Tauchnitz Editions


The half life of books

Posted by Baronbern on February 17, 2012 at 9:40 AM

In a separate blog on my Services Edition site, I recently speculated about whether books have a half-life. In other words, does exponential decay apply to the number of remaining copies of the first printing of a book? If 10,000 copies are printed and after 20 years there are 5,000 left, is it reasonable to expect the number remaining to halve every 20 years? Can we judge what the half-life might be by estimating the number of remaining copies? Could we even use it to predict how many might remain in future?


First printings of Tauchnitz Editions had relatively low print runs, possibly 1,000 – 2,000. Those that sold successfully would be re-printed many times, accumulating sales of many thousands, even tens of thousands, but I doubt the initial print runs were much higher than one or two thousand. For the most part they were printed as paperbacks, although on reasonably good quality paper, and a significant proportion of 19th century books were subsequently bound privately. Once bound, their half-life would clearly be longer, but they also become less easily distinguishable as first printings, making it difficult to estimate how many of the first printing remain. So let’s first concentrate on the paperbacks.


Suppose there were initially 1,000 paperback copies of the first printing that were not bound by their owners. A half-life of 20 years would leave 500 after 20 years and around 30 after 100 years. Is this a reasonable estimate of how many paperback first printings might remain of a typical Tauchnitz Edition published around 1912? After 170 years (the age of the earliest Tauchnitz editions), the number would be down to about 3 remaining copies of each book. Taking all the first 100 titles together, Todd & Bowden were able to locate early paperback copies (first printings or close to this) of just 10 of them, although this may partly reflect that the collections they reviewed were mostly in libraries, which tend not to like paperbacks much.  I've put more emphasis on paperbacks in my collecting, but still I have first (or very early) printings of fewer than 20 of these first 100 titles, several from a single source. There are no doubt others out there waiting to be found, but between 0 and 5 remaining copies of each book doesn't sound way out.  Once the numbers have fallen this low it becomes a question of whether any can be safely archived in collections or libraries, so that hopefully  the process of decay can be arrested, or at least slowed down.



An early 1st printing - no later-published titles advertised


For bound copies, an initial number of 1000 and a longer half-life, say 30 to 40 years, would leave 20-50 copies of each of the oldest books. Where there were later printings that are indistinguishable from the first printing once the book is bound, there would of course be more. Again these numbers don’t sound too far away from reality to me. The numbers offered for sale in the second hand book trade might suggest they are more common than this, but many of the books described as first printings are a long way from being so.

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