The Definitive Guide to Collecting Jane Austen first editions

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s passing, providing a reason to honor one of English literature’s most popular and lasting writers. Though there will be more public knowledge of her life and works, it is unlikely that this will have a significant impact on the first and collectible copies of her books’ market value given how robust this niche currently is.

What makes her work so unique and why is it in such high demand?

Women and men, elderly and young, English-speaking, and non-English speakers, and people from all socioeconomic classes appear to find the universe and the characters that Jane Austen created to have enduring appeal. I believe it would be difficult to identify a “typical” Jane Austen fan or reader. She is still considered as one of the most significant English writers of the 19th century, and scholars and schoolchildren from all over the globe study her writings.

This widespread awe has generated a strong market for her works, catering to everyone from the casual reader looking to purchase a paperback to the obsessive collector who longs to own all of her novels in the original bindings in which they were published.

What can be said regarding the publication of her books?

During her lifetime, Jane Austen authored four books under pseudonyms. In 1818, the year following her passing, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were jointly published posthumously in a four-volume set with a brief biography of the author by her brother Henry.

The first draft of Pride and Prejudice was rejected by publisher Thomas Cadell, and an early draft of Northanger Abbey (under the title Susan) remained unpublished despite having been bought by another publisher, Richard Crosby, and Son. By the early 1800s, Austen had written three novels, the first of which, Sense and Sensibility, was published. Sense and Sensibility, which is said to have been produced in 1,000 copies, took around two years (until July 1813) to sell out. The print run for Emma, Jane Austen’s fourth book, was 2,000 copies.

Why are certain books more valuable than others?

Pride and Prejudice is the book in her body of work that is most sought-after. Since its publication, the book has sold probably in the neighborhood of 20 million copies worldwide. It has also inspired countless theatrical and cinematic adaptations, as well as imitations.

At auction in 2010, a three-volume first edition of 1813 in the original drab boards that had all half-titles and the advertising (dated November 1812) bound in at volume one fetched a record-breaking £115,000. For a leather-bound copy of the same book from the early 19th century, the more “normal” price is between £25,000 and £35,000. The second most sought-after book is likely Sense and Sensibility, her first published work, with most editions in modern binders selling for between £20,000 and £30,000.

What distinguishes an Austen valued at a few hundred pounds from one valued at tens of thousands or more?

The edition, condition, and association are the main factors that affect the prices of Jane Austen (and other) books. Since it is the first edition of the book, first editions are often more sought-after by collectors than subsequent reprints.

Due to the fact that the print run was often smaller, maybe before an author achieved (more) popularity or fame, the earliest or early works of an author’s output also tend to be more collectible than later works. Books’ condition and completeness are of utmost significance. The half-title, a single leaf with just the book’s title that appears before the title page, which contains information about the author, volume number, publisher, and year, is often absent from one or more volumes in many copies of first editions of Jane Austen’s works.

When the book was rebound, it’s possible that this page was thrown out since these half-titles were often the page on which an ownership or other inscription was inscribed. A lost page like this may seem little, but to a dedicated collector or purist, it might make a big impact.

What role do bindings have in the market and among collectors in general?

Books in their original bindings often bring in more money than books bound today, while books bound today typically bring in more money than books bound in their original bindings. A book in mint condition will always sell better than a worn-out or filthy one (internally or externally).

Shapero noted that a copy of a book that has been autographed by the author, donated by the author to someone (who may also be of varied degrees of importance), or that is owned by a famous person or is connected to the author in some manner might all have a significant influence on the value. For instance, a first copy of Emma belonging to Jane Austen’s friend Anne Sharp and with the publisher’s handwritten notation “From the author” sold for an astounding £150,000 in 2008 at auction. Without this connection, the price of this copy would have likely been reduced by a factor of 10.

What drives the market and how has it evolved recently?

The demand for Jane Austen novels is still booming. Who can dispute that the image of a wet shirted Colin Firth appearing from the lake as Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has not left an equally lasting impression on countless newcomers to Jane Austen? Scholars may argue that it is her literary skills, humor, and social perceptiveness which have created such a lasting appeal.

The Pride and Prejudice and Zombies adaptation from the previous year went one step further in its attempt to draw in a new, presumably younger demographic of admirers. The majority of film and television adaptations have had tremendous box office success, but none would undoubtedly succeed unless the original book itself had been so excellent and ageless.

Which one of her books would you most want to possess, and why?

Any first edition written by Jane Austen would be my ideal reward. I’ve read and reread all of her books, often discovering something new with each reading. Would it be too stingy of me to want for a complete set of all of her first editions since I already own a wonderful collection of her books that were released at the start of the 20th century and illustrated by Brock?

What Jane Austen item is the collector’s Holy Grail?

The author’s own copy of Pride and Prejudice, which she is said to have gotten five of upon release and given to her brothers Charles, Edward, James, and Frank after writing in a letter, “I have got my own dear child from London,” is the Holy Grail for Jane Austen collectors. The University of Texas has a copy that belonged to her sister Cassandra.

Jessica Millie

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