to more valuable books in the future, as fewer copies survive to be collected. Could be that rare book collectors will one day applaud this upheaval in the publishing industry for its boost to the quality of their ongoing treasure hunts.

Readers seem to be divided between those who love the content of the book, and those who love both the content and the book as an object of art. Which side of the fence do you land on? Do you own any rare or special books? I’m curious to hear everyone’s take.

Friday Links

Welcome to Friday, which this week happens to kick off the long Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S., the unofficial start of summer. That means vacations, BBQs, sand and surf, lazy days, stacks of books to read, and — in the publishing world — summer hours (half-day Fridays). The reality, of course, is that work does not cease simply because we have a bit more daylight (Weekend? What weekend?), but it’s nice to dream.

And on that note, I offer up this week’s selection of Friday links, some of which are a bit dreamy, and all of which I hope you’ll find intriguing/entertaining/educational, etc. Enjoy, and have a fabulous weekend!

The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World – Social media, email, DVR queue, etc. There’s always something vying for your attention. How do you get anything done anymore? Interesting article.

Writing Excuses: The Short Story with Mary Robinette Kowal – A great podcast on short story writing, with excellent tips for anyone looking to give them a go or simply improve on their current efforts.

Kindle Worlds: Amazon Rewrites the Rules of Fan Fiction – A look at Amazon’s announcement regarding their new plans to monetize the world of fan fiction.

Amazon’s Kindle Worlds: Instant Thoughts – Author John Scalzi’s first take on why Amazon’s new program may not be the greatest thing for writers.

Neil Gaiman’s A Calendar of Tales – Gaiman’s collaborative short story project with Blackberry is complete. Check out the results, including some very cool art created by Gaiman’s readers.

Traditional Publication vs. Going It Alone

Last week’s RWA conference was a wonderful event, featuring workshops, panels, parties, pitches, meetings and more. There were writers at every stage of their career, from newbies working on their first novel to multi-published pros who have been in the business for decades. There were editors from the major New York publishing houses, as well as from small presses and electronic publishers. And most everyone was weighed down by this year’s red-and-white conference tote bag, loaded with books they had acquired at the literacy signing, in the goody room, from publisher giveaways, or at the conference bookstore. That’s right. Books. Actual paper books.

Yet the most common questions I received during the conference focused on digital publishing, and most specifically the rise in self-publication in that format. I had authors ask if I thought traditional publishing was on the way out, whether I feared for my career, and why anyone should bother following the standard route to publication. And I kept turning around in circles, looking at all the books piling up around me, most from major New York publishing houses, and wondered if I was the only one who saw the disconnect.

Digital publishing is here to stay. So is self-publishing. They are both viable aspects of the marketplace. However, the existence of e-books does not negate the importance or appeal of the more physical format. Plenty of people still want hard copies of their books. They love filling their bookcases with beautifully bound volumes, enjoy having matched sets of their favorite series, and want something they can read on an airplane while taking off or landing. After a day at the beach, it’s far easier to dust sand out of your paperback than out of your e-reader, and few people are brave enough to carry their Kindle into a bubble bath. E-books are portable, environmentally friendly, space savers, and a great way to try out new authors at lower price points. And for some readers, they are sufficient. But for others, they are merely an additional way to enjoy their preferred reading material, not a replacement.

Self-publication, likewise, is a positive addition to the publishing marketplace, but it is by no means poised to eliminate publishers as we know them. Not all writers wish to self-publish. Not all writers want to invest the time and energy self-publishing requires above and beyond the act of writing the book.

Imagine, if you will, that there are no more physical bookstores. That all the traditional publishers have vanished. You, as a writer, have self-published your book, in digital format, because that is now the only format. How do readers find you? How do they sort through the thousands of other writers who are also producing new digital books every day? It’s fine if you manage to hit the list of top-selling books on any given e-retailer’s site, or if you find a way to get a promotional slot on the front page, but what if you don’t? How does an unknown writer make themselves known in an entirely digital, self-published arena?

There are ways to break out of obscurity, of course. Writers have done it. They develop blogs of their own, with witty posts and high traffic, and visit the blogs of other writers and book reviewers. They host contests and drawings. They haunt social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter and put considerable thought into their marketing campaigns long before they release their books. But as the field grows more crowded, it will become harder and harder to get noticed.

Many of the most successful self-published authors are authors who started in traditional publishing, and who already have a ready-made audience. They are self-publishing backlist that has gone out of print, or writing new material to self-publish in addition to their traditionally published works. They frequently do so with the assistance of their agents or another entity in order to have a partner in the process, someone to arrange for formatting and cover art and to help with promotion. And a number of debut authors who gained a measure of fame and success in the self-publishing arena have signed on with agents and major publishing houses in order to take the burden of marketing partially off their shoulders. They would rather devote the bulk of their time to writing their books.

Publishing as an industry is going to continue to change and shift and morph, but at the end of the day, I believe we will settle on a system that offers writers a combination of formats and venues for getting their work in front of readers. Some authors will choose to work entirely with major publishers and some will self-publish, but the majority, I suspect, will fall somewhere in the middle, making the most of all their opportunities. And as always, success in publishing will come down to a combination of hard work, talent, timing, and luck.

Linkity Link

Happy Friday! I’m out of town for the weekend, but I have not forgotten you. Here are some lovely and informative links to keep you entertained. Wishing you all a most enjoyable weekend, filled with books and writing accomplishments and all manner of good things.

First off, in honor of Veteran’s Day, Knight Agency author Bryan Andersen on MSNBC, discussing his inspirational memoir, NO TURNING BACK, about life as an Iraq vet, Purple Heart recipient, and triple amputee.

Knight Agency Clients Receive 24 Romantic Times Award Nominations — because we’re so very proud of our authors.

Small Talk — a lovely interview with author Anthony Horowitz.

The Truth About Amazon Publishing — a very informative look at the company’s new programs.

Literary Websites — a handy list.

Digested Read: Bleak House by Charles Dickens — an overview of a very long classic, in honor of the approaching 200th anniversary of the author’s birth.

What Makes a Writer?

If you want to break it down into particulars, there are many things that go into becoming a writer, but at the most basic level, you only need to do two things: Read and write. So on this cool and sunny Sunday morning (at least where I am), I offer you two stories that address the question of reading, and how important it is to a writer’s development. Three guesses which of these I find more disturbing.

Writers Who Don’t Read – A growing trend, apparently. I don’t pretend to understand.

Across the Digital Divide – Seanan McGuire on why it is so important that books continue to be made available in print form. Eloquent and so very true.

Links for Hump Day

I was very chatty in yesterday’s post, and I hope I gave you plenty to ponder. So today I’m just doing one of my hit-and-run visits, complete with links to some entertaining and/or informative reading material. Enjoy!

Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors – Some of the pictures alone make this worth a quick visit. Just remember, whatever you have to do to get those words on the page, there’s someone out there who does something a little more… eccentric.

Apple Accused in Suit of E-Book Price Fixing with Publishers – I wish this were more surprising, but the price wars with Amazon were pretty obvious at the time. It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out. More on this at PW.

Mark Twain House Employee Embezzled $1 Million – This breaks my heart. I grew up in Connecticut and loved visiting this house as a kid. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend the tour.

O Pioneers! – A great story on our love for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, and other examples of that same brave, adventurous spirit demonstrated by women who helped settle the west.


For the Record

There’s a lot of talk going around about what agents are and are not doing in light of the sudden popularity of self-publishing in digital format. Mostly, I see people blogging about things they have misunderstood, or getting their definitions mixed up. For instance, independent publishing and self-publishing are not the same. Likewise, helping your client arrange to have their book digitally published through an established entity (Amazon for Kindle, Nook, Kobo) does not make you a publisher. So, to set the record straight:

The Knight Agency is made up of agents. We are not publishers, we have no desire to become publishers. We love being agents, we love working with our clients to help them build their careers. We act as middle men between our clients and their publishers so that they can continue to do the work of writing.

In that vein, we are implementing a program that will help our clients who are interested in digital self-publication. Our program includes our taking on the prep work that an author would do to self-publish on their own: finding cover art, converting the format, securing the copyright for their work, obtaining ISBNs, etc. We are not actually publishing anything, but working with the various self-publishing programs at major e-retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, etc. We are not taking a publisher’s commission or cut, but just our standard agency rate of 15%.

This is a service we offer our clients, and only our clients, who are interested in pursuing digital publication for backlist titles that have gone out of print or were never available in digital format, and select new projects that have been unable to find a publisher through traditional methods. We hope that our efforts will allow the authors to focus on their writing instead of getting bogged down in the details of prepping a book for a self-publishing entity. Also, we believe as agents we can offer more in the way of marketing assistance and so on than an author could achieve on their own. But at the end of the day, it’s just another option for our clients.

For more, here’s Lucienne Diver’s take on our program, as well.