Welcome to the world of rare and collectible books.
Before we can begin detailing the process of determining the fair market value of your books, it’s helpful to learn the terminology and the basic factors involved. As you read through this crash course in rare books, you’ll nail together a framework upon which you can build the knowledge needed to find out how much your books are worth.
At the end of this section are a number of websites which list fairly complete glossaries of the terms used. We recommend reading through them once each, to get an overview of what’s out there. Later on, as you run into terms that look familiar but have skirted off the edge of your memory, you can return and refresh your knowledge of what they mean.
When a book is published, the demand is often great enough to warrant a second or third printing, and occasionally the book will even survive the rigors of the industry and find itself in dozens of editions. The quest for originality makes the first books in such a string the most valuable of the lot.
First editions are not all alike, however, and to demonstrate the differences, we need to look at some of the terminology (based off Alibris; see Terminology section for link):
- edition: all copies of a book printed from the same plates or setting of type.
- printing: all copies of a book printed at one time (e.g., on 14 Jan 1870).
- issue: a portion of the printing of an edition that has a different format, binding, or paper.
- state: minor changes made to a portion of the edition during the manufacturing stage, often intentionally.
- point: one of those minor changes.
The earlier its printing or issue, the more valuable a book is, with few exceptions. Moreover, a small printing (say, 50 copies) will almost always be more valuable than a large one (8,000, for example). Smaller printings are usually called limited editions.
In the course of its life, a book may often be re-bound, whether by libraries or book dealers or other interested parties. A book in its original binding is worth more than one that has been rebound, as you would expect. In addition, if a book has its original dust jacket, the value rises dramatically. (In some cases the dust jacket is worth even more than the book itself.)
Since scribbling is their livelihood, authors often write in their books, signing their names and occasionally writing other material as well—poems or personal notes, for example. Inscribed copies are worth more than copies whose pages have never seen the touch of the author’s pen. The mere existence of handwritten ink on the page does not necessarily increase a book’s value, however; marginalia and highlights and other inscriptions will in fact decrease the value if penned by someone who was neither the author nor famous. Speaking of this latter group, from time to time a book will indeed pass into the hands of the famous, and if their ownership can be proved (the book’s history of ownership is called its provenance), the value rises.
Finally, not all books are so blessed as to remain safely preserved under the watchful care of a collector or curator. Some endure rugged journeys through rain and snow; others are used so much that they wear down to mere tatters and shreds; and yet others find themselves in misfortunes involving food and spilt drink. As is fitting, the physical condition of a book has a firm say in its value; the better off it is, the higher the value.
In 1949, AB Bookman’s Weekly came up with a list of terms used to describe a book’s condition, and these eventually became the general standard across the industry (taken from Powell’s; see Terminology section for link):
- AS NEW: To be used only when the book is in the same immaculate condition in which it was published. There can be no defects, no missing pages, no library stamps, etc., and the dust jacket (if it was issued with one) must be perfect, without any tears. (The term As New is preferred over the alternative term Mint to describe a copy that is perfect in every respect, including jacket.)
- FINE: Approaches the condition of As New, but without being crisp. For the use of the term Fine there must also be no defects, etc., and if the jacket has a small tear, or other defect, or looks worn, this should be noted.
- VERY GOOD: Can describe a used book that does show some small signs of wear – but no tears – on either binding or paper. Any defects must be noted.
- GOOD: Describes the average used and worn book that has all pages or leaves present. Any defects must be noted.
- FAIR: A worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title, etc. (which must be noted). Binding, jacket (if any), etc. may also be worn. All defects must be noted.
- POOR: Describes a book that is sufficiently worn that its only merit is as a Reading Copy because it does have the complete text, which must be legible. Any missing maps or plates should still be noted. This copy may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc.
- EX-LIBRARY: Copies must always be designated as such no matter what the condition of the book.
- BOOK CLUB: Editions must always be noted as such no matter what the condition of the book.
- BINDING COPY: Describes a book in which the pages or leaves are perfect but the binding is very bad, loose, off, or nonexistent.
- DUST JACKET: In all cases, the lack of a dust jacket should be noted if the book was issued with one.
Terminology and Glossaries
Step 1: Search.
It’s generally wise to scout out the territory first, for a cursory glance through the search engines’ results will often tell you what you need to be paying attention to as you proceed. Begin your search by going to AbeBooks or AddALL (see Aids to the Process). Type in the year of publication, the author’s last name, and one or two words from the title. (There is often variation in databases as to how the titles or names are written, and so it’s best to start broad and then narrow your search down as necessary.) For example:
- Author: stevenson
- Title: treasure island
- Year: 1883
If your search returns nothing, modify it slightly—remove the year or the author—and try again. Cast your net wide. Once you start getting results, you’ll want to tighten it up and pull it in. Add more search terms until you get just the results you want.
And what results do you want? Ideally, you’ll find a book virtually identical to your own—same publisher/printer, same edition, same printing, same issue, inscribed if yours is, etc. At this point, though, you probably don’t know how to tell the editions and printings apart. Our goal in this initial foray, then, is for you to quickly become an expert of sorts on the book’s printing history, tracing your finger across the lines that divide states and issues and editions. Look through the results you get and note what is said about the various editions and printings and such.
For example, a search on AbeBooks for the first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island garnered this description:
London Cassell & Company 1883, 1883. First Edition, First Issue of Stevenson’s Classic Work STEVENSON, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. London: Cassell & Company, 1883. First edition, first issue: “Dead Man’s Chest” is not capitalized on pp. 2 and 7; the “7” stamped in the pagination after the page was printed. Octavo. viii, 292 pp. plus 4 pp. advertisements, “dated 5R-1083” (the advertisements incorrectly listing Treasure Island with 304 pages). Frontispiece map of Treasure Island printed in four colors. Original sage green diagonal fine-ribbed cloth with covers ruled in blind and spine ruled and lettered in gilt. Original black coated endpapers. An exceptionally fine copy.
From this we can tell that the capitalization of “Dead Man’s Chest” on pages 2 and 7 will reveal whether we have a first issue or not, as will the dates on the advertisements, as marked by a “5R-1083,” and the green cloth binding.
One last arrow waits in the quiver: the bibliography. A bibliography is simply a list of books, of course, as found at the end of any undergraduate’s research papers. In the rare book world, however, bibliographies delve far deeper into the details, listing for pages on end the minutiae which differentiate the varied editions and issues under examination. Bibliographies often make their home in major libraries, particularly those at universities, and most of the time they are centered around an author instead of a specific work. In order to find one, then, you would search the library catalog for “robert louis stevenson bibliography” instead of “treasure island bibliography.”
Step 2: Examine.
Look at the book and see if it matches the descriptions you found in Step 1. It’s detective work, basically, and you’ll need to stitch together the clues to ascertain what you have and where it fits in the grand scheme of things. You may want to write out your findings, noting down your conclusions and the reasons behind them. If your copy doesn’t match up with a specific edition, try jotting down a table listing the closest criteria from the descriptions or bibliographies and the corresponding features of your copy.
Step 3: Search again.
Return to the search engines and see if you can find a comparable edition. If your search is successful, compare the physical condition of your copy to that of the copy listed, and then adjust the value accordingly. If you can’t find a comparable edition, try to find something similar (starting with the publisher and the year), but be aware that the staggering array of intervening factors can vastly alter the value. Be sure to document any decisions for future reference, especially any tenuous valuations dependent more on the waxing and waning of the moon than on hard, solid evidence. Good luck.
American Book Prices Current (ABPC)
ABPC is a record of all auction sales of books and manuscripts since 1975. ABPC is available online and is only available in annual subscriptions. Here are the prices (http://www.bookpricescurrent.com/online.cfm):
- Initial year (for librarians and dealers): $595
- Initial year (for other people): $800
- Subscription update: $198
First, you'll want to click on the “Used & Out of Print Books” tab near the top (just to the right of the green “In Print Books” tab). Alternately, you can just go to used.addall.com. AddALL doesn't have a specific field for publication date, but the Keyword field works equally well. You can also sort by price in descending order, which will list the most valuable books first, and you can check the “First edition” and “Signed” boxes if either applies to your copy.
Click on “Advanced Search” (under the red “Find Book” button). AbeBooks’s interface is admittedly nicer than AddALL’s, and in addition you can search by publisher and through a range of publication dates, which often comes in handy.
The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) search pulls in results from a number of antiquarian booksellers, similarly to AddALL. (As you search, you’ll notice that there’s a fair amount of overlap between ABAA, AddALL, and AbeBooks, but there are of course booksellers who only list on one of the three, so it’s wise to search all of them instead of just one.) You can also request evaluations from ABAA members specializing in the type of book you have, as explained on ABAA’s website (http://abaa.org/books/abaa/abaapages/evaluating.html).
More than a few auction houses put both their catalogs and their sales (either estimated or realized) on the web. While searching through these sites can often be cumbersome at best, some excellent information is nevertheless available and is worth some minor discomfort stuck in a user-unfriendly interface. Fear not—after spending more time with the sites, their initial intimidation will wear off.
Pacific Book Auction (www.pbagalleries.com): On the PBA homepage, click on the “Live Auctions” link to search their catalogs. Alternately, choose “Prices Realized” to see how much items sold for. PBA also has an instant appraiser link on its homepage. While this is a great tool to find out the range of book prices you are working with, it should not be taken as an official appraisal.
Swann Auction Galleries (www.swanngalleries.com): A large auction company, Swann’s is a great resource. From the homepage you can easily browse their catalogs and find the prices at which the items are estimated to sell.
Christie’s (www.christies.com): Christie’s is a huge international auction company, dealing with all sorts of merchandise, not only books. To search their catalogs, go to the homepage, click on the “Catalogues” link, and then click on “Browse Catalogues.” You can browse their catalogs by following the “Auction Calendar” link, and you can also follow the auction results through the “Auction Results” link.
OCLC WorldCat (www.worldcat.org)
WorldCat is a catalog of more than 100 million items in more than ten thousand libraries world wide. In other words, you can access the catalogs of over 10 thousand libraries from one site. Looking up a book in library catalogs can give you some extra information to work from—what editions are existent, for example—but you won't find any values here. Still, it can be useful.