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The great unknown – book survival rates

Doesn't it make more sense to define rarity by establishing survival rates, rather than referring to original (out of date) print-run numbers?

Maybe it’s just me, but ever since I started collecting rare books (and particularly since I became a seller of rare books), I’ve been asking why something I feel is obvious is barely ever mentioned: book survival rates.


For even though we all have vastly different reasons for being drawn to different genres of books, most of us would probably concede that what unites rare book collectors is exactly that word – rare.


Many booksellers are themselves particularly adept at using this word (even as part of their official company name), precisely to draw those customers who seek rarity in. Adrian Harrington Rare Books; Raptis Rare Books, Shapero Rare Books; or Jonkers Rare Books are all examples of sellers utilising the word ‘rare’ that occupy the Ian Fleming space alone.


'Rare' is OK, but shouldn’t we be determining ‘survival rates’ instead?

But here’s the thing. Saying something is rare is essentially a judgement call. There's no minimum absolute number to define what 'rare' has to be.


But even when attempts are made to lock-in why a book is rare, time after time I see a rather disingenuous way of ascribing rarity – by making reference to a book’s original print run.


To me, this seems anachronous, because I would argue that what really makes a book ‘rare’ is how many of a particular title are left ‘today’ (ie its survival rate).


A book’s rarity (and ultimately its value) is always directly linked to its current ‘availability’. And yet, by referring only to a book’s initial print run – to when it was first printed – this takes no account of its true availability today. It’s original print run merely describes a book’s historical availability on day one of publication – which in the case of Fleming, was 60-70 years ago.


Print runs are just a starting point


I would argue that the first impression print run figure – while being a great starting point – is really just that – a starting point.


What a print run is, is a measure of availability at the very birth of the book – when there was the highest possible number of books in circulation.


It doesn’t take a genius to work out that from that moment onwards – as soon as a book is released – this theoretical maximum is only ever going to start going down, as books get thrown away, damaged, destroyed, lost etc.


To me, trying to know how many of a particular title are estimated to exist today would be a far better way of gauging the value and scarcity of that said book – not referring to how many of them were made when it was first released.


Survival is a measure that’s used elsewhere 

The use of survival rates is not completely unknown.


At the start of this month, a copy of Action Comics No 1 (see left) – the first time Superman was introduced to the world – sold for a record-breaking $6 million.


It was issued in 1938, in huge numbers (200,000 in fact, by National Allied Publications).

But that original print run should rightly be of no use to anyone now.


Today, every time a copy of Action Comics No 1 comes up for auction, the bit that sets it apart (and what makes it such a big deal), is the part of the description that says how many are believed to be left today. It’s this that drives would-be owners into a bidding frenzy. The accepted number is that there are only around 100 – and not all of these are in good or very good condition (or better). 

Similar survival rate estimates are used to for other rare items – such as albums. Some 60,000 pressings of the famous Beatles ‘Butcher’ cover occurred before the album was quickly recalled (left), but today most sources indicate the survival rate as being just a “few hundred”).


Survival rates are also used to define scarcity of other objects like cars (there are currently only 85 Aston Martin DB 5’s taxed and MOT’d for UK roads), and even collectables like original Barbie dolls (300,000 $3 first version units were sold in 1959, but only a number in the low hundreds are believed to remain today).


So shouldn’t today’s booksellers and collectors also be trying to work out a particular books’ survival rate instead?


Why it’s potentially important

On rare occasions, some books do get the ‘survival rate’ treatment.


Of these 145 were printed on paper, while 35 were printed on vellum.

Forty-nine are recorded as having survived into the twentieth century and only twenty-one of these are complete. Of the thirty-five vellum copies, only three exist as complete copies.


Similarly around 750 First Folios of Shakespeare’s complete works are known to have been printed (in 1623), of which 235 copies are known to exist today.


Of course, for objects that have to be recorded – such as cars, for road-tax purposes – a particular car’s known survival rate is baked into what contributes to its current day value. Knowing that over time, many cars are written off, crushed, dismantled for parts etc, is part of what makes a classic car scarce today. In other words, it's not that X-number were made, but more than only X-number are working and still on the road.


For obvious reasons [ownership records are not required!], there is no such equivalence for books - apart from when bibliographers may or may not express an interest in this.


But I would suggest it’s sensible to at least try and factor-in contemporary survival rates (somehow), when trying to ascribe current day rarity.


It is simply absurd to think that just because (for instance) 4,728 first impression Casino Royale books were bound, that this should be the number we use to judge its rarity some 70-plus years later.

Beyond Casino Royale - which had the smallest hardback print run), there are plenty of other (even lower print run number), Fleming books that collectors are interested in.

These include uncorrected proofs - see On Her Majesty's Secret Service, left - of which just 500 copies of which were printed. Given many are likely to have been tossed aside, we can certainly say 500 is nowhere near the number still existing today. An idea about just how many survive would surely be useful.


Fleming books and survival rates:

Let’s take some more specific examples – such as survival rates of very good condition examples.


When it comes to Fleming, it’s well known that You Only Live Twice suffers significantly more browning and jacket degradation due to the combination of delicate colours used on the design of the DJ than other titles. Its 1st impression print run was 56,000.


Current (ie crude), print run data would suggest that this title is much more easily found (ie less rare/scarce), than the preceding year’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (print run 45,000) – by a factor of 25%.


But could it actually be that survival rates of very good and good examples of this title are actually far fewer? If that is so, does this indicate that maybe there’s a case for arguing that survival rates need to be given higher priority in determining the actual scarcity of this book in good condition vs that of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?


I don’t think this is the only example.


My own experience, both from buying and selling, watching the market, and seeing the condition of what comes up for sale, tells me survival rates ‘do’ vary between titles


·      For some unknown reason, Diamonds are Forever is a book that tends to either be found in either very poor or very good condition. There hardly ever seems to be middle of the road copies up for sale.

·      It’s also well known (see my blog on the impact of light fade), that 1960’s For Your Eyes Only suffers from extreme colour change to its jacket. Judging by print-run details, this book is numerically more common than, say 1958’s Dr No, by a factor of 10%. Based on experience however, I would say there a ‘fewer’ collectable condition copies of For Your Eyes Only compared to copies of Dr No.

·      The print runs of Diamonds are Forever and From Russia With Love are broadly the same (a difference of just 300), but experience tells me there are significantly fewer good examples of Diamonds are Forever today than there are From Russia With Love.


Problems with judging survival rates:


I know what you’re going to say. It’s simply impossible to properly gauge either total survival rates, or survival rates of good-to-fine condition examples.


I do reluctantly concur.


Even if it were possible, it seems likely that some agreed person (or groups of people) would have to be designated the arbiter of current survival rates.

And then there would be questions of how these people going are agreed on, and by whom?

And what would be their qualification for their judgements, besides being educated guesstimates.


Beyond this, here are some reasons why I think trying to establish the numbers of each book that survive today (as opposed to how many were first printed) is certainly challenging:


·      Estimates will vary: With some books – such as the signed limited edition (250 copies) of On Her Majesty’s Service – there is broad consensus of survival rates. Jon Gilbert (Fleming bibliographer), has suggested ‘wastage’ (ie those that are lost/destroyed) of this title, amounts to 20%. But this is mostly because they are deemed more ‘special’ and will have been better looked after. That means 200+ of the 250 still survive today. I have no reason to suggest otherwise. I have personally verified that nearly 100 of them exist (Either through recording previous sale histories, those that have known written provenance, or those that I know are privately held by collector friends of mine). However, who’s assessment could collectors trust? Much as experts most likely have an idea of how many of each title remain, it’s a number they typically don’t want to reveal.

·      The number wouldn’t stay constant: In theory, it seems eminently sensible to suggest that a certain percentage of each title ‘disappears’ each year – through clear-outs, books going to landfill (shudder), books getting so tatty they are disposed of etc. So this would mean whatever the number is this year, it ‘should’ be less the next. But not only does this demand putting some sort of formula of natural decline onto each book, it’s not going to be accurate because it’s likely that some books have already seen their fastest rate of decline (the early books), while others (such as the later ones) still haven’t.

·      Some books may have flat-lined: With the passing years, it’s getting more and more likely that the most sought after early books, such as Casino Royale, Live and Let Die and Moonraker, aren’t just lying around waiting to be discovered. Surviving numbers of these titles have probably settled, and will be unlikely to change year by year, because they’re now held in private collections. In other words, they’re known about, and those that remain will be well looked after.

·      Some titles might actually ‘increase’ in number: OK, let’s caveat this. What I mean, is that stocks of the later, more common, titles ‘will’ continue to be found. They will turn up and ‘add’ to current number of books believed to be circulation, as houses get cleared, and collections get discovered. Every so often, it’s noticeable that there suddenly appears to be more of one title or another on the market, adding to the existing pool of those that are always being bought and sold.

·      Determining which books are in circulation and which are privately held is impossible: With each book, there is a certain proportion that are in continuous circulation – that is, being bought, sold, bought and re-sold. Knowing this is almost impossible (except for signed, numbered books, where they are easy to identify in sales/auctions). Likewise, a core number will be in private hands. It’s likely a proportion of these privately held books have never been on the open market yet, so there could well be many more books surviving than some experts might estimate.   


Does all this mean we should give up on trying though?


Deducing survivability is – I tend to accept – one part of the mystique of book collecting that will never be solved.


Maybe it doesn’t even need solving. Maybe it’s having some ‘unknowns’ left that contributes to the allure of collecting.


As an intellectual exercise though, I still feel working out likely survival rates has some merit.


For key titles – say Casino Royale – perhaps some established/respected authority is needed, to proclaim a remaining number that appears sensible across the board. This way collectors and sellers know where they stand.

These - for what they are worth - are just my thoughts.

But I’ll leave you with this: Ian Fleming’s Man With the Golden Gun had a 1st impression print run was 82,000 – the largest of any of the Ian Fleming books. By comparison (and as previously noted), the previous year’s You Only Live Twice had a first impression print run of just over half that – 56,000.

But can we really (truly) say You Only Live Twice is nearly twice as rare? Officially it is. In very good to fine condition though, maybe You Only Live Twice is actually three, four or even five times rarer, because this particular book tends to decline far more quickly than copies of The Man Golden Gun.


It’s a question I can’t honestly answer, but it is, nevertheless, food for thought…


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18. huhtik.

Hi Peter,

Have you any idea how many golden gun books with the gilt on the cover are floating around? Can't be many.

I was thinking of making a poll on the Facebook group....

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