What are Association Copies? Or Collecting Other People's Rare Books

"When you become a book dealer, remember Ruby's advice, somewhere in here--Don't buy any bad ones--Don't leave any good ones. That's all there is to it."



So John Dunning wrote in one first edition of Booked to Die, his first Cliff Janeway novel. His inscription and signature make this book an association copy, a category of books in which many collectors of rare books choose to specialize. Collectors particularly enjoy association copies because they often illustrate personal relationships between authors and family, friends, colleagues, and other well-known figures.

The concept of association copies is rather a new one in the world of book collecting; it didn't emerge as its own discrete category until after the 1890's. By then, the importance of a book's provenance had taken hold, and with it the idea that some provenances were more interesting or desirable than others. Association copies were first addressed from a bibliographic perspective until thirty years later, in both A Primer in Book Collecting (1926) and The Elements of Book Collecting. Since then, there has been growing acceptance of association copies in the trade and among collectors.

What Is an Association Copy?

The exact definition of an association copy, however, has been the topic of ongoing conversation. Books with specific provenances are now widely accepted as association copies:

  • Any book that actually belonged to the author or someone connected closely with the book's contents, such as the editor or illustrator

  • A volume that the author presented to the person to whom the book is dedicated, known as the dedication copy (usually the most desirable of association copies)

  • A book that bears the bookplate or signature of a well-known individual, even if this person wasn't directly connected with the author

An association copy is not, on the other hand, any of the following:

  • An edition of the book that has had the author's letters, papers, or inscription tipped in by a third party. For instance, some readers would glue correspondence from an author onto the flyleaf of one of the author's books, a process known as grangerizing.

  • Books that may have heavily influenced an author, but are not the exact volume that the author physically owned. Jane Austen was often moved by Cowper, but that does not make every volume of Cowper an association copy.

  • Books printed with the word's "Author's Edition." This does not refer to the author's ownership of the work, but rather to the fact that the edition was published with the author's permission and was not pirated.

Selected Association Copies

Most collectors find that their personal libraries come to include a number of association copies. Our inventory currently includes a wide variety, from John Dunning's Booked to Die (above) to volumes from the personal library of James Contursi, Umberto Eco's bibliographer.

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Collecting Vocabulary

  • Author's edition: The edition of a book that's been approved for publication by the author
  • Inscription: A short, personalized note, written by the author or a previous owner; usually located at the beginning of the book and accompanied by a signature
  • Presentation Copy: A book that was a gift from the author. Presentation copies often bear inscriptions to the recipients. 
  • Provenance: The history or chronology of a book's ownership. If a book is owned by a notable individual, this provenance could qualify it to be an association copy. 
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Related Resources and Further Reading

Association Copies Earn Well-Deserved Attention

Do You Know Where Your Signed Book Comes From? 

How a Signature Affects a Book's Value

American Library Association: Rare Books and Manuscripts Section. Provenance Evidence Terms

[The Caxton Club.] Tansell, G. Thomas (Introduction). Other People's Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2011. 

Williams, Iolo Aneurin. The Elements of Book Collecting. New York: Stokes, 1927. 

Winterich, John T.  A Primer in Book Collecting. New York: Greenberg, 1926.

Black Sunday

Thomas_Harris_Black_SundayThomas Harris is beloved among horror and thriller enthusiasts. This edition of Black Sunday includes an affectionate inscription from the author to the mother of his close childhood friend. The inscription reads, "Dear Mary Mc, I appreciate your interest in my work. I thought that doing the next book would be easier, but I'm finding out different. My best to Len. --Thomas Harris, May 12, 1975" 


 The Syrian Experiments

Doris_Lessing_Sirian_ExperimentsIn her Canopus in Argos series, Nobel laureate Doris Lessing creates a "space" fiction universe to metaphorically explore spiritual, cultural and social issues. Volume III returns to the planet Shikasta of Vol. I, this time telling the story of human history and evolution from the Sirian perspective, a more bureaucratic and less advanced civilization. This edition is signed and inscribed by Lessing in April 1981 to Ingmar [Bjorksten] - a Swedish writer who has been connected to the Nobel Prize committee, 26 years before Lessing received the award. 


Die Weltanschauung Der Indischen Denker, Mystik Und Ethik [Indian Thought And Its Development]

Albert_Schweitzer_Weltanschauung_Indischen_DenkerNobel laureate Albert Schweitzer inscribed this edition to Stanley Unwin, "Mit lieben Gedanken, Albert Schweitzer, 20 Nov 34."The book was not published until early 1935, making this an early association copy indeed. The book represents Schweitzer's attempt to outline the Indian view of the world in the early 20th century. In the original German language, later translated into English as Indian Thought and Its Development.


The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and Other Umberto Eco Titles

Umberto_Eco_Mysterious_Flame_Queen_LoanaWe're proud to offer a number of books from the personal library of Umberto Eco's bibliographer, James Contursi. Ten of these are inscribed from Eco to Contursi, including this first English-language edition of The Mysterious Flame of Queen LoanaThe novel recounts rare-book dealer Yambo's attempts to retrieve his past, which ultimately leads him to rediscover the zeitgeist of his entire generation. 


Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts

John_Steinbeck_Mice_Men_PlayThis first Japanese edition of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men has the preface and text of the play in English, along with notes and commentary in Japanese. It's signed by editor Kiyoshi Nakayama and inscribed to Lee Richard "Dick" Hayman, noted John Steinbeck scholar and historian and co-founder of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA: "For Dick Hayman / The leader of the / Steinbeck Foundation / with warmest wishes / Kiyoshi Nakayama / January 10, 1993 / (the official publication date)."


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