“Is it better for a book to be signed or inscribed?” is not a question any book collector would have asked 40-years ago. The answer was obvious: the more words in the author’s hand the better. And yet rare book dealers have spilled quite a bit of digital ink answering this basic question (for just a few examples, go to https://www.biblio.com/book-collecting/basics/signed-vs-inscribed/; https://books.hyraxia.com/blog/collecting-first-editions-signed-inscribed; https://www.abaa.org/blog/post/signed-books-vs.-inscribed-books; https://www.qbbooks.com/autograph_books.php.)
Today, the pendulum has shifted, and – keeping everything else constant (edition, presence of dust wrapper, condition, etc.) – the general market sentiment has a bias in favor of signed books over inscribed ones. At the same time, there are powerful exceptions to this rule, including dedication copies (inscribed to the book’s dedicatee) and association copies (inscribed to someone with a close relationship with the author or to someone eminent in their field) which are preferred by many collectors. Even within signed books, there is a hierarchy: some collectors prefer copies signed on a tipped-in page as a guard against forgeries; others prefer copies signed on the title page. The picture, in short, is in no way clear.
Yes: “Collect what you love”; don't view books as an investment. Still, gauging where the market is going – whether preference for inscribed books will revert to traditional form at some point in the future, or whether instead the shift towards signed books is permanent – is not an unreasonable thought exercise.
While some dealers believe the market has been overly impacted by the behavior of a few influencers, I hold the view that markets are rational. And I believe the shift in collector’s preference away from inscribed items is a rational and fixed response to an environment that has likely been forever altered.
Specifically, the easily accessible author has irrevocably diminished the inscribed copy. Where previously authors were remote figures with limited interactions with the public at large, author tours and readings were commonplace for the forty-year period starting in about 1980, with the effect that author/fan interactions are more transactional and less personal. In short, an existing relationship with an author is no longer required to receive an inscribed copy.
So why should that matter? Why should a de-personalized interaction outweigh the long-standing principle behind the more words, the better? Why has there been a change in how books are valued?
I believe that no change has been made to market principles, that the value of a signed book is (and always has been) determined by the nexus of author, recipient and the specific copy of the book in question.
Not all Inscribed Copies are Alike
Take, for example, dedication and association copies. If inscriptions of any sort were taboo, that taint should apply equally to these special cases. But since these items are considered more valuable than “merely” signed items (which in turn are more valuable than generically inscribed copies), there has to be a rational basis for the market to prefer one over the other. I believe that basis is the relationship between author and recipient.
The image of the book scout pulling up to an author’s signing table with an armful of first editions (with jackets removed so as not to damage them) is indelible. Everyone knew there was only one objective in mind: turn access into cash (no judgment, here. In my younger days, that was me. It went a long way to paying college tuition). The relationship between author and inscribee was scant, brief and impersonal. Yes, there were more words, but there was no warmth, no connection, no meaning behind the words.
In short, the generic inscription signaled a diminishing relationship between author and recipient. Previously, that connection may not always have been clear, but it was believed to have existed, with the book’s inscription providing a template for the depth of the relationship. This is why there is a premium on “warmly inscribed” books — even from contemporary authors.
The relationship lens supports premium valuations on dedication copies and association copies where the association is to a family member or close friend. It doesn’t quite explain, though, why the recipient’s prominence impacts the value of the book, even if they have little known connection to the author. In general, I think this is explained by: 1) books from the library of prominent people are desirable, and 2) while the relationship between author and recipient may not be known, a collector can reasonably infer one existed.
Not all Signed Copies are Alike
Few things drive me battier than to search for a signed book and to be returned examples with a laid in signed bookplate. With apologies to my fellow book dealers, this is not a signed book; this is an unsigned book being sold with an autographed piece of paper. Which indicates that, to me, the value of a signed book is more than the sum of the book and the autograph; it’s that in order to sign the book, the author held it in their hand. There is a physical connection to that specific copy which other (unsigned) copies do not possess.
The relevance of the tactile connection also illuminates some collector’s preference for books signed to the title page over a tipped in signature page. The latter was bound in during the printing process; the former was handled by the author. There is an important exception to this rule, however, and that is related to authenticity. The signed tipped-in page confirms that the signature is genuine, whereas other signatures are subject to forgery. To me, though, this is an example of an externality that when controlled for (via buying from a reputable dealer, getting the book signed personally) yields a preference for the handled book.
The author’s nexus to the specific copy also explains the preference for books signed in the month (year) of publication as indicated by a date the author added to the signature. The date places the copy in the author’s hands when it was still new, fresh, the author’s most recent publication. There hadn’t yet been time for other books to be published, for the author’s reputation to be burnished (or lessened), for the prizes to be awarded. The book is a newborn in the hands of its progenitor.
In addition to these considerations, the more words the better still holds true. Inscribed but not to a named person. Not just dated, but located. Not just located but lined. These all add to the desirability of a copy.
Putting it all Together
OK, so some signed books are better than others, just as there are variations in inscribed books. That doesn’t really answer the question, though, of whether signed or inscribed is better. The answer is both — some signed are better than some inscribed and vice versa. To illustrate, here’s the relative valuation I place on varietals of signed and inscribed books — copies on the top are less valuable (to me) than copies at the bottom.
What this illustrates is that I prefer any actually signed copy over a generically inscribed one, but that once a relationship between author and recipient is established, my preference swings to the inscribed one.
Of course, this all comes down to individual preferences, and none of what I’ve said may ring true to you. That’s fine — there isn’t only one way to look at this. But hopefully this has helped clarify your preferences and provided a framework for how you approach valuation.
It will be interesting to see whether the pandemic changes things. The days of easy accessibility to authors may come back, but it is not the experience of the past two-years. In that context, even a generically inscribed book published during the time of lockdown implies a relationship between author and recipient. And if author appearances continue to be zoom-based interactions, then perhaps we'll see inscribed copies re-emerge as the preferred type.