While there are usually readily detectable differences between any individual editions in the Observer series, there are often much more subtle variations, where it can appear as though there is nothing to tell two particular books or their jackets apart. Under such circumstances, clarification is often aided by referring to the individual print number of an edition. This is a small printer's code, usually found either near the front or the rear of the book, which carries details of when the book was printed, and by whom. Other variations include different prices on the inside front flaps of the dust jackets, changes in the way two books are bound or covered, or even the repositioning of a single word on the front cover. All-in-all, including all these many different versions, there are well in excess of 1000 editions in the series - the exact number is not known as, some thirty years after the last book was printed, new editions continue to come to light.
The value of books within the Observer series depends on many factors. As already mentioned, condition is tantamount, but some editions are also simply much rarer than others. As well as the early, first editions there are, for example, a number of limited editions with special jackets and covers: there are two rare versions of Aircraft, one produced for Alcan in the mid-70's, the other for the Farnborough Airshow in 1980. In the late '70s, a total of thirteen different titles were given special jackets, to be given away as promotional items for the agricultural chemical company Cyanamid. Three titles - Ferns, Lichens and Common Fungi - were all given black and white jackets in the mid to late '60s, and a small number of full-colour "wavy line" edition jackets were printed with a thin laminated layer in the late '60s - these are known as "glossy" editions and all carry a printed 45p price. Many of these aforementioned editions had very small print-runs, and are extremely rare, fetching remarkable prices.
A number of the later editions to the series are also highly collectable. This is primarily due to the waning interest in the series in general at the time, with the result that not only were print-run sizes (listed here) reduced to match dwindling sales, but unsold copies were often withdrawn from the shelves and pulped. This is particularly the case for high-numbered editions, including titles such as Folk Song in Britain, Paris, Opera and the World Atlas - one of only two books in the series that is a different size from the standard format of 5.75" x 3.5" (the other being a large print edition of Music from the mid '60s).
So, what lies at the heart of the Observer's Books collectability?
Undeniably the continuing appeal of many of the books in the series is that they are still exceptionally good reference guides, but what is it that drives otherwise sane and responsible individuals to sacrifice their precious spare time and hard-earned money, to shun the company of their loved ones, and instead to spend their hours scouring charity shops, house clearances, dusty second hand bookshops and car boot sales on rainy afternoons in the (usually fruitless) search for that elusive rare edition, or that one last book to complete their collection? For many collectors there is the thrill of the chase, the obvious sense of satisfaction in achieving the perfect run of 97, or the near-impossible feat of collecting every single variant of every edition. But for others, perhaps these charming little books from a by-gone era play a different, more subtle role - as a comforting reminder of lost days of innocence, of endless summer holidays spent trampling carefree through the countryside or turning over stones in rock-pools on the beach, of marvelling at the world around them, a world that now stands on the brink of disappearing without trace...
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