Keep Books Special

Every year during the holiday season, I tend to have people ask to get hardcover books autographed as gifts. Of course this happens at other times of the year, but it is particularly true at Christmas.

As a new author, I didn’t think much about how to get books that people will treasure. So here are some tips on how to do it.

When you publish a hardcover book, your publisher will often provide some copies that you can use as giveaways. Typically, on your publishing contract it will list a number of books—say 10—that the publisher will send for this purpose. You need to up that number, if the publisher will let you, to something closer to 50. You should hold these books in reserve for special times. You will want good quality books to send to newspaper editors to get reviews, to movie producers who are interested in making films, to videogame companies, and so on. Don’t just hand them all out however.

You normally will want to buy a good number of your own books to have handy for sales. For example, neighbors and friends will often want to stop by to purchase signed copies. The publisher will usually offer them to you at a discount of about 40 percent, so you might want a box or two.

Eventually, almost every book goes out of publication, and it is common for the publisher to offer to sell you books at wholesale prices at this time. So you may find that after your book has been out for a year, the publisher might offer to sell you books for say 10 percent of the cover price. You want to get first editions of course, if they are available. Those are the ones that collectors will be wanting in the years to come. You have to ask yourself how many copies you want at this time. If you’ve got a bestseller, and you are able to buy all of the books, do it! You’ll be able to sell the books online at full price for years. But of course, if you can only afford a thousand or two, at least get that many.

When your stock of first editions runs out, you will still have people who want collector’s copies. These may be hard to find. In part the problem is that many book dealers online really aren’t professionals, and so they don’t know how to judge a book. So here are some things you need to be careful of.

First, you want a high-quality book. If you’re shopping online, make sure that the book is in very fine or new condition. This means that the cover is in good shape, the bottom of the book doesn’t have any wear, the binding is tight so that the book isn’t falling apart, and the corners of the book haven’t been smashed in.

Watch out for “remaindered” books. If you don’t buy all of your books as they go out of date, the publisher will sell them off to a discount dealer. When they do, the publisher will take a marker and put a dot or dash along the top or bottom of the book. So when you get a book, make sure that there are no remainder marks on the book. I was surprised last week when I was shopping online that one retailer didn’t even know what a remainder mark is.

You also need to beware of “book club editions.” When the science fiction book club buys the right to print your books, they purchase the printing files from the publisher. They then go in and print a hardcover edition that is about an inch smaller on each side than the original book. It can look great, but the problem is that the book club edition will have the same ISBN number as the original first edition. So these aren’t real “first edition” books, and therefore aren’t worth much to collectors. I don’t know if this practice is common with other book clubs, but it’s a constant headache in the fantasy and science fiction fields. So before you order your books online, you need to notify the seller that you aren’t interested in book club editions. Of course, if you’ve never had a book club pick up one of your books, this isn’t a problem.

When you do order your books, leave instructions on how to ship the book. Some discount retailers will throw your collectible book into a flimsy plastic mailer (the cheapest way to send a book), and by the time that the book reaches you, the book is worthless because the corners of the book are bent. I’ve had several times when I’ve gotten books and had to send my “like new” book back to the retailer because it looked as if it had been trampled by buffalo by the time it reached me. Remember that each time you get a book like this, you can return it to the retailer and get your money back, but you will still have to pay for shipping—and that will normally run you $6 for postage and shipping materials. So you’re trying to avoid the waste of time and money that comes with purchasing books that have been abused.

Once you get your book shipped to you (allowing two weeks or more for shipping), the first thing that you need to do is inspect the book. I immediately open my books and look at them. Are they true first editions? Do they have remainder marks? Did the original owner write in the book? Are the pages dog-eared? Are the papers free of water damage or discoloration from the sun?

I’ve noticed that when I ask for the seller to ship the book in a box and make sure to let them know what I’m looking for, the seller often will take special care to get perfect books to me. For example, I had a customer ask for two copies of my book Star Wars: the Courtship of Princess Leia, and I have been worried about what kind of shape the books would be. In both cases, the seller shipped them to me in boxes, both books were in excellent shape, and the books were well-protected.

If the book looks good, congratulations: it’s sellable! If not, you have to ship it back and look again and go through the trouble of trying to get a refund.

Then, when you do ship a book to a reader, you have to ship it responsibly. So I like to take the book and put a Mylar cover on it—a thick plastic that will protect it.

I then like to autograph it for the reader, but you need to ask the purchaser what they would like. Many collectors like to have books just autographed with a signature, and nothing else. They feel that for collectors, this helps retain the most value. Putting something like, “For Rudy, the Best Beer-Drinker in Texas” might devalue the book for future collectors.

On the other hand, that might be the inscription that Rudy wants. So you need to be very careful when signing.

And of course you have to get the reader’s name right when signing. Make sure that you ask the reader how to spell their name. Is it Kathy, Cathy, Kathi, Cathee, or what? Oh, and make sure that you’re signing it for the right person. I once had a young boy (maybe ten) come up with a book for me to sign after I spoke at a school. I asked him his name, and then had him spell it. I autographed the book and gave it to him, and he broke into tears. It turned out that the book was supposed to be for his sister. It took me several weeks to find another boy named Bob that I could give that one to.

The last step of course may be to ship the book to the new purchaser—which may mean putting it in a nice protective wrap and shipping it in a box.

Now, if you’re selling collector’s copies of your books, you need to know in advance that you’re probably not going to get rich doing it. Getting a good copy of a 20-year-old book might cost you $20 or more. Add in your shipping costs and time, and you probably won’t make a dime on it.

But you will make fans, and you will make friends, and you can’t really put a price on those.

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Writer’s Peak in Dallas–In 3 Weeks!

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