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Nate Pedersen

Deep passion, not pockets, is the trick to building a truly well-developed personal collection


Let's first rid ourselves of a prevailing notion: Book collecting is for the wealthy.

Simply not true; some of the best collections are formed by people with the most limited means. A creative collection idea, well-developed and well-focused, easily outstrips in personal and scholarly value a collection of expensive first editions.

Anyone can be a book collector; the key is to develop an interesting focus to your collection, then follow it through. Books are easily accumulated and most mystery enthusiasts have a fine reading library. A true book collection, however, must be united by a central idea.

A.W. Pollard wrote of book collecting in his famous essay in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:

In the modern private collection, the need for a central idea must be fully recognized. Neither the collector nor the curator can be content to keep a mere curiosity shop. It is the collector's business to illustrate his central idea by his choice of examples, by the care with which he describes them and the skill with which they are arranged.

The importance of focus in a book collection cannot be overstated. Keeping a strict focus to your collection prevents the accumulation of the unnecessary, and saves you time and money. Having a wide variety of interests makes you an interesting conversationalist, but usually not an interesting book collector. Pick an interest and stick to it.

Now enters the question of what to collect. The potential topics are endless, only limited in scope by your imagination. You could collect every edition of Mickey Spillane's books, books with an African-American private eye, every mystery book set in Scotland. And so on.

Here are several main routes to collection building:

1) The Author Collection

When most people think of book collecting, they think of the author collection. This is where you try to accumulate all the books written by a particular author. A common route is to focus on first editions of an author, but a more comprehensive collection seeks to add every reprint, foreign edition, and special edition of an author's books, in addition to magazine articles and newspaper appearances. Needless to say, this can become quite extensive and expensive. Imagine, for example, all the editions of Agatha Christie.

Famous and popular mystery authors already command high prices for their first editions and generally this route to collecting should be reserved for those with either unlimited means or unlimited optimism. Those on a smaller budget, however, can still form interesting comprehensive author collections of lesser known authors. By conducting price searches online, a potential collector can get an idea of whether a particular author's books fall within his or her collecting price range.

As it is difficult to guess which authors will stand the test of time, author collections should only be attempted if the collector has a genuine and lasting interest in the author, regardless of the author's resale value. Tracking down every foreign reprint of James M. Cain, for example, is only for the true Cain lover.

Regardless of the author's fame, the best author collections have one thing in common: unique materials. Whether this means draft copies of novels, copies inscribed by the author, letters written by the author, notes from the author's editor, or even a postcard from the author to her aunt in Spain, unique materials significantly enhance a collection. Add unique materials to your library whenever possible.

A slight twist on the author collection would be to focus on a particular illustrator. Edward Gorey, for example, has become quite collectible and the books he illustrated are often valued more for his illustrations than the author's text. The same principles of author collections apply to illustrator collections.

In summary, don't bother collecting the big names (Christie, Doyle, Poe, etc.) unless you have unlimited means. Instead, focus on a lesser known author and make the collection as unique and comprehensive as possible. Don't begin an author collection, however, unless you have a genuine, lasting interest in a particular author.

2) The List Collection

In this collection, you purchase every book, generally the first editions, on a well-recognized list. For example, you could purchase the first editions of every book that won an Edgar award, which remain relatively affordable. Or you could purchase every book on the Queen's Quorum or the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list. (While impressive, either of these would be a very expensive undertaking). One nice thing about the list collection is that it has a finite endpoint. Once you've purchased every book on the list, you've formed your collection. Straightforward and easily conceptualized. If you like a clearly defined structure, this is the collection for you.

3) The Genre Collection

In this collection you focus on a particular subgenre of the mystery field. The cozy mystery, for example, or science fiction mysteries. This can be a fun collection, particularly if you're an enthusiast of a mystery subgenre. It can lead to some intriguing discoveries for your reading pleasure in addition to building your collection. While the lines between subgenres can be quite fuzzy, that can also be part of the fun. You can take the collection as far, or keep it as strictly limited, as you prefer.

4) The Topical Collection

The topical collection offers the most potential for a stimulating, inexpensive book collection. Here you really are only limited by your imagination. You could collect based on a particular era (1950s pulp mysteries or mysteries of the Victorian era). You could collect based on cover art (covers depicting a masked villain, covers with a female in distress, etc). You could collect based on premise (books with a female detective, books where the victim was poisoned, etc.). You could collect based on a location, or a profession, or a hobby. The possibilities here really are endless.

pedersen_nate_bookfairRegardless of the topic you choose, remember to keep your collection focused. A common mistake made by beginning collectors is the accumulation of miscellaneous or unrelated volumes. When considering each purchase, think about how the material will specifically enhance your collection. This will save you time and money. A well-developed collection is a series of interconnecting pieces, each building upon the other to achieve a greater whole.

Now go out there and start brainstorming ideas for a collection. Get to know your local antiquarian bookseller, find a mystery specialist locally or online. Many booksellers will happily offer advice to beginning collectors. To find a rare book dealer, visit , which is the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. Its members are bound by rules of ethical conduct and professionalism and many of the best antiquarian booksellers are members.

Get creative, have some fun, and don't think you need to spend much money to form an interesting collection. Remember the book-collector's modification of E.M. Forster's famous line in Howard's End: Only collect.

Nate Pedersen is an American freelance writer and rare book enthusiast currently living in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can find more of his writing at