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When does a ‘mistake’ become a ‘variant’?

Why do some books' mistakes achieve variant status, and are regarded as being far more collectable than standard first editions?

If there’s one topic that’s a sure-fire way to get book collectors getting into a froth about, it’s this one: ‘variants’.


Somewhere along the line, books that feature, let’s just call them, ‘slight differences’ seem to have become elevated, morphing into a whole separate genre of rare ‘variant’ examples.


Obviously, no one has ever decided that after a certain point in time, a book with a slight difference shall henceforth be henceforth known as a ‘variant’. This status generally occurs after a difference is initially spotted, talked about, and generally becomes well known about to collectors (over a slow period of time). In other words, there needs to be some sort of acceptance that a particular book now holds significance.


But this process is something that not everyone is always comfortable with – mostly because a book that many people see as simply carrying an error (and so should have been binned at the publishing stage), is now put on a pedestal and given exulted status beyond what it should really deserve.


What is a variant?


First off, it’s probably worth explaining what a variant is.


Typically, when collectors talk about variants we’re usually talking about printing errors.


These could be anything from slanting or missing letters, or other printing process errors such as dropped text (in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban it famously sports an entire dropped line on the first page of the first impression). Usually these errors are spotted, and are corrected mid-way through the print process.


What seems to make these variant examples collectable is that an error(s) identifies the book in question as being the very earliest ever printed – because, by default, the fact that the presses were halted and the error corrected means later books – even if they’re first impressions – won’t have them.


In the aforementioned Harry Potter example, this variant is thought to only appear on around 1,500-2,000 of the 5,500 first impression print run. Because of this, it’s worth substantially more than a standard first impression – even though a standard first impression is still rare, and still highly collectable in its own right.


Famous Ian Fleming (in-book) variants

It won’t surprise you to learn that variants are also observed in the Ian Fleming titles too. There are two main in-book ones (as distinct from jacket states).


The first is the missing ‘t’ that’s supposed to be the word ‘shoot’ on p10 of Moonraker (variant copies say ‘shoo’), while the second is the ‘dropped quad’ that appears on The Spy Who Loved Me. This is where a print block spacer (the quad) between the ‘e’ and ‘m’ of Fleming to the title page ‘dropped’, leaving an inked line (see above).


The numbers of ‘shoo’ books are believed to be very small indeed – only around one in 10 of the 9,900 print run according to bibliographer Jon Gilbert. As such, they’ve developed something of a cult status, and tend to be regarded be collectors as the ‘one to have’.


Likewise, on The Spy Who Loved Me, dropped quad examples are also thought to be rare (Gilbert says 3,000 maximum), and (like Moonraker), they command a price premium on the open market.


Isn’t this all just a bookseller’s scam?


Many collectors however are just not happy about this, blaming booksellers in particular, for simply creating something out of nothing, in order to sell the same (already expensive), book for more money.


One also has to remember too, that by effectively prioritsing a ‘mistake’, it somehow downgrades a ‘proper’ first impression (ie one that’s error free, and as the author intended), as something of a lesser example.


In other words, the runt of the litter is now the jewel in the crown; the perfect-and-correct book is somehow not. What a strange logic!


As a purveyor of Ian Fleming first editions, one could argue that I’m also perpetuating this narrative.


A quad-marked book will be more expensive; so too will be a Moonraker ‘shoo’ book.

So am I just following the sheep, jumping on the bandwagon, and fleecing collectors for even more of their hard earned cash?


A little later, I’m going to mount my case for the defense. However, what I will say now, is that I’m certainly not comfortable with recent attempts I’ve spotted that try to make some ‘errors’ into something they are not. For it seems to me that there does seem to be something of a tendency to try and make something out of nothing.


Here’s an example of what I mean.

Take a look at the below image of a Moonraker first impression. This was offered up for auction last year by the distinguished auction house, Sotherby’s. Note the catalogued picture and description of a dropped quad – even helpfully indicated by a pencil asterisk on the page (I’ve marked it with my own arrows):

This quad mark is being identified, in my view, as an attempt to make something more out of this book than it really deserves.


In no other Fleming collecting circles do people do talk about the page p46 dropped quad. It just isn’t a ‘thing’ and (thankfully) I don’t think it will ever achieve ‘variant’ status.


It is, just a mistake, and it’s pushing things to try and suggest otherwise.


So why do some variants become accepted?


Rightly so, I don’t believe this new Moonraker dropped quad should ever become a collecting variant.


I really do feel it’s a print error, and nothing more. The error may show up on some copies, but not other first editions, but that's OK.


Other ‘errors’ also tend to be disregarded as not being variants:


·      There’s a convention that books printed/bound upside down (they do exist) DON’T carry variant status

·      Those with slanted print DON’T carry variant status.

·      Those with mis-spellings/grammatical errors/typos also DON’T tend to carry any special status.


All of the above are typically regarded as oddities, but no more than that, and are certainly nothing that makes them more collectable than a standard first edition.


So why then, do some errors seem to make the variant-grade while others don’t?

Here’s my take:


·      They are errors limited to only ‘part’ of the first impression print run: As already mentioned, the Moonraker ‘shoo’ and dropped quad on The Spy Who Loved Me were noticed very early in the first impression print run. The error was then corrected before the rest of the print run was allowed to finish. This means that the ‘error’ is unique to only a fraction of the first impression print run. This makes this error distinct from a typo that will appear on the whole of the first impression print run, and which will not be corrected till the second or later impression. An error common to an entire print run cannot be a variant. While a whole first impression print run can have a typo, the ‘shoo’ and dropped quad are ‘special’ in that they’re restricted to just a small percentage of that print run.

·      They say something ‘more’: A first impression – whether it’s the first book to come off the presses or the last book off the press – is still a first edition. We all instinctively know this. But that’s because there’s usually no way of telling if it’s the first or last book printed in that print run. As hinted earlier, an error (that is corrected within the same print run), can ONLY be from the earliest portion of the print run, and is identifiably so. To some (but not all!) collectors, this is important to know, and gives a book more cache. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s what some people think. Think of it like a production run. Classic car or gun or even musical instrument collectors always want the earliest stamped production number possible. In the absence of books being numbered, the ‘shoo’ error is the equivalent of an early car VIN number.

·      There is a rich history of mistakes being popular: Like it or not, any markers that signify a mistake or something different from the norm do continue to grab collector’s attentions. Maybe it’s the need to own a version of the same item that fewer people will have. Take for example, movie poster collectors. Star Wars fans will all want the poster whose artwork says ‘Revenge of the Jedi’ (below) – because that was the very early name of the film before it got re-named to ‘Return of the Jedi’. When something that’s standard can gain extra collecting status, it typically will – and that’s something often driven by collectors not sellers of these items.

Any others?

There are other Ian Fleming variants that, while not being strictly errors, were fixes that needed to be done out of necessity – such as what happened to some copies of The Man With The Golden Gun.

Some have white end papers rather than the standard ‘bamboo’ sheets (see picture left).


The story goes that the printers ran out of these green end papers, and used standard white end papers to complete the print run.

These white end paper copies are scarce – limited to 3,204 copies, and so have developed ‘variant’ status.


Above: White end paper - a variant What is and isn’t a variant?

Below: Slanting text - NOT a variant:

The question many will ask is how far down the rabbit hole does one go with variants?


There are differences in binding cloth used, and foils used for the spines for example.


The Main With The Golden Gun, for example, has three different foil colours used on the spine – gold, copper and silver (see below, left), while the spines of Goldfinger and Thunderball can also be found with silver foil rather than gilt.

Are these variants?

I say not.


Silver foiled Goldfinger and Thunderball first editions are certainly scarcer, as are some of the different foil variations on Golden Gun.


But while I think these are elements that maybe add to a book’s rarity and desirability (and should rightly be described as such), I personally think these are Ian Fleming books that are simply bound differently (and deliberately-so), using different materials. As such, they are of interest, but they’re not variants in the strictest sense.


To me, a variant requires some element of a deliberate fix-around needed, mid-way through a run, which means they only appear on a certain number of first impression books.

Muddying the waters slightly are first editions with different boards – such as Dr No (which has a plain black and a ‘dancing girl’ silhouette version), and of course, the Man With the Golden Gun with the rare gilt gun to the front board (see pics above).


I would argue the gilt gun to front boards of The Man With the Golden Gun is more a variant than not – as this design was dropped (and found on just 990 copies out of the 82,000 first impression print run). In the case of Dr No, I would class these two covers as different ‘states’ rather than variants.


Tell me what you think though!


Do variants have a place, or are they a constructed, illusionary difference concocted by book dealers?


Do you prize a variant over a standard first edition?


I’d love to hear your views…

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