Sunday 11 February 2018

What's so special?

A woman, scorned

The first edition is the ultimata ratio of any book collector, the Holy Grail of the bibliophile. But there is also gold in the unusual and lesser known.

This blog post was prompted by an email from a Dutch Deighton fan and collector, Henk Konings, who sent me the image of his Companion Club Edition An Expensive Place to Die, above. It got me thinking - are they, and other unusual imprints or later editions, as important as the first editions to a collector? Or are they just sprinkles on an otherwise delicious cake?

As a long-standing collector of Len Deighton's works (alongside the works of Spike Milligan), I've always had uppermost in my mind the need, the challenge of completism, to be able to track down and secure (for as little money as possible) a copy of every book in its UK first edition format (and often, too, the US and German first editions).

Over years of collecting it's generally been relatively easy to do as, maybe until the last five to ten years, Len Deighton's first editions - with a couple of exceptions - have been both competitively priced - as against, say, John Le Carré or Ian Fleming first editions - and relatively available on the market and in second-hand bookshops.

Sure, one or two editions - and I'm thinking of when I finally picked up my pristine Billion Dollar Brain first - have required some tracking down and financial outlay. But it's been an achievable challenge such that relatively early in my collecting career, I had got most of the first editions lined up on my shelves.

As a fan first - but also a collector - my thought was then: what next? That's when I started on the next phase of my collecting, when I started to actively track down special editions, book club reproductions and other oddities which the purist, perhaps, might overlook.

Why? Well, based on my collection - and, judging from Henk's email, others' too - these special editions can be just as fulfilling to track down and interesting to consider as the first editions in terms of book design, style and illustration than the first editions, if not more so in some cases. First editions are ultimately about rarity and first impressions. When you don't have rarity, an alternative edition has to offer something else.

Book of the month

From my own collecting, online hunting and correspondence with other collectors, there are plenty of readers who like to focus on book club editions, such as the ubiquitous Book of the Month Club or the slightly more urbane Franklin Book Club special editions, as a collecting goal in themselves.

I can see the attraction. Sure, they are not as well-regarded in the canon as the first editions, but I think they provide something different, a new interpretation of a familiar title. On cover designs, particularly, many of my book club or special imprints have illustrations and covers which (almost) match Ray Hawkey's Deighton first editions in panache and design quality.

Take the An Expensive Place to Die CBC edition, above. Published in 1967, the same year as the first edition by Jonathan Cape, it was priced at 6 shillings and 6 pence, much less than the 21 shillings of the original. So, simply in terms of widening the readership of a novel, the book club editions played an important role. The back cover of this edition lists the sort of writers which members could access at a much-reduced rate: Hammond Innes, Victor Canning, Graham Greene, Nevil Shute.

But it's in design that the book club editions I think become an interesting collecting goal. The covers are often great and, while clearly produced at a much lower budget, still have a lot of desirability. This CBC edition design by Stewart Irwin does capture a sense of 'sixties urgency and vibrancy in its brown and black design, and hints in one image very well at the core elements of the story.

Reader's Digest is perhaps the most famous producer of re-printed and condensed editions of great novels and in the collecting community there is a sub-set of collectors who specialise in these editions in and of themselves. I think for the serious collector - and especially, completists like me - these shouldn't be sniffed at, as each edition of a book adds to the story of the author's works in print.


The illustration of the story

Take this simple, condensed edition of Bomber, above. Produced in 1971, it came as part of an exclusive colleciton of four books - including Great Lion of God by Taylor Caldwell - in a nice leather-bound edition which would look good on any bookshelf, with stories which were made accessible, perhaps encouraging the reader to hunt down a copy of the original and read the full story. 

Clearly, it's not the first edition, but it's an interesting curio, and simple touches like the wonderful endpapers to the book - with art nouveau stylings - make it an affordable and valued addition to a collection. There's a certain snobbishness, perhaps, to book club editions which may stem from their original status as (essentially) cheaper versions for wider readerships. But I see nothing 'illegitimate' in them as part of a broad collection for any collector. And ultimately, the value of a book is in the response from the reader and collector, not its monetary value. 

Copy 91 out of 250

One of my favourite club or special editions in my collection is the US first edition of Only When I Larf, produced by the Mysterious Press (above).

The US options on the novel was not picked up when the novel came out in 1968 or even when the film came out at the same time, and did not appear in the US until Mysterious Press produced a limited edition boxed set version of the novel, and a subsequent standard US first edition, in 1986, eighteen years after it was written and published in the UK. It's a testament to issues of contracts, rights, film rights and lack of publisher foresight that this gap occured. But when the edition was produced, the publishers did a great job. 

This first edition of just 250 copies, signed by Len and numbered individually, included a new introduction from the author explaining the background to the synchronous development of film and book. It also comes in a neat slip-case - I'm a sucker for a great slip-case - and this edition is, arguably, a bigger challenge for a collector to track down than the UK first edition.

Enjoy a refreshing Mint

The Franklin Mint is another sub-genre of editions for which there are loyal collectors around the globe, who prize the higher quality bindings, exlusive introductions and signed copies which the Mint produces as much as original versions of the books. The Mint was set up in 1964 precisely to market 'collectibles', including special book editions produced by The Franklin Library, along with public domain classic books. The Folio Society did much the same thing for 'classic' literature, making it collectible and accessible to a wider audience.

Franklin Library - Charity - 1996

Specially commissioned frontispiece by Ed Solari Jr

As an example of the bookbinder's art, this edition of Charity is as good as the UK or US first edition - better even - and it provides some additional added value for the reader and collector through the interesting (but not particularly good) frontispiece illustrating a drunk Tabby Prettyman, wife of Jim Prettyman, one of the key characters; a special introduction by the author (who also signed it); and a laid-in note by the publisher. 

I have a number of Franklin Library editions in my collection, and I think they have value alongside the first editions, perhaps because they provide a counterpoint to them, an alternative realisation of what the book represents. For a collector on a budget, too, such interesting alternative editions do provide an achievable goal at a time when good first edition prices are rising and will continue to go higher as supply dwindles.

Print, and reprint again

As well as the book club editions and Franklin Library special editions, I have also had fun tracking down 'odd' editions and reprints which I've never been aware of before, which add a certain piquancy to a collection by dint of one factor or another. 

Take this curio: another copy of Billion Dollar Brain

Harback edition from 1979

This is a hard-back edition produced by Jonathan Cape, publisher of the original novel's first UK edition from 1966. It is a fourth re-print of the novel with a rather interesting monotone cover which - while not a patch on the Hawkey original - still has a certain charm to it and, as all covers should do, hints well at what lies inside in terms of the story. The book has a number of mysteries to it.

I've not been able to establish who the artist is. It's not clear what commercial reason there was for producing this edition of the novel in 1979 (there was no film tie-in or obvious anniversary for example). And finally, there's the design decision to have the author's name reproduced in dot-matrix, which was a departure to how his name appears in all other editions of this and his other books I've seen. I wonder how much - if any - say Len Deighton had over the quality control of this edition?

So, while each of these books (and others in my collection) are resolutely not first editions, they all have a story to tell and a value to bring to any collection. I wouldn't be without them. 

If you're a reader of Len Deighton's work - or, indeed, that of any other serious author - and you're keen on building your collection up, then look beyond the first editions and cast your net a little wider.

There's plenty of interesting items out there to catch in your collector's net.


  1. Great post! How odd to see that version of An Expensive Place to Die. That was my very first eBay purchase back in 1997. If I recall correctly, I paid about $6. There was no PayPal back then, so I had to mail a money order to the seller, who was in Ontario.

    Thanks for sharing the rest of these...I would love to find that version of Bomber someday!

  2. When you are holding the first edition of a novel when it was published, it is hard to see whether it is any worth holding for long at all. Most first editions appear as the products of writers who have ventured into the realm of story telling, even in thriller genre.
    As a university student, I bought Ian Fleming’s book Dr No, and as a junior professional post-university years, I bought Len Deighton’s book The Ipcress File and Le Carre’s the Spy Who came in from the Cold, as soon as they were published. In each of those years, I was not sure about the longevity of those authors in that in what ways these authors would achieve their fame even in the near future. The films of those novels, changed my perception about the above, after I had watched the films on the first day of their release. After good reviews of the above films came out. Pressure from my friends and relatives to read the above books meant that, the books started travelling and often sub-lent, and hence were lost when I had to move changing my job. Robert Ludlum’s first edition of his first thriller The Scarlatti Inheritance was with me for a number of years and finally, I gave it as a present to one of my friend’s daughter when she graduated high school- I was then living in the US, and as a literature major, she very much liked this present above all else she received from others. Although, this novel was a best seller in the US, just like other Ludlum’s thrillers, the large number of pages of his typical thriller, deterred many of many friends from reading them, as Americans who work in leading companies generally did not take long holidays, a trait which exists even today.