Signed Books - Signed, Inscribed, Presentation or Association Copies.

A new collector got in touch recently to ask our opinion on an inscribed book. He was concerned because the book was signed to someone else. I pointed out the various merits and flaws with the different types of signatures. It seemed apt thereafter to share this on our blog.

Signed or Inscribed

This is an oft mentioned argument. A signed book is one where the author has scrawled nothing but their name on the book. An inscribed book on the other hand usually carries the name of the recipient in the author’s hand [often an inscribed book will just carry a greeting without a name]. Of late there has been debate about the various merits of the two types of signature. I’ll outline below the merits of each.


A signed book


An inscribed book

An inscribed book is usually signed to someone else and carries their name. People often find this less than desirable because every time the owner examines the signature they are reminded that the book isn’t signed to them personally. This is just a facade of course, as a book purchased signed or inscribed has no connection with the purchaser anyway. But it is easy to see how the anonymous signature could be preferred. That being said, here at Hyraxia, we believe the more ink on the page the better. If a collector looks to buy only books signed without an inscription then they are often dismissing inscriptions that could have merit of their own; even a few brief words can give a deep insight into the author’s manner and make an ordinary book something special.


A book inscribed without a name.

Of greater significance is where an author signs without inscription by default. In these cases, such as with Graham Greene, an inscription is preferred. These signatures are both scarcer and more collectable as Greene generally inscribed books to people he knew.

The final point to consider is forgeries. A forger is less likely to risk exposure by writing an essay on the title page. That said, an expert forger will likely find it easier to dupe a buyer if they inscribe the book too. Either way, there is more room for error in an inscribed book than a signed book.

Presentation Copies

Presentation copies are often preferable to a regular signed copy particularly if signed by the author. Presentation copies are books signed and presented at the author’s behest, not the recipient’s request. This is significant because they are often scarcer, but also because there is an implicit, if somewhat forgotten or hazy, connection between the recipient and the author.


A presentation copy signed on behalf of the author

We mentioned above that presentation copies are preferred, with the caveat of them being signed by the author. Wealthier or busier authors would often have a secretary or publisher sign a presentation copy on the author’s behalf. One should always be cautious when considering a book signed ‘with the author’s compliments’ or similar. This is often autographed by someone else, but still collectable. Earlier books were often signed in this manner, seek advice from an antiquarian or rare bookseller if you’re unsure.

Association Copies

An association copy is generally the best state of a signed book. An association copy is a book that has been signed by the author and subsequently owned by someone with whom there is an explicit connection to the book or author. These can be books signed by the author to a relative or friend, someone well known in particular other authors, people involved in the publication or people associated with the content of the book. It is always important to seek further provenance for association copies. A book signed “from Roald to Quentin” seems likely to be for Quentin Blake, but one must assess this based on evidence at hand – ask a Roald Dahl specialist if he ever signed books to Quentin Blake.


An association copy from Thea Von Harbou to her Hairdresser


An association copy from Asimov to Brunner

One can also find association copies that are unsigned, these are still desirable in their own right.


Often authors will write a date beneath their signature. It is generally accepted that a date closer to the publication date is preferred, primarily because this implies that the book was signed close to the publication date. Collectors prefer earlier signatures for two reasons: firstly, there’s an implicit connection to the book’s publication – in the same way first editions are collected, there’s a desirability to collect things in their earliest appearance; secondly, early signatures are often scarcer and more attractive as authors are less well-known and take a little more time and care over the signings.


A book signed and dated (in this case prior to publication)

Often one will see signatures pre-dating publication, these are usually where an author has signed a batch of books for a shop prior to publication, but there are some books where the pre-publication date signifies a presentation copy; the books have come from the author’s personal allowance.

Signature Age

As authors age and attend more and more signings it’s not uncommon to see their signatures change, as noted above. The classic example is Terry Pratchett whose signature shifted from a full forename and surname in an attractive scrawl to what is essentially a symbol. We recently handled a collection of signed Pratchett books each of which held a contemporary signature and the progression was quite obvious. The early signatures are scarcer and indicative of a contemporary signing.


A recent Pratchett signature


An early Pratchett signature

Other than scarcity and desirability, one can also use signature ages to determine the authenticity of a signature. A copy of Pratchett’s latest book with an early signature is highly unlikely, and should be viewed as suspicious.


Bookplates come in a variety of forms and from a variety of sources. The least attractive arrangement is when a book is sold with a signature ‘laid in’. Oftentimes the signature will be on a scrap of paper, a publisher’s bookplate or a generic plate. There is no implicit connection between the signed paper and the particular copy of the book. This is simply something that the seller has put together to make the sale more attractive. This particular arrangement can, in our opinion, be worsened when the plate is pasted down by the previous owner.


A publisher’s bookplate (pasted in by the publisher)

Sellers do sometimes sell books and signatures in this format for the legitimate reason that they were purchased in that fashion and therefore the connection between the two is created through the provenance.

There is an exception to this rule when the book is published or sold in that particular state. For example, we have in stock a set of Philip K. Dick’s Collected Stories that were signed by way of a signature strip from a cheque. We also have a Murakami limited edition for which the publisher sent the author a group of plates to sign for the limited edition, which the publishers then pasted in. This is common with limited editions. An edge case is when a bookseller requests a number of plates from the author or publisher and then sells them on. We find that these are generally less preferable.


A book signed by way of a cheque (also a presentation copy)

Finally, bookplates are much easier to forge. There’s no risk of damaging a rare book and mistakes can just be binned. We’ve even seen high-quality photocopies of bookplates.

This is of course a matter of taste, but with regard to collectability one should opt for a book signed directly to the bound page or as published (in the case of tipped in leaves).


The final thing we’re going to look at is scarcity of a book in a signed state. If you find that you have the opportunity to be particular about the manner in which a given book is signed, then the chances are that signed copies are not particularly scarce on the ground. The phenomenon of ‘books with added value’ seems to be fairly recent borne most likely from the Harry Potter craze. Publishers wanted to create the next Harry Potter, collectors wanted to buy the next Harry Potter. The publishers printed first editions in huge quantities because the demand was there. Out of the high demand came a demand for collectable copies. Limited editions (both from the publisher and the bookshop) became more common, but also did books with various additions. By various additions we mean signatures from the cover artist, illustrators, and all manner of people associated with the book, additional sketches, dates under the signature and the recipient’s favourite line from within the book written by the author, ephemera from the publication including posters, bookmarks, postcards, bags and all manner of things. The publishers plough so much into marketing the book that the authors do huge tours where before there might be only a couple of signings. So the first editions are signed in huge numbers and are not rarities.


Signed, with a date and line from the book.

Our recommendation with these type of books is to err on the side of caution. You need to ensure that you’re buying for desirability and not for value because there’s a very good chance that you’ll be overpaying. One also has to understand how much value that embellishment actually adds to the book.


By quality I mean the actual standard of the signature. Collectors will often prefer a signature written in a nice pen and not in a hurry. It’s easy to spot a sloppy signature.


The stronger provenance you are offered the better chance you have of being secure in your purchase. Provenance doesn’t mean a good story to go with the book, it refers to evidence supporting the book’s reported history.

The important thing to note with provenance is to not be fooled by it. We were recently offered a signed T.S. Eliot book, the book was presented with a letter of provenance. It was a great story, the dates and association all lined up, there were associations with editors of magazines that Eliot wrote for and the names on the inscription all were accounted for – even the date had corroboration. However, the signature felt wrong as did other signatures for that the seller was offering. It was such a complex ruse too that holes appeared. The point is that it was so confidently presented that it was difficult not to believe the provenance.

Limited Editions from the publisher are pretty much guaranteed to be authentic, but are not always more valuable than signed first editions, particularly when printed in runs of 1000 or more. The provenance here is inherent.


A signed limited edition

Things such as ticket stubs, photos of the signing or promotional material can help, but these are not a sure fire way of guaranteeing an authentic signature. Of late, holograms have been used to authenticate a book as holograms are difficult to forge. While this pretty-much guarantees that you’re getting an authentic signature, it also suggests that the book was signed at a mass-signing, which to some extent reduces the desirability.


A hologram

Similarly, a history of the book at auction, doesn’t guarantee authenticity, but it does suggest that someone with a great deal of experience has looked at the signature and deemed it authentic. The same can be said with Certificates of Authenticity. These vary from a hand-written note guarantee to a full-blown holographic certificate from a reputable company. All the latter says is that someone has deemed the signature authentic and perhaps even guarantees that should it be proved inauthentic the buyer will get their money back. The problem is that it’s very difficult to prove a signature inauthentic. Often, experts in the trade will be asked their opinion to examine a purported forgery, which brings me back to my point of asking a member of the trade in the first place.

Another good bit of provenance is catalogue descriptions of the book’s previous sales, or receipts etc. from a previous seller. This chain of sales constitutes a good bit of provenance and again shows that experts have examined the book and deemed it authentic.

Many dealers will help you examine a signature, but the best way to attract these services is by becoming a customer and creating that relationship with the seller. You then have someone you can rely on for help and advice, who in turn can refer to their colleagues in the trade.

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil [Bodley Head, 1930]

In this post we’ll be looking at John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and the White Devil.


This is just the second post on our blog and already I’m breaking the rules somewhat. To remind you, the idea of this blog was to look at works of speculative fiction that have fallen from the general reader’s view. These are books that may well be beloved of the scholar and classicist, but for the general reader of speculative fiction they may as well be from Mars (OK, that’s a terrible analogy, it would’ve been better to say that they may as well be from earth).

So, why the John Webster then? Well, the answer I’ve come to is that there is a strong element of myth and horror in both The Duchess [of Malfi] and The White Devil, with their dark subject matters. I admit though, this is not enough to warrant inclusion. So how about the fact that they’re not actively promoted in modern culture. Again, a massive lie, both are currently being performed in London, the White Devil by the RSC no less.

So, I ask myself again, why did I pick the book? Well, the honest answer…all my speculative books were packed ready for WorldCon, and this was the only one that look remotely speculative left on the shelf [and I’ll admit, I know very little about either play]. However, I’ll justify myself by treating this as an examination of something I read recently noting that there was an element of lycanthropy in The Duchess. Coupling this with the disturbing undertones of his works we have a sort of proto-horror without the supernatural element. For the sake of brevity we’ll focus primarily on The Duchess, though The White Devil does have a couple of ghosts in it, which I’m pretty sure plant it firmly in the speculative camp.


John Webster, as many no doubt know, was a 17th century playlist remembered for his dark and macabre Jacobean dramas. The plays he’s best remembered for are the two aforementioned, with The Duchess being first performed privately around 1612-1613. He is credited as having provided some of the groundwork for the Gothic movement in literature of late 18th / early 19th century. Though it would be a stretch to describe his work as Gothic, it certainly slithers along with the same unsettling backdrop. Webster is one of only a handful of playwrights who have had their works under almost constant performance since first publication

The Duchess was first performed publicly by The King’s Men, the company of actors to which Shakespeare belonged and who first performed his plays. The date of performance seems tricky to tie down but the consensus seems to be between 1614 and 1621. The first edition of the book was published in 1623. image

So let’s have a look at the particular edition of the book that we have in stock [Bodley Head, 1930]. Like I said before, the book looked somewhat speculative sat on the shelf. To be more precise it looks like a work of the developing genre of supernatural horror from the turn of the century, adorned with a typically decadent design more familiar to book buyers of the 1900-1910 era. The book is illustrated by Henry Keen, whom I assume provided the device on the upper board and spine which are repeated on the jacket and the illustrated endpapers. Little is known about Henry Weston Keen. He died in 1935 in Switzerland and was born in 1871. Christie’s sold a set of five signed lithographs in 1995 for £225. Now if we were to very liberally compare him to the bastard child of Goya and Dore, that £225 would be a supreme bargain. Alas, his work isn’t Goya or Dore, nor is it Clarke or Beardsley, though he does appear to borrow elements from all the aforementioned. That said, his work does have a slightly sinister resonance, particularly the vignettes. If one were to savagely remove the plates from the book and present them to a bookish type, one wouldn’t be surprised if they thought they were from a book of Gothic horror. The Cardinal’s Window plate is particularly Gothic with the looming tower to the left of the frame. 


The book carries facsimiles of recommendations by fellow dramatists William Rowley and Thomas Middleton, and a John Lane. This last name is proving difficult to research primarily because a much later John Lane was a publisher, ironically, a partner (with Elkin Mathews) in Bodley Head. The best guess we have is a poet of that name who the Dictionary of National Biography has as being active around 1620, apparently a friend of Milton’s father who published only two pieces - I assume that reputation far outweighed publication prowess in those days.

The facsimile title page notes that The Duchess was performed at Blackfriars privately and then publicly at The Globe. The White Divel was first published in 1612 [spelling is correct as per title page - I’d be interested to find out why it was spelt as Divel, it doesn’t appear to by etymologically linked]. The title of The Duchess per the title page is The Tragedy of the Dvtchesse Of Malfy, auction records show two copies, both from the 1930s, one listing reports that this was the first play to record the names of the characters with the actors - an interesting note. This copy sold for £12 with some leaves provided from a later copy. The second copy was seemingly complete and sold for £55 (£3,500 with inflation). Major British institutions hold copies including the BL, V&A, NLS and Leeds University (I may pop and see it). Anyway, that’s not the book I have.


So, finally, to the lycanthropy claim. Well, whether we’re talking about a physical transformation from man to wolf to man, a reported transformation, or a metaphorical transformation is not really the point. It seems that it’s likely a literary device with lycanthropy not only accentuating the beastliness of Ferdinand but also taking a swipe at Catholic prelacy, power in general and emotionally decay. But there’s certainly something deeper wherein Webster is suggesting that emotion can to some extent dictate the physcial. Either way, this is certainly a narrative element of speculative fiction, and so I feel justified in including it here!

Let’s have a look at a few lines, and you can judge for yourself:

"PESCARA: Pray thee, what’s his disease?

DOCTOR: A very pestilent disease, my lord, They call lycanthropia.

PESCARA: What’s that? I need a dictionary to’t.

DOCTOR: I’ll tell you. In those that are possess’d with’t there o’erflows Such melancholy humour, they imagine Themselves to be transformed into wolves; Steal forth to churchyards in the dead of night, And dig dead bodies up: as two nights since One met the Duke ‘bout midnight in a lane Behind St. Mark’s Church, with the leg of a man Upon his shoulder, and he howl’d fearfully; Said he was a wolf, only the difference Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside, His on the inside; bade them take their swords, Rip up his flesh, and try: straight, I was sent for, And having minister’d unto him, found his grace Very well recover’d.”

To summarise, while Webster’s plays might not be for the regular reader of speculative fiction, they certainly gel nicely with those readers of speculative fiction with a penchant for the weird and macabre, particularly those who enjoy the works of Hope Hodson, Machen, Blackwood etc.

Our copy is available here: Link


The Riding of Lancelot by S. Fowler Wright, 1929.

The Riding of Lancelot is Sydney Fowler Wright’s take on a scene from Arthurian mythology. But before we look into the book itself let’s look at the source material. King Arthur’s as old as Britain, his story stretches back fifteen centuries and has never perhaps been as vibrant as in the last century. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae [The History of the Kings of Britain] introduced him to the English via Latin from the Welsh in the first half of the 12th Century. Now don’t assume that a grand title such as this book has would suggest a good place to look into early English Arthurian sources, because Monmouth’s book was one of the original works of alternative history wherein he peppered his history with elements of credible fantasy. Geoffrey introduced to the canon Merlin, Excalibur and Guinevere - that’s not to say they were his creation, but the written word being what it was, his was the first detailed recording in this form (with early fantasy literature it’s better to think of a web than a timeline, each author adding his own spin). Chretien de Troyes, a French writer from around the same time, plugged in Lancelot and the holy grail. But it wasn’t until the 15th century that the mythology found an expansive story in Thomas Malory.

In a similar way to how Tolkien gathered together northern European mythology in Lord of the Rings, Thomas Malory gathered Arthurian legend.The book was originally intended to be titled The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, but was retitled Le Morte D’Arthur [The Death of Arthur] and was one of the first books printed in England (by William Caxton), an ode to its importance if ever there were one. The earliest obtainable copies of the book come from 1634, which was at least the sixth edition of the book and nearly 150 years more recent than Caxton’s printing from 1485. None of the intervening editions are likely to come to market (an early 16th century fragment came to the market in the early 1970s). The British Library own a manuscript from a few years before Caxton’s printing. I mention this printing history largely because the books go through new translations, have material added to them and get edited and even rewritten. Each iteration of the story alters the cultural landscape a little, adds a new gem, or omits something that offers food for thought.

It’s important to consider the conditions under which a book is written and published, the writer’s education, first language, social standing etc. because all these things affect the writer’s bias and interpretation of the folklore they’re they’re trying stabilise. For Malory this is particularly important. He could quite easily have been from Westeros, his claims included being a knight of the shire, a member of parliament, being fluent in both French and English, reasonably well educated and somewhat wealthy. But toward the end of his life he took a violent turn and his claims included extortionist, horse thief, general thief and rapist. He even broke out of prison and was involved in subterfuge in the Wars of the Roses. He was ultimately jailed though, and it was in jail that he wrote Le Morte. Like I say, Westeros would suit him well. Now if you take a person like that and get them to write a book, particularly a book on something they have first hand knowledge from both the moral and amoral sides, then you end up with something that lasts five hundred years.

Anyway, we’re getting into too deep a history, so let’s get back to Fowler Wright’s book. It’s sufficient to know at this point that Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is kind of the first version of the Arthurian legend that we’re all familiar with and for the 500 years or so that it’s been in print it’s been an invaluable source for many, if not most, of the subsequent interpretations. 

S. Fowler Wright was a fairly prolific writer, particularly of science fiction and was one of a handful of British writers to fill that gap of gestation between Verne and Wells and the forthcoming wave of golden age science fiction from the US. He’s largely forgotten today, but there are readers out there still. His first published work was another Arthurian work, published ten years before the present work. Reading through various biographies it would appear that Fowler Wright was a strongly moral man. Now a comparison between himself and Malory isn’t really applicable, but one can assume that the vantage points were quite different, and thus their rendering of the myth would be quite different.

The book itself is a joy to read, within the first five pages there’s action involving knights, a chase scene between knights, a fight between knights, a castle containing a knight and a forest with a knight (bloody Lancelot sleeps through the whole thing). I think that’s more than Robert Jordan put in entire books. As the book is a poem you take the pace of reading somewhat more carefully, parsing each sentence slowly and deliberately within the structure, but the image that is created is very similar. The flow and rhythm of the book brings you very much into the scene. The story itself is quite faithful to its source, Wright has even used iambic pentameter as did Malory. it is drawn from book six of Le Morte with a few minor characters replaced with more familiar ones. Wright also rounds the story off a little at the end by adding a kiss with Guenevere. On top of this, there’s something quite special about reading a book that’s this old and quite well presented. It undoubtedly adds to the reading experience to think you’re reading the story as it was first read a hundred years ago.

It’s difficult to say how this book in particular contributed to the current snapshot of fantasy literature; it is absent from many bibliographies, present in only a handful of academic institutions, scarce and out of print. And since the book is out of print and has been since Wright self-published this with a print run of 500 copies in 1929 it’s tricky to find. I’m aware that I’m building the book up just to say that you can’t read it, this isn’t my intention. Rather, I would hope you might take away the impression that next time you’re in a bookshop and you see an old leather bound tome with a somewhat intriguing title then buy it (obviously only if they’re not overly expensive for the gamble), you might be surprised. I have attached the first few pages, which I urge you all to read, just so you can get an impression of the landscape.

So, why am I writing about a virtually unobtainable book, something by virtue of the fact that it’s written by a forgotten author and is out of print is evidently unimportant? Well, because it should be remembered. This interpretation is a good one, and by studying it we are keeping it fresh in the collective mind of fantasy. It is an important work in the Arthurian oeuvre and deserves a bit of attention. But I don’t bring it here to tell you just how important it is or its history, I bring it here to illustrate the point that to find good fantasy doesn’t always mean sitting and waiting for the publishers to show you a pre-publication trailer of a new book, or even believing the hype. No, there are stories out there, good stories that have survived millennia, stories that take a bit of hunting to find and a bit of time to read, but stories that are rewarding. We talk about the changing landscape of fantasy, but we can’t truly appreciate this without looking at the history of it.






Introducing Some New Blog Entries…

I read a list recently of the 25 greatest fantasy novels. The vast majority of books on the list were first published in the last 20 years. Now while it’s unlikely that the fantasy published in the last two decades represents 90% or more of the best fantasy of all time, it is understandable why this list appeared as it did; most of the stuff readers buy is new stuff, so there’s a bias toward that. There is of course the angle that the literature that is published now builds upon all that has come before it so has the advantage of a good palette of colours. However, fantasy, being the oldest form of literature is an incredibly rich and varied canon, and it would be a shame to think that not enough people are digging deeper. 

As rare booksellers we generally look for books that have contributed to the cultural landscape. It helps us feel that our job is more than just buying and selling. Most books from the last couple of decades haven’t had the chance to contribute fully, or rather their contribution hasn’t yet been fully realised. So the majority of our stock is pre-21st-century. There are some exceptions where the cultural impact is undeniable (Pratchett, Martin, King, Rowling) or where the books have helped progress the variety and strength of the canon (Hobb, Mieville, Abercrombie), but on the whole the fantasy literature we deem ‘important’ has had at least a generation to permeate the cultural membrane.

Of course, important and great aren’t necessarily the same and it takes a lifetime to reconcile the two. A lot of the time we read what we feel is entertaining, because we aren’t always interested in how it impacted the canon. There’s nothing wrong with that. But at the same time, there is a lot of important writing out there that is great (there is also important writing that’s bloody boring). I’m thinking of writers like William Morris, E.T.A. Hoffman, E.R. Eddison, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Malory, and pieces such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Mabinogion. These are writers and works that have had an incalculable influence on the books of the last 20 years, and continue to do so.

I am slightly biased toward this area of fantasy because these are the scarcer items and these are the items that collectors buy because of their importance within the canon, so they are good stock. But at the same time, in my research and reading I’ve found these to be great and entertaining reads. So I thought I’d write some pieces based around rare books and important works of speculative fiction (i.e. fantasy, science fiction and horror) that are more often seen in university libraries than in the Waterstone’s fantasy section.

I’ll be looking at publication history, cultural impact, various rarities, reading strategies and I encourage you to comment too because I imagine many of you have much more experience in these areas than I do. Many of the books will be new books we’ve just acquired, and many we’ll have little knowledge of, so it will be a learning experience. And if just one of you picks up We’ll start by looking at S. Fowler Wright’s The Riding of Lancelot.

Alistair Maclean - The Guns of Navarone - Collins, 1957, UK Signed First Edition
London, Collins, 1957. A fine copy with a short closed tear to the top of the jacket only a few mm. Some light edge wear and a slight lean. Signed without inscription by the author.

Alistair Maclean - The Guns of Navarone - Collins, 1957, UK Signed First Edition

London, Collins, 1957. A fine copy with a short closed tear to the top of the jacket only a few mm. Some light edge wear and a slight lean. Signed without inscription by the author.