Rare Books

Fragile treasures: the world's most valuable paperbacks

In terms of sheer numbers, collectible softcovers are vastly outnumbered by collectible hardcovers. However, many paperbacks - books with soft, not rigid, paper-based covers - sell for high prices. The reasons vary - authors self-publish, publishers lack the necessary budget or the desire to invest in a particular author (think of poets particularly) or simply softcover is the format of choice for the genre (think Pulp and the vintage Penguins that we see in used bookstores).

One of the challenges of collecting important softcovers is scarcity - they simply do not last as long as hardcovers and rarely remain in good condition. But that simply increases the thrill of the chase.

Penguin will always be associated with paperbacks as they popularized the format via clever branding and affordable pricing that appealed to a mass audience. Their first 10 paperback reprints have gone down in publishing history but they don't attract high prices. Ace is another example of a publisher that truly mastered the paperback format. Many influential photography books are also softcovers.

Famous paperbacks

By Franz Kafka
Published in German, Kafka's Metamorphosis is the king of the collectible softcovers. Its famous front cover, designed by Ottomar Starke, shows a man recoiling in horror. Probably no more than a thousand copies of this novella were printed. It wasn't printed in English until 1937. Today, this story of a salesman transformed into an insect is studied around the world.
By Allen Ginsberg
Printed in 1956 by the City Lights Bookshop, this book of poetry represents a key moment for the Beat Generation. Only a thousand first edition copies were printed - each one is a little piece of American cultural history. Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested, charged with obscenity and found not guilty. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $4,250.
By Haruki Murakami
Harvill Secker brought out a signed limited edition of this novel, in three volumes, in 2011. Only 111 copies were printed with thesesoftcover books housed in a Perspex case. One of the most sought-after hypermodern editions. The front and back covers were printed on Somerset, a 100 per cent cotton archival paper, using a Swiss-made 1963 Gietz Art Platen hand-fed letterpress. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $3,123
By Ed Ruscha
Published in 1963, this is Ed Ruscha's debut book. The first edition print featured 400 numbered copies. Just like it says on the cover, it contains 26 photographs of humble gas stations with captions describing their brand and location. A key publication in 1960s modern art, Ruscha self-published the book when he 26. It was not well received at the time but Ruscha continued to take photographs of run-of-the-mill objects and places. Eventually his photography was seen as capturing the essence of 20th century America. The book itself is designed to look humble. Ruscha was raised in Oklahoma City, but moved to Los Angeles in 1956. All the gas stations featured in the book were located on Route 66. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $3,025.
By Vladimir Nabokov
Published in Paris in 1955 in two volumes, this novel, initially published in English, continues to provoke discussion on sexuality and is adored by collectors of modern literature. The first print run sold out quickly but critics soon labelled it as pornography. Britain banned copies from being imported but by 1959 the book had been published by London's Weidenfeld & Nicolson and had become an unstoppable cultural force. Stanley Kubrick's film followed in 1962 and the legend continued to grow. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $2,000.
By Seamus Heaney
Published in 1965, Eleven Poems was Heaney's first published book. It was published privately by Festival Publications at Queen's University in Belfast. Heaney attended Queen's as an undergraduate and graduate student, where he studied English literature and wrote poetry. After graduating, Heaney became associated with a set of young Belfast poets known as "The Group" with his early poetry being published in the Belfast Telegraph and Irish Times. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $2,750.
By Felice Swados
A legendary paperback, the Holy Grail for some collectors of Pulp, published in 1948 by the Diversey Publishing Corporation. Loved for its lurid cover of a blonde bombshell in high heels, nylons and smoking a cigarette. The story concerns a young girl named Daisy and her abusive father. The cover girl image is based upon Canadian figure skater and model Marty Collins, whose father sued the publisher over fears reality would become confused with fiction. Originally published by Doubleday in 1941 as House of Fury. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $2,500.
By P.G. Wodehouse
One of the rarest Wodehouse books. Published in 1909 by Alston Rivers, this short comic novel was designed to be sold cheaply to commuters at train stations - a strategy that Penguin would later popularize on a massive scale. Very few copies have survived. Illustrated by C. Harrison. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $2,400.
By William S Burroughs (William Lee)
Burroughs' pseudonymous first book, an Ace double (D-15) paperback bound back-to-back with Maurice Helbrant's Narcotic Agent. Junkie is a simple narrative of Burroughs' experiences with drugs and an important book in describing life as a heroin addict. The book was considered unpublishable until Allen Ginsberg championed it and found a publisher for Burroughs. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $1,000.
By Christopher Paolini
A self-published paperback written by a 15-year-old school boy that became a huge fantasy hit. Christopher Paolini's novel was spotted by Carl Hiaasen who referred it to Alfred A. Knopf and they took to mainstream readers. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $1,125.
By Bill Brandt
Published in 1938, the London life shown in this rare photography paperback book is long gone. Copies are hard to find with speculation that many were burned in the Blitz. Bill Brandt was born in Germany but moved to Britain where his society photos made him famous. Captions are in English and French. AbeBooks has sold a copy for $1,049.
By Jim Thompson
Master of hardboiled crime writing, Thompson published The Killer Inside Me in 1952. To many, it's one of the best crime novels ever written. Most of Thompson's books are paperbacks but it's the brutal raw nature of his writing that attracts so many fans. Thompson led a hard life and worked in the oil industry and factories, and suffered a nervous breakdown when only 19. Killer was his break-through novel. AbeBooks has sold a hardcover copy, signed by Stephen King (who apparently is a big fan of Jim Thompson) for $1,250.

What's your favorite paperback book?

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