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Fantasy and the Collector Mentality

Raise your hand if own more than one copy of Lord of the Rings.

Lord of the Rings Books by unknown artistI own four: the ebooks, my first mass market paperbacks from when I was 7 or 8, a leather-bound omnibus version I got for my 11th birthday, and a 7-volume edition I bought in my late teens. They look great on my shelf, and reading each version is a different experience despite the text being exactly the same. Why, then, do I need all four versions?

Because I’m a collector.

It’s the same reason I’m constantly on the lookout for a Science Fiction Book Club Edition of A Memory of Light, or why I keep buying Pathfinder Tales even though I’ve yet to read one that has really wowed me. It is the same reason I buy every Dungeons & Dragons hardcover that is released, and why I won’t just throw out the ratty, torn Dragonlance paperbacks that are almost unreadable at this point.

This collector’s mentality is by no means unique to fantasy and science fiction. It isn’t even unique to books. Comics, video games, music, toys, baseball cards, bottle caps, cars, shark’s teeth, creepy little dolls—all of these things are collected and obsessed over by obsessives all over the world. Some of it is the thrill of the hunt. Some of it is aesthetic. And some of it is very likely OCD. But there’s no arguing that in the publishing world, the collector’s mentality is on an upswing and in sci-fi and fantasy, there more collecting options than ever before.

giant library by ElHombredeArenaThe rise of the ebook has transmogrified the middle ground. By and large, the landscape has shifted from one dominated by mass-market paperbacks to one split between the ebook and hardcover/trade paperback camps. Fantasy and sci-fi, in particular, seem to have embraced this 21st Century model, likely because publishers know that there is a large cross-section of fantasy and sci-fi fans that are collectors. With traditional bookshops slowly going the way of the dodo, publishers are working overtime to come up with new ways to entice readers into buying actual physical books, as opposed to downloading ebooks onto the device of their choosing.

The practical effect of this is that mass market paperbacks—once ubiquitous in bookstores, grocery stores and every retail outlet in between—have fallen out of favor. Ebooks have taken their spot in the market. An unexpected side-effect of the rise of ebooks is that publishers are instead focusing on more “deluxe” physical releases—larger, richer trade paperbacks, limited run hardcovers, special first editions, etc. The thinking is that these premium physical editions will serve as an incentive to the reader to purchase higher-priced physical media over cheaper digital options (or, more likely, purchase both versions).

The effect of this shift on the collector is radical, particularly when considering the long-running series—which is commonplace in sci-fi and fantasy. When trade dress, size, cover art or format change on a series like the Malazan or Song of Ice and Fire, collectors hit the streets (or, more likely, the Web) with a two-fold mission: finish their collection of the old versions before prices go through the roof, and start their collection of the new versions. Publishers know many of us can’t resist. That’s why there are a million different versions of A Game of Thrones to buy. That’s why a slipcased collection of Lev Grossman’s Magicians series is so popular. That’s why I could buy another four versions of Lord of the Rings and still not have anywhere close to every edition available.

Books by JakeWBullockSmall press limited editions are also in vogue, and aimed squarely at collectors. Grim Oak Press, Jurassic London and countless others are releasing beautifully bound and illuminated versions of recent classics such as Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series and Daniel Polansky’s The Builders. Neil Gaiman special editions are a cottage industry. There is a viable market for these “deluxe” editions—and many publishers are creating books that are amazing examples of art meeting design. Would this small corner of the publishing world be flourishing without the rise of ebooks? It is tough to say. Collectors were around long before Kindles, but the shifting publishing landscape—and the availability of print-on-demand technology and direct-to-consumer sales via internet—has certainly made crafting collector’s editions easier.

Fantasy and sci-fi fans are an obsessive bunch. We’re a group whose fandom extends far beyond the words printed on a page. The collector mentality is part of that obsession. Our book collections are like tattoos or bumper stickers—they declare our loves, allegiances and philosophies on life. Raise your hand if you own more than one copy of Lord of the Rings.

And leave it up if you plan on buying more.

Title image by Simon Brown.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Peter says:

    I own a mass market (3 book version) paperback as well as a ebook version

  2. Avatar Steven Poore says:

    My vice is uniform editions far more than multiple copies of a book. I am forever pained by the fact that Stephen Hunt’s publisher changed the covers on The Court of the Air halfway through the series. My collection of Gollancz Moorcock editions looks fantastic. I breathed a sigh of relief that I was able to complete Emma Newman’s trilogy with Angry Robot covers. Terrible, but true.

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      I 100% relate to that sentiment!! I abhor having a complete series that lacks uniformity. This is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about in the article, and I wish I would’ve touched on it a bit more.

  3. I have over 40 copies of LOTR…I know, I know. But Tolkien has been my main collecting focus since 2001! So I’m keeping my hand up because I definitely plan on buying more. 😉

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