Selling vintage paperbacks at the Chicago Worldcon, 2012.
That’s Peadar O’Guilin and Kristin Janz in the background,
and David Kyle’s hand at left
I’ve been collecting science fiction paperbacks for around forty years, and attending SF conventions for roughly the same period. So it’s natural to eventually combine the two. About fifteen years ago, after I’d started selling Black Gate magazine at conventions, I decided to package up some of the older duplicates sitting in my basement and bring them along too.
That quickly became the biggest draw at our booth. As I learned the hard way, struggling in vain to launch a new fantasy magazine, the audience for short fiction in this field gets smaller every year. But interest in vintage science fiction seems to sharpen and grow with each passing month.
It was especially gratifying to see young SF readers approach the booth, eyes wide, taking in the colorful rows of hundreds of paperbacks published before they were born. Sometimes they’d make appreciative comments like, “I can’t believe you have such an incredible collection… it seems a shame to sell it!” Of course, if four tables stacked with books seemed unbelievable, the truth (that this wasn’t my collection, but just a small fraction of the duplicates from my collection) would probably tax their fragile credulity to the limit, so in those moments I’d usually just smile and say, “Shucks. Thanks.”
[Click the images for bigger versions.]
Becoming a seller gradually changed my buying habits, too. Like most young collectors, I started by buying everything that interested me, and collecting authors I loved. Selling forced me to become more aware of the market — what authors and publishers sold, and what books had enduring value, for example.
But more than that, selling gave me permission to buy purely on spec. To collect not just for myself, but for hypothetical future buyers. Years ago I would turn down bargain book lots sadly, aware that I already had most books in the set, and that as a lone collector there just wasn’t enough value to justify the purchase. Nowadays, however, my own collecting needs frequently take a back seat to my seller’s instincts, and I happily snap up discounted book collections regardless of how many copies I already own.
Of course, now that we’re no longer publishing a print version of the magazine, I don’t sell as often as I used to. In other words (or, as my wife puts it), what began as a way to make a few bucks and clean out the basement, has cost us a fortune and made the basement so crammed it’s virtually unnavigable.
For the love of God, take some of these books off my hands
Anyway, I sometimes make great buys, and I just as often make lousy ones. That’s the life of an amateur bookseller.
But if I’ve learned anything over the last 15 years, I’ve learned that it’s hard to go wrong collecting and selling Ace Doubles — especially the early series. They’re just about the most reliable sellers I’ve encountered in a decade and a half of convention selling.
There are three major reasons why.
- Great Cover Art
- A Deep Bench of Authors
- They’re Cheap and Plentiful (if you know where to look)
Not surprisingly, that first one on the list is probably the most important. The Ace Doubles were blessed with some of the best artists the field has even seen, and they put their mark on numerous famous (and not so famous) science fiction books. They include Ed Emshwiller (Emsh), Ed Valigursky, Jeffrey Jones, John Schoenherr, Kelly Freas, Alex Schomburg, Gray Morrow, Jack Gaughan, and many others.
Steve Fahnestalk has a great retrospective of the art of Ace Doubles over at Amazing Stories:
Flickr also has a gorgeous gallery of some of the best covers of the D-Series here.
Second, you’d be hard pressed to find a line that promoted as many great science fiction writers as the Ace Doubles. They were around for roughly 25 years (1952-1978), and produced hundreds of titles. A partial list of the SF authors they published includes:
Clifford D. Simak
H. Beam Piper
Ursula K. Le Guin
Manly Wade Wellman
A.E. van Vogt
Robert E. Howard
John W. Campbell
Eric Frank Russell
L. Sprague de Camp
Gordon R. Dickson
Philip K. Dick
Samuel R. Delany
Thomas M. Disch
Dean R. Koontz
R. A. Lafferty
Neal Barrett Jr.
A. Bertram Chandler
Any way you look at it, that’s an incredible — and very collectible! — list.
Third, there’s a certain mystique about the Doubles, especially for casual collectors. I almost never came across the older ones in used book stores, and the ones I did find were exorbitantly priced, especially in good condition. When I had them to sell at conventions, I would usually start the D-Series Ace Doubles (the oldest SF titles, and all the ones shown on this page) at around $10, and I usually sold out of everything I had in stock.
And the most collectible of the lot — such as the Asimov, Robert E. Howard, and Phlip K. Dick titles — would get snapped up at $35 a pop.
But despite the perception in the market, the older Ace Doubles aren’t actually all that rare. True, they were hoarded and collected, and long-time collectors were loath to part with them. But that just means that there are a lot of them out there, and that when they come on the market, they’re often in fair-sized lots, offered in an estate sale by someone who just wants to get rid of them.
That means that a buyer that knows where to look — such as online auction sites like eBay — can reliably pick up nice lots of Ace Doubles in great condition. And a seller who knows where to sell — such as at SF conventions — can move them at a nice premium.
For example, I bought the lot below on eBay two weeks ago. It contains all the Doubles shown above, and others. Many are titles I’ve personally sold for $10 each (and above) at conventions over the years. I won the auction for $11, or just $1 per book.
I don’t know if I’ll sell these yet, or just cherish them and cuddle them, and then put them in bags and bury them in the basement. Could go either way.
But if you’re the kind of person who has a fondness for vintage paperbacks, and also has a keen eye for a business opportunity, I think there’s one to be had here. I don’t attend that many science fiction conventions these days, and the ones I do attend don’t seem to have many paperback sellers in the Dealer’s Room any more. But the appetite for vintage science fiction books is still very much alive among SF readers, and experience tells me they’re more than willing to pay a premium for highly collectible paperbacks from the right authors, and with the right cover artist.
The Ace Doubles, as a rule, had both. They’re certainly not the only way for an enterprising book buyer and seller with a keen eye to make a profit, but they make a great start.
Here’s the flip side of that collection above.
And since everyone seemed to appreciate the spontaneous cat pic that resulted the last time I laid a bunch of vintage treasures on the floor, here’s the entirely predictable results of this morning’s efforts in my living room.
This is what tyically happens when I put paperbacks on the floor
If you’re interested in learning more, our recent coverage of Ace Doubles includes:
Assassins, Mad Robots, and an Alien Hunt: Rich Horton on The Man With Nine Lives and A Touch of Infinity by Harlan Ellison
An Interlude with Messrs Brunner & Van Vogt: The World Swappers by John Brunner and Siege of the Unseen by A.E. van Vogt, by Tony Den
Generation Ships and Martian Rebels: Rich Horton on 200 Years to Christmas by J. T. McIntosh and Rebels of the Red Planet by Charles L. Fontenay
Star Pirates and Cyborg Games: Rich Horton on The Star Virus by Barrington J. Bayley and Mask of Chaos by John Jakes
Invaders of Pluto, and Brain Stealers of Mars: Rich Horton on The Ultimate Weapon and The Planeteers by John W. Campbell
Space Barbarians and Uranium Mining on Mars: Rich Horton on Empire of the Atom by A. E. Van Vogt and Space Station #1 by Frank Belknap Long
Dorsai and Secret Psi Powers: Rich Horton on The Genetic General/Time to Teleport by Gordon R. Dickson
Space Stations With Secret Passages, and Snow White in Space: Rich Horton on Sanctuary in the Sky by John Brunner/The Secret Martians by John Sharkey
Parallel Universes and Space Marines: Rich Horton on The Games of Neith by Margaret St. Clair/The Earth Gods are Coming by Kenneth Bulmer
The Problem With Marion Zimmer Bradley: Rich Horton on Falcons of Narabedla/The Dark Intruder
King of the Fourth Planet/Cosmic Checkmate by Robert Moore Williams and Charles V. De Vet & Katherine MacLean
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.