Random Thoughts – The Undervaluing of George Macy and The Limited Editions Club

There have been a number of times over the years, when talking with various ‘fine’ and antiquarian book dealers and collectors, where a certain snobbery against George Macy and his works from the Limited Editions Club (LEC) became evident. Sometimes timid (“I do not pay much attention to those“), others more explicit (“Macy and his LEC is not fine press” or even “not much more than a glorified Book of the Month club“). Always disagreeing, though usually silently, I never really spent much time pondering the reasons for this bias. On a long, boring flight home a couple days ago, I set my feeble mind upon it.

The most obvious reason is the high limitation number (usually 1,500), which generally prevent the editions from being extremely rare, thereby translating to the sometimes ridiculously low prices that certain LEC’s can be found for. This is a legitimate reason for many resellers to avoid LEC’s, as far too many of the editions have too low price points and too low margins. Also, while there are exceptions, the overall quality/desirability of books from the post-Macy era up until the Shiff era suffered some, which holistically hurts the overall ‘brand’ somewhat (akin to what may happen to Maserati when overusing Chrysler parts).

After grasping the obvious, which the lack of rarity certainly is (along with a glut of some of the less desirable titles), I got stumped. Sure, the Macy-era LEC’s are not livre d’artist in production (like the latter day Schiff era works). However, they do include illustrations from many (if not most) of the greatest book illustrators of the early and mid twentieth century, even ignoring the Picasso and Matisse editions. The illustrations were done via a medley of true old school reproduction methods, rarely though more ‘mass’ means.  Especially in the early years, hand-set type was not uncommon. Letterpress was pretty much always used. The Macy years often saw frequent use of fantastic hand and mould made papers. Bindings were typically also hand-done, high quality, and often used the best of materials. Best of all, pretty much the ‘whose who’ of great early to mid-twentieth century book designers were utilized in the production of the LEC Editions. In general, I freely admit, the slipcases were usually an afterthought and were generally poor quality, especially when compared to the books. But, who cares about that in the scheme of things, as long as such slipcase protected the book over the years?

I certainly get that there are hundreds of examples of fine press works, many highlighted on Books and Vines over the years,  from before and during the Macy era that, cover to cover, may be ‘nicer’ and more desirable, certainly more rare with significantly smaller limitations. All hand-done, including paper, type and binding, no expense spared. Such are often wonderful, beautiful and well worth the large price tags they command. These are not fair comparisons. Presses that produced a handful of editions over the years with super small limitations accomplished wonderful things. However, this misses the point, and the glory, of the LEC.

1) Macy published his editions, one a month, for decades; a scale unheard of for the level of quality he was providing. Try doing that for the $10 a month that Macy charged ($10 in 1930 is worth about $135 today). Pick pretty much any of his books from the 1930’s or 1940’s, and I doubt more than a very, very small percentage could be made and sold today for anything less than $500, many $1,000 and more. Imagine a fine press producer today who would have to live off of selling their publications for less than $135 a copy in a limited edition, letterpress, finely bound, hand-colored edition done with hand or mould made paper. Sure, one can make a nicer book, but within these constraints, with this level of limitation?  No way. Give the man some respect!

2) Certainly one thing thing that causes some bias, Macy ran the LEC as a business not as a purely ‘artistic’ enterprise. It was not art for arts sake, money had to be made; certainly at least enough to cover the costs of the enterprise. When one has to care about money, budgets and customers, choices always have to be made, often weaving the best path through suboptimal paths. Macy was a genius here. Sure, there were design misses and some unfortunate choices, but when we are talking about hundreds of books, what can you expect? What fine press publisher prior to, during or after, can claim perfection or no misses in a bibliography of even 10% of what Macy put out? If a criticism around ‘commercialism’ means putting such nicely done classic works in the hands of 1,500 people a month for a reasonable price, then let there please be another ‘commercialistic’ George Macy in the future!

3) Some aspect of the bias/snobbery against Macy’s works is almost certainly, though unstated, that Macy aimed for the masses, the average guy, if you will. He wanted to make finely done books that a wider range of people could hope to afford; and importantly, finely done books that people would want to own. To Macy, this meant a focus on classics, not esoteric titles that appealed to small sub-sets of people, often only the very wealthy.  Macy said in his introductory letter announcing the LEC:

The various private presses…are doing fine work in bringing to light hitherto unknown works, and in publishing books previously considered rare.  But it is the intent of The Limited Editions Club to place in the hands of its members books which are generally known and generally admired. These books must be the kind which book lovers have neglected to read and want now to read and want to own in fine editions.

{As an aside: This combination of business sense (having to care about revenue and costs, and therefore having to provide what potential customers wanted) led him to create Heritage Press (HP) so to truly be able to sell more in mass. I will not go on about HP, other than to say, to this day, the $10-$25 cost most HP’s can be picked up for today is by a factor of at least 5x-10x the best deal in book purchasing today. No similar collection of trade editions or mass produced books in the last forty years can come close to the quality or price of these editions. One not blessed with lots of money can build a wonderful library just collecting HP’s and nothing else.}

It is this mix of high quality, use of an all star list of designers and illustrators, a focus on classics done in a fine yet approachable manner, which make LEC’s, in my opinion, a fantastic collecting choice. As does the fact that the LEC took great care in choosing the version or translation that would best meet the objective of one having the best of libraries. Having hundreds of LEC’s not only provides one with access to the greatest literary works the world has ever seen, it does so in finely done editions created by some of the giants of book design and book arts.  What’s not to appreciate?

I will close with words from Macy, written in the Monthly Letter of January 1933, which sum up why his books are special, why they deserve respect, not neglect:

Not all “fine books” are good books. That is, if one is willing to accept as the definition of a good book, not Milton’s literary apostrophe about the life-blood of a master spirit, but the printer’s definition that a good book is the medium for conveying words from an author to a reader in an easily-read and physically pleasing manner.  The phrase “fine books” has, in the twentieth century, come to apply to all books which are made with unusual care, with loving care, with the use of unusual printing types, better than usual paper, embellishments and decorations and illustrations, durable and decorative bindings. It is not at all a derogatory remark, that many such “fine books” have not been good books at all, have not been intended for reading or for inclusion in one’s library of friendly, companionable volumes. Many have been objets d’art, full of pictorial beauties which completely obscure the words of the authors; many have been printers exercises in type and paper and binding, intended to dazzle and delight the printing connoisseur, with no thought for the reader for whom good books are made; many have been meant for the collector, issues to become rare upon their very issuance, with an emphasis upon their bibliographic and not their literary qualities. But not many “fine books” are good books, intended to convey words from an author to a reader in an easily-read and physically pleasing manner.

Now, this may be because a good book is harder to achieve than a “fine book”. For, if the book is to be easily read, then the typographic plans must be unobtrusive; an effect of simplicity in the composition of the type and its printing upon the paper is essential. Yet, if the typographer sticks to simplicity exclusively, his book is not physically pleasing; for a simple oblong of type upon paper is common, plebeian in the book world, it can be seen in any trade edition and there is no special pleasure to be derived from it. To make his book physically pleasing, the typographer must dress it up somewhat, must make delighting arrangements of his type, must decorate the pages or the binding pleasantly. And he must do all this while still maintaining such a simplicity that it may be said of his book that it is easy to read. He walks a narrow line! If his book is too simple, it may be easily read but it is plain. If his typographic plans become too elaborate, they obtrude themselves and drown the author in their waves of designs; and the book may be a “fine book” but not necessarily, from the reader’s standpoint, a library’s book, a friendly and companionable book, a good book.

In short, I collect LEC’s because the choice of classic focused titles and the quality of the work results in “books intended for a man to read and to keep in his library.” I have nicer editions, more valuable editions, livre d’artiste editions; any one, two or three editions from other fine press publishers may be my favorites, etc., etc. But, the hundreds of LEC’s I have been lucky enough to acquire form the core and width of my library. They are good books. They are books that get read.

 

'Good' Books
Some ‘Good’ Books

Let me state unabashedly, defending and respecting Macy’s approach in no way means that I do not respect and like the approach taken by others. As stated, some of my favorite works in my library and on my wish list are from much smaller presses, with much more of a focus on the art/craft than on the business; super high quality, super small limitations, often not classics but instead topics near and dear to the proprietors heart. The world needs both! The point of this article is that Macy deserves massive respect for what he accomplished. The lack of something similar today to what the LEC was hurts everyone; fine press printers, designers, artists and book lovers.

As an aside, we current fine press lovers are lucky in the number of people out there trying to keep this tradition of fine and good books alive. Barbarian Press, Arion Press, Nawakum Press, Shanty Bay Press, Foolscap Press, Whittington Press, Peter Koch, The Fleece Press, The Old School Press, Incline Press, Deep Wood Press and many others who in fairness I really should list out here (see links instead!). My plea: please do not always look backwards, but when your financial situation allows, buy often from today’s presses, whose labour and toil cannot possibly be appreciated enough. So yes, fill your library with Macy’s classic good books, but whenever economic circumstances allow, fill it in with the many ‘fine and good’ works today’s publishers are providing us!

On a business related note, towards the end of the last paragraph. I am exploring becoming an Abe’s book affiliate.  NOT to sell anything, nor to have any commercialization of the site.  Simply to provide a simple link from  a book review to the Abe’s inventory for that title, and perhaps one general link to Abe’s from which one can easily jump to it. If I decide to do this, 100% of all proceeds that would come in to me as commission for sending over to Abe’s, would be provided as donations/grants to current fine press publishers. To keep that 100% pledge from any doubt, I would publish the reports of what comes in to me from Abe’s and will demonstrate precisely to who the monies were then donated/granted to. What I would probably do is collect up until the amounts were at least something worthwhile, and then once or twice a year grant out to a fine press publisher as a gift to help them in any project they want to apply it to. For this to work, and for it to be worthwhile on my side, I would need to hope that many of you who do use Abe’s, would do so by going through Books and Vines, so that while you are picking up some ‘good’ books for yourself, you are contributing to the fine press ecosystem. I was even thinking of adding one simple Amazon link for the same purpose. Anyway, I am still in the exploration stage, please, please comment or email me if you think this is a bad idea, good idea, other ideas…..

8 thoughts on “Random Thoughts – The Undervaluing of George Macy and The Limited Editions Club

  1. Don:

    There is rarely a reason to purchase an LEC book from Charles Agvent, who routinely charges FAR more than any other fine bookseller for LEC books. On nearly every LEC Abebooks.com listing the Agvent listing is the most expensive, often by a considerable amount. Frankly, I do not know how he stays in business.

    1. Hello

      While Agvent is the most noticeable LEC seller, he is not the only one charging high prices. Just take a look at Biblio sellers. There are some charging $3000 or more for Shiff era books. Bill Meijer told me he has a loyal coterie of followers who would be embarresed to buy a book on Ebay. Argosy and James Cummins book sellers in NY are just as high if not higher. So is Luxmentis in new England. These sellers routinely charge 3 to 4 times what most other booksellers charge.

      It will be interesting to see what the Arion is ging to ask for The Leopard.

      Don Floyd——————————————–

  2. chris – After reading your article and corresponding with you, I browsed the Biblio site for LECs and found the LECs there priced exceedingly high. One stuck in my mind at $19,000 for a copy of Pasternack’s My Sister Life. These books listed on Biblio are certainly not undervalued, but at the prices listed are they salable? Every third book was for sale by Charles Agvent. He must sell a few books at his prices or he wouldn’t stay in business. Browse Biblio and let me know what you think.

    Also, I found an LEC I was looking for on Abe. I emailed the seller and wound up buying from him direct at a 15% discount plus he paid postage. I think this is liable to happen on most Abe purchases. After all, Abe is only renting their site at a 15% premium. They have no inventory so I don’t feel badly at cutting them out of the purchase.

  3. Dear Chris,

    Thank you for this. Jan and I have often found ourselves ensnarled in debates with people who seem to feel that a book which can be had for less than $100 in fine condition must not be worth serious consideration. Like you, we admire the LEC, and have several of their titles, chief among them the sumptuous 39-volume Shakespeare edition designed by Bruce Rogers. We also have some lovely Heritage Press books. Of course, as you say, these are not ‘fine press’ books as the phrase is currently used. But they are fine books by any sensible judgement.

    Many fine presses try, as you know, to produce books whose principal aim is to present the text to the reader in as accessible a form as possible, and to celebrate that text with fine type well printed on the best paper, finely bound and — where suitable — with apposite illustrations. It is always pleasing to talk to people who have bought such books and to hear that they have actually read them as well, for as we all know it is not uncommon for people to collect books without reading them, almost as trophies. One of the greatest privileges of the private press (to use the older and more pleasing term) is that one can publish little-known works which might not otherwise find a place on a commercial publisher’s list, or re-print in a beautiful form classics which have been ignored. We have heard from many people who have bought classics in private press editions that they had not read such-and-such a poem or story since it had been forced on them in high school, and were delighted, and somewhat surprised, to find that it gave them great pleasure!

    That said, fine press/private press books are costly to produce, and expensive to own. This is, unfortunately, unavoidable: the cost of fine paper rises almost daily, type is very expensive, and the work is heavily labour-intensive and slow. (One of the sad side-effects of these rising costs is that since about the 1990s most fine presses can no longer afford to publish new work by young poets and fiction writers: the costs being what they are, the books must necessarily carry a prohibitive price tag if the printer/publisher is to survive, and few people will lash out several hundred dollars on a book by a writer they have never heard of, and whose contents they have had no opportunity to browse.) Indeed, most fine press publishers cannot themselves afford to buy fine press books, and will gather a collection largely through trades with other such presses. So for us, and for many other readers and lovers of books who have to watch their funds, the Limited Editions Club, Heritage Press books, and books from the Folio Society fill a much needed gap. I mention the Folio Society because I have heard similarly disparaging remarks made about their books as well, and would say of them what you have said about the LEC — that they provide finely designed, beautifully produced, and eminently readable editions of ‘good books’ as George Macy defined them.

    Thanks again, Chris, for all you do for good books and good readers.

    Warm regards,

    Crispin & Jan Elsted
    Barbarian Press

  4. Chris, I couldn’t agree more with your praise of Limited Editions Club creator George Macy. He produced hundreds of beautiful books that were purchased by middle class Americans – teachers, doctors and the devoted bibliophile. Some of my favorites are the two volumes Compete Poems of Robert Frost, signed by Frost and beautifully designed by Bruce Rogers; Shakespeare’s Hamlet illustrated by Eric Gill; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wreath illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton; and Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Arthur Rackham. I was reminded recently of the readability of these books when a book group I attend decided to tackle Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. The new paperback versions appear to use two-point type but the Heritage Press three-volume, hardback, set is available used for the same price of $20 and is far more readable.

    Keep up the good work.

    Tom

  5. Chris,
    I enjoy the reading of your comments about fine press, and encourage you to support them actively. When you calculate how much effort and material (often expensive! paper at 3 $/ piece, binding that costs several hundreds, etc.) I am wondering how they can survive!
    I own 250 LEC accumulated over 4 years, and found incredible that all are different in size, paper, binding, typo, design, etc. It is a huge challenge to not just want to make an easier job by reusing same fonts or paper or size! So much cheaper as well. Beside the business side, GM was definitively a book lover!
    I collect Arions’, have recently subscribe to Endgrain, Matrix, asking regularly Rose “but when will you finally shipping Venice? Not for accumulating unread books, but for each time to have a totally new experience!
    I have a decent collection of French books illustrated by artists (Vlaminck, Degas, Maurice Bernard, Steichen, Josso, Notton etc. ) but today they are sold on the second-hand market for the price of a new paperback! Often limited to 100-150. Since the 60s, almost all the French private presses disappeared, and very few books lovers are interested in these marvelous books. So I am glad to see that the English private presses are still thriving.
    Thanks for this excellent blog!

  6. I own Brothers Karamazov in Heritage Press and was impressed by the quality,size and illustrations of the book.In fact,the paper itself is different.(almost feels glossy)
    Now the LEC is presumably better than the Heritage Press,so it is beyond how people can look down upon it!

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