J.D. Salinger and the Market for Signed Material

Perhaps given both J.D. Salinger's reclusiveness and his refusal to publish any new work for the last forty-plus years (not to mention his long life - he was 91), the announcement of his death last week seemed to me to have been greeted with more of a whimper than the bang one might expect for a writer of his stature and importance. But he'd essentially been dead to his readers since before many were even initially exposed to his writing. Indeed ironically, his death again raised questions of the publication of posthumous Salinger books, and one could detect in some of the coverage a hope that his passing might mean new Salinger works could finally be given a life of their own.

As a rare book dealer, however, I'm much more curious to see what effect Salinger's death will have on the market for signed material (books, letters, manuscripts, etc.). Specifically, I'm very interested to see how common/uncommon signed books become. It's been pretty clear for many years that Salinger maintained a fairly extensive correspondence most of his life (for just one hint of this, read Lillian Ross' lovely remembrance of her life-long friendship with JDS). That these materials have been relatively uncommon in the marketplace (though hardly as rare as most people imagine) has -- in my opinion -- been a reflection less of their true scarcity and much more of the loyalty (or fear) of those he was in contact with. It has long been rumored (unsurprisingly) that Salinger would cut off contact with those who spoke publicly about their friendships with him. I suspect his death will free at least some of these correspondents to part with Salinger material they've been sitting on (for example, like this). In other words, my guess is that Salinger letters and notes will become much more obtainable over the coming years. 

But the bigger question for me is that of signed books. My second-hand observations of this corner of the Salinger market is that there have been far fewer signed books (at least ones with solid provenance) available in the trade than other signed Salinger material. And prices seem to bear this out. While a JDS letter or note might be had for four figures, I can remember only one or two signed books that could be had for less that five figures. And if Salinger letters become increasingly available over the coming years, this discrepancy will only grow. 

Why would Salinger books remain so scarce even after his death? First and most obviously is that his reclusiveness provided little opportunity for his books to be signed. But even among those who came in contact with Salinger, my impression is that he was genuinely reticent (if not downright hostile) to sign his books - even in the years before his self-imposed "exile." Did he sign books to his friends that -- like his letters -- might worm their way onto the market in the coming years? Only time will tell. But my guess is that getting a signed book by Salinger will remain a tough and very expensive proposition, while laying one's hands on a signed letter or note will become somewhat easier and moderately less expensive. It will be fascinating to see how this market develops.

I'll close with a small story to illustrate my point. A few years ago, I was in a home purchasing a small collection of books. The shelves were filled with mostly academic texts, but when I looked up at a bookshelf in the living room, I saw a neat row of all of Salinger's books - all beautifully preserved.

"May I look at those?" I asked.

"Go ahead," the owner said, "but they're not first editions, they're just what we bought when the books came out."

"Actually, these are first editions - all of them."

"Are they? Well I only bought them because I grew up in the same building as Jerry [Salinger]. His mother used to babysit me. And once when he was in high school or so, Jerry watched me for an afternoon and took me on a walk around New York."


"Yes. In fact I have some photos of Salinger as a boy around here somewhere...And some letters from his mother to me."

"Wow. I'd love to see those. Have you ever thought about selling them?"

"Oh no," she replied. "I couldn't do that. Now I haven't seen him in decades, but I don't think Jerry would like that at all. No, he wouldn't like that."

Hmm. Remembering this story now, thinking maybe I should give her a call...