On September 1, 1939 4:45am Central European Time, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein leaves Danzig harbor to cross the channel to the Polish army fortress Westerplatte while German Wehrmacht begin crossing the border into Poland. It is the beginning of World War II. At the same time across the Atlantic in the United States, two partners that met 10 years prior, are about to publish the first printing of their “Big Book” – Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism.
The partners are New York stockbroker William G. Wilson who crashed with the stock market and became a hopeless drunk and Dr. Bob Smith a surgeon from Ohio, who had also been an alcoholic for thirty years. Bill W. and Dr. Bob Smith met in 1929 and formed a relationship with the mutual agreement to help keep each other sober. They went on to form Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) together in 1935.
The book they published in 1939 sets forth cornerstone concepts of recovery from alcoholism and describes the stories of men and women who have overcome the addiction. Today it is the most widely used resource for millions of individuals in recovery and the organization has more than 2 million members. The first edition went through 16 printings before the publication of the second edition in 1955, the third edition in 1976, and a more recent fourth edition in 2001. The essential recovery text has remained the same while personal stories have been added to reflect the growing and diverse fellowship with the fourth edition featuring 24 new personal stories of recovery.
The book’s first editions of any printing are incredibly scarce. It carries an incredible social and historical significance with its commercial value skyrocketing. In 2004, the fully annotated master copy manuscript of the Big Book sold for $1.5m, more than three times its $500,000 estimate, to a private Californian collector, business attorney, William A Shenk, at a Sotheby’s auction.
Earlier this month PBA Galleries at its Rare Books & Manuscripts auction that took place after the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair on the 18th, catalogued lot #8 to include the 16 first edition printings of Alcoholics Anonymous in their original dust jackets. The full set included in addition to a first printing the extremely scarce seventh printing, which was the last printing to be issued in a print run of 5000 and in the larger size format. It is believed that only 1000 to 1500 copies were printed due to the paper shortages experienced during the wartime efforts and was also a possible reason for the change to the smaller format for subsequent printings. The next printing increased to 20,000. PBA Galleries set its estimated total value to be between $200,000-300,000.
Unfortunately the lot was withdrawn from the auction possibly due to an unpublicized private treaty that took place prior to the event. The disappointing aspect is that there was no auction sale to place a fair market value figure next to the 16 first editions of this legendary book.
Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book represents a fine example of demand driven scarcity. Although it was not the first help book to be published, it proved to be the most collectible in its category. The book will probably never go out of print as it has set the standard for fighting addictions. The 4,650 first edition, first printing copies printed have slowly vanished from the market. In 2007 sales broke through the five figures mark and have been climbing ever since. Today it is extremely difficult to locate one that is in good condition and even later printings are commanding five figures. Second edition, first printings from 1955 are sometimes going for close to $500. What is a complete set of sixteen first edition printings really worth?