Collecting first editions of the works of Joseph Conrad can be an intriguing, elusive and rewarding game. An amateur who has been at it for a number of years offers this introduction which may be helpful to those interested in getting started.
Two Universal Rules
These apply to collecting old toys, matchboxes, works of art, first editions or anything else.
1. Don't collect on the basis that your purchases will be good short or long term investments. They might or might very well not be. Dealers have to make a living too and you may be startled rather unpleasantly when you try to sell your prized first edition back.
2. Collect the very best you can afford. This sounds obvious, but it is better to wait and pay more for a book in very good to fine condition than buy one only in marginally good shape. Certain exceptions may apply, to be discussed later.
What is a Conrad first edition?
Not as simple as it may sound. There are first English editions, first American editions, first Canadian editions, first colonial editions, not to mention first trade editions, pamphlets, etc.
Then you can get into "First edition, first state" versus second and third states, date of, and number of pages of advertisements at the back of the book, and so on. You will need to decide for yourself which ones you will go after. For our current discussion we will concentrate on English and American firsts.
Aren't they the same thing but with different publishers?
Not necessarily and in certain cases collecting both can be interesting. For example, the first editions of An Outcast of the Islands are two different books, the American publishers having bowdlerized and cut out sections covering love making between Willems and the "native girl" Aissa. And the first American edition of The Nigger of the Narcissus, if you can find a good one, because it's widely sought after, is called The Children of the Sea. I've never done a page by page comparison, but have been told that the American text includes one or two English curse words left out by the UK publishers.
English or American?
Largely a matter of personal preference. English editions were usually published slightly earlier but often by only a matter of weeks. In one or two cases the American edition appeared first. The bindings of several of the American editions can be more appealing in design and color, as for example The Children of the Sea, Lord Jim and The Secret Agent. In general, and not surprisingly, the American first editions are rather easier to find in this country and tend to be less expensive.
How hard are they to find?
In some cases very, particularly the early works in "collectible" condition. The memoirs of Monica Lewinsky may have a press run in the millions but the first English edition of Conrad's first book, Almayer's Folly, probably (the exact figure is uncertain), consisted of about 1200 copies. The book was published nearly 104 years ago, and of those volumes that survive at all, let alone in superior condition, most are in University or Public Library rare book sections worldwide or already in the hands of private collectors. When it does appear on booksellers lists a good quality first edition Almayer is pushing $3000.00.
What about something more reasonable?
Try starting from the end of Conrad's publishing career and work backwards. Any book published after The Shadow Line (1917) up to Conrad's death, or rather the posthumous publication of Suspense (1925), should be reasonably available in good or better condition at a more modest price. An exception will be Notes on my Books, published in limited English and American editions of 250 copies signed by the author. After Conrad's fame shot up with the success of Chance (1914), the press runs of the later works were larger. In anything after 1920, try to get dust jackets, which greatly enhance the value (and price) of the book. Here are three current examples from the Boston rare book dealer Buddenbrooks. The Shadow Line - a fine English copy in scarce dust jacket, $550.00; The Rover - a very good English copy with dust jacket, $325.00; Tales of Hearsay - a fine English copy without jacket, $175.00.
Good, Very good, near fine, fine, etc.
These descriptions, or their abbreviations, nearly always appear in book lists. What do they mean? Good can in fact mean not so good. Sometimes the expression "good only" may be used. This can mean that the book cover is torn or slightly damaged, the spine cocked, and that foxing (the unattractive brown speckling and staining) of the paper is present. Unfortunately, foxing is a common failing of the early Conrad books. Generally, a fairly detailed description of deficiencies will be included in the entry. Very good should show substantial improvement, and fine should mean just that, a good, clean bright copy with few problems. Most rare book dealers will send you a book on approval if you give them a credit card number, and won't complain if you reject it.
Where to start looking.
The likelihood of finding a pristine copy of Almayer's Folly in a garage sale is virtually nil. It might not be impossible to do so for The Rover. If you live in a large city, there's a reasonable chance that once a year or more there may be an Antiquarian Book Fair, where many thoroughly reputable booksellers display some of their stock. Always ask, because the shop may well have some Conrads which it has not brought along for display. Once you have bought, you will probably be put on catalogue mailing lists for at least a year. And of course, visit second hand bookshops anywhere. One new search area is the "Net", and in our next bulletin we'll review some useful websites and the information to be garnered therefrom. We'll also cover signed and "association" copies, pamphlets, manuscripts, the confusing printing history of Chance, the strange binding errors in the first English edition of Twixt Land and Sea, what Wise and Cagle mean when you see them in a detailed book description, and we'll do a scan of the internet to see what is currently on the market in the US.