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The case of the 'placeholder' book

They're books we might not ordinarily buy. So why do we purchase so-called 'placeholder' books, and what purpose do (and should) they serve?

Last week looked at the very real issue of the book that got away’ and the palpable regret many collectors have when they fail to act quickly enough to secure a book they’ve been trying to buy for some time, and - for want of a better phrase - let slip through their fingers.


We noted how much of this regret tends to come from people’s perceived likelihood of being able to see another.


Often this is based on prior searching experience, and someone’s own nose for the likelihood of another similar book coming up any time soon.

To a degree we challenged this, citing one expert who claimed the predictability of books turning up in the future cannot entirely be based on their historical availability, because books just always seem to turn up.

Nevertheless, people ‘do’ make their own mental assessments of scarcity – which brings me to the topic of the ‘placeholder’ book.


The ‘placeholder’ – the temporary fix?


Collectors I talk to regularly say that a certain number of their collection are so-called placeholder books.


These – broadly – are books in a condition that collectors wouldn’t ordinarily consider, but they have done on this occasion because it’s a hard to find book in the first place, and having this (less good) one is better than nothing, until a better one can be found.


What these collectors are effectively saying, is that a tatty book is acceptable, because given that their own expectations of the likelihood of finding a better condition one is low, it’s best to get this one.

By doing so, it fills the empty space, and it fills this space until a better one comes along.


What purchasing decisions are at play here?


If you really think about it, there are a number of things that don’t make sense here.


Most obviously, is the fact that this poorer condition book has primarily been bought (and mentally excused) because of a held assumption that another one won’t easily be found. And yet, it’s also been bought precisely in the hope that a better one will eventually come to light to improve it.


Then there’s the purchasing of a book in a condition you wouldn’t ordinary countenance.


So, why do we buy placeholders?


Looked at like this, placeholders seem like odd purchases, and also involve a bit of personal misdirection – where we kid ourselves into thinking that this ‘will do’ until it can be improved.


To me, a couple of questions emerge:


·      Should we just accept that the book we have bought (that’s not as good as we want it to be), is really the best we can get, and stop kidding ourselves that it’s a placeholder that’s going to get improved?


·      Should we just NOT buy placeholder books at all, because if we really do think another will come along, surely it’s better to aim for this, rather than have a tatty book in the meantime?


The purpose of the placeholder


I guess the answer to these questions, partly comes what we want the purpose of the placeholder book to be.


If it’s to at least ‘have something’ (and I’m not saying this is wrong), then buying one makes complete sense.


A missing book in a set can be a nagging distraction, and buying a copy that fills this void is perfectly reasonable.


But if one genuinely accepts that a pristine example of a particular title is out of reach, then really, we should perhaps accept that this isn’t a placeholder book at all – but the best, and only copy we’re likely to own?


Where things get tricky – I feel – is if one genuinely buys a book to have it, but only until a better one comes along.


This carries the expectation that there are better books out there.


So, are you really buying a lesser-condition one because you’re impatient to wait for that better one, or do you really, secretly believe you won’t find a better one?


The real world


An obvious real-world example here would be locating a first edition, first impression Casino Royale – for many the pinnacle of their Bond book collection.


I would hesitate to argue that if given the choice between two equally priced books – a jacketless worn and dog-eared 1st/1st and a nicer 1st/2nd (also jacketless), most would probably plump for the former (even though the second impression is nicer and significantly rarer numerically).


The question of whether to buy becomes much harder, however, if the opportunity comes along to buy a Casino Royale third impression, also for arguments sake, jacketless. It’s not what you’re really after, but it does fill a gap.


But is it really worth buying a book you don’t really want, just to fill a gap?


We come back, again, to the purpose we place on placeholders.


But it illustrates – I think – a conundrum of sorts. Should you buy to have it, or just wait till what you really want turns up?

My own ‘placeholder’ conundrum

There’s a reason I’m thinking about all of this right now, because I’m having my own conundrum right now.


I currently have an opportunity to buy a Man With the Golden Gun.

The book in question is not just any old copy; it's one of the elusive 940 examples with the gold gilt ‘gun’ on the front board

As most people reading this will know, this version was later scrapped owing to the prohibitive cost of doing such a large area in gold.


There’s plenty of reasons I’m telling myself I want it:


·      It’s the only significant book I’m missing in my own personal Ian Fleming first edition collection.

·      It’s super rare – my own experience does tell me (or should that be ‘kid me’?) that they don’t come up very often

·      It’s potentially at a price I can afford

·      It will end that annoying feeling I have that I’m missing this last book


The problem is, it’s not in the best shape.


Without wanting to divulge its source, it’s got tape marks, spots on some of the pages, an inscription, and fairly heavy wear/splits to the spine (ps the picture above is for illustrative purposes, and not the actual book I’m interested in).


Basically, if it were any other book, I wouldn’t go near it.


And yet, here I am, wondering whether I should buy it because:


·      Its super rare

·      I can feel myself succumbing to fears that it might be the only one I see at a price I’m willing to pay right now

·      It fills that irritating gap I know I have

·      And… yes, I’m saying it right here – I think it will probably do until a better one presents itself.


In my mind, I’m giving this classic placeholder territory.


But yes, the trouble is, this book is not the greatest.

It’s not what I would really ‘want’ to buy in an ideal world, but in the absence of others, it’s arguably as good as I might get.


What I think I really need to answer – like many other collectors – are the following questions:


·      Will I ‘really’ ever convert this into a better version, or am I pretending I will, just to justify buying it

·      Will I genuinely be happy with this particular copy if it does end up being the only one I ever get?


I’m not alone…


If I’m being honest, I still haven’t decided how I would answer these last two questions yet.


For now, the book is available, and the seller knows I’m interested. I know I will need to come to a decision soon. That’s not making my predicament any easier!!


But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here.


As collectors, we’re all having to make constant choices about whether there are titles we should buy now, or wait and hold out for better examples.


Most of the time we are able to make very definite decision, and with ease.


The real tempters are those known-to-be-rare books that crop up – perhaps unexpectedly – and require relatively quick decision making about whether we should go for them or not.


To buy; to not buy; or to buy as a temporary placeholder? That is the question!

Prior to launching, we debated for some time whether to even include offering reprint Jonathan Capes - preferring to offer just the finest first impressions only.

Because of the rising cost of first impressions, early customer feedback told us there was now a strong appetite for very early reprints too (ie 2nd and 3rd impressions), particularly on some of the earliest titles.

This is why we now offer a limited selection of early reprints, and we now continue to look for others to this day. Recent books we've sold include a third impression Casino Royale and second impression Moonraker.

Very soon we will be listing a 2nd impression Casino Royale - get in touch if you want a first look of it.

If an early impression of an early title your pinnacle book, that's fine by us.

We'll still endeavour to find you the best condition one we can.

If it's your placeholder book though - that's also fine by us, and you can also take advantage of our upgrade service to cash it in for the book you've always coveted.

We're simply here for whatever your collecting needs are.

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