Books as Objects: Limited Editions

May 9, 2007 | 6 books mentioned 2 3 min read

coverSkimming through the bestsellers and new releases at Amazon, you may have spotted the “limited edition” of Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. “This special limited first edition is personally signed by the author and numbered. The jacketed hardcover is packaged in a handcrafted wooden slipcase which is shrinkwrapped. A must-have for collectors,” says the description. The book retails for $150, though Amazon has it for somewhat less.

The phenomenon of “limited edition” books is ostensibly an odd one considering the prevailing belief that the publishing industry isn’t in great shape these days, but from an economic standpoint it makes sense as an extension of “price discrimination.” Price discrimination also explains why books (on this side of the ocean, anyway) come out in hardcover before they do in paperback. To borrow from an earlier post of mine, “The way the book publishers see it, there is a certain percentage of the population out there for whom getting a book as soon as it comes out is worth the premium of ten bucks or so. These people are willing to buy the book at this higher price, so the publishers take advantage of it. Once the demand for the higher priced edition has dried up, they put out a lower priced edition and then they can sell the same book to a second group of people for whom owning the book is worth less.”

But since the limited edition typically comes out at the same time as the hardcover, there must be more to it than just paying to get the book early. With limited editions, buyers are paying for the exclusivity of the edition, for the ability to own something that very few other people have and that has a distinct look to it, setting it apart from, for example, the copies of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that everyone else is walking around with. And while limited editions are often signed by the author and will often include some extra content – perhaps an exclusive afterward by the author or some special illustrations – these books are mostly bought as objects, as signifiers of fandom that can be bought by the uberfan. Either that or they are meant to be bought as extravagant gifts – again, paying for the uniqueness.

coverIt should come as no surprise then that limited editions are exceedingly rare in the world of books as compared to music and movies, where fans are much more willing to go to great lengths to express their devotion. As such, limited editions are most commonly put out for books by authors with cult followings, whose fans are willing to pony up the dough for the exclusivity of these special books. For example, Chuck Palahniuk’s new book Rant is available in a limited edition and the original, 3,352-page version of Rising Up, Rising Down by William T. Vollmann can be viewed as a limited edition.

There are also the authors whose fan bases are so huge that publishers assume that the with all the demand for their books, the limited editions will get bought as well. John Grisham’s last effort, The Innocent Man came in a limited edition retailing for $250 and, of course, the “limited” editions of the Harry Potter books have been bestsellers in their own rights. The Deluxe Edition of the new Harry Potter book, retailing for $65, is currently the 21st most popular book at Amazon. $65 is apparently a small price to pay for “an exclusive insert featuring near-scale reproductions of Mary GrandPre’s interior art, as well as never-before-seen full-color frontispiece art on special paper.” And don’t forget that the edition’s “custom-designed slipcase is foil-stamped and contains a full-cloth case book that has been blind-stamped on front and back cover with foil stamping on the spine.”

coverThere are also limited editions that seem to exist because they would make easy, yet extravagant gifts. I can imagine that the limited edition of Bill Clinton’s memoir was a hot gift in certain powerful circles a few years back.

As for me, I tend to be more interested in the words inside the books rather than the nifty packaging, though I’ll admit to having been seduced a time or two by snazzy slipcovers and exclusive illustrations, though never quite enough to shell out the extra dough.

(Thanks to Brent for the idea for this post.)

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. The ultimate limited editions are probably those put out by Hill House: their work is disgustingly gorgeous and usually includes bonus material (like, say, an edition of American Gods that's 40 pages longer than the regular version, or the staggering amount of material included in their recent publication of The Martian Chronicles).

    And as much as I adore these novels and desperately want to read the additional material, I just can't justify shelling out three or four hundred dollars for it.

  2. Don't forget the limited slipcase edition of John Crowley's under appreciated masterpiece "Little,Big", tentatively scheduled to be available Sept '07 from Stinehour Press for 300 big ones, yow!
    More here.

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