A champion of the physical book, Richard Davies from AbeBooks.com offers advice to anyone thinking about collecting rare books.
It might just be me, but I believe far fewer ‘Physical Books are Dead’ articles are being published these days. Just as well because book collecting is alive and well, and co-existing happily alongside digital media. Avid readers are still becoming book collectors. Beautiful, rare and interesting editions are still being bought and sold.
The first question for any potential book collector to answer is ‘What should I collect?’ The answer is simple – collect the books you love. I always advise collecting for love rather than financial gain. It could be an author or a literary group, every possible edition of a single title, a genre or a sub-genre, an era or a publisher, first editions, signed copies or books illustrated by a particular artist.
Can you make money from collecting rare books? Yes, but like the stock market, the value of books can decrease as well as increase. Can you build a collection of valuable books? Again yes, but, again like the stock market, it takes knowledge and research to strike gold. Are books a good long-term investment? It depends – can you identify books that will gain value over a couple of decades?
Collecting books for financial gain is not easy. That’s why it’s good to start with the books you love and know well. Many collectors read every book published by an author and then begin collecting first editions of each title. Many collectors return to the books they loved as children. The loss of Maurice Sendak sparked interest in his work from collectors and a signed first edition of Where the Wild Things Are sold for $25,000 on AbeBooks just weeks after his death. Children’s books can be challenging to collect because young readers often treat them roughly.
Spend time in rare bookshops. Bauman’s Rare Books in New York and Las Vegas, the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, Royal Books in Baltimore, Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City and Wessel & Lieberman in Seattle are just a few famous names. Get to know your local rare booksellers.
Considering many people now consume books via digital files, book collectors are often drawn to books as objects of art. The look (and feel) of particular books can define a collection. Bindings, dust jackets in certain styles and illustrations can be attractive drivers behind a collection. In December, AbeBooks sold a 1944 first edition of Pasiphaé illustrated by Henri Matisse for $30,000. Books by Picasso and Dali regularly fetch high prices.
First editions and signed copies are two cornerstones of book collecting, but, once you have delved into the world of used books, the golden rule is condition, condition, condition. The difference in financial value between a first edition that’s been gently read once and a heavily worn first edition with a torn, price-clipped dust jacket can be significant.
For modern first editions, the presence of a dust jacket is vital in itself – DJs were commonly thrown away by owners in the early years of the 20th century. The most significant example of how a dust jacket can affect value is the first edition of The Great Gatsby – with a dust wrapper, the book is worth more than $100,000 (one sold for $182,000 at auction in 2009). A first edition lacking its jacket is worth less than $10,000.
A book’s value increases when there is demand from buyers but copies are scarce. Simple economics. There can be many influencing factors, such as the literary or social significance of the book, interest in the author, awards or controversy. Das Kapital by Karl Marx shaped world politics, so first editions are worth $50,000. At the lower end of the scale, signed copies of the 2012 Booker-winning Bring up the Bodies start at $90.
Moby-Dick was a flop when it was first published. Then a warehouse fire in 1853 destroyed the vast majority of the American first editions. Slowly, critics and readers came to understand Herman Melville had delivered a masterpiece and the few remaining first editions soared in value. Today, a first US edition will be priced over $60,000.
Some authors are generous signers and that makes their signed books affordable. Ray Bradbury signed thousands of books, and today prices start at less than $20 – very low for a writer of such magnitude. Salman Rushdie and Ken Follett are two more prolific signers and prices for their signed books begin at around $15 and $8 respectively.
If an author has reclusive status (think Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger) then you will pay a premium for a signed book. AbeBooks sold a rare signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird for $25,000 in 2011 – an unsigned first edition went for $18,000 last year.
As a reader of Publishers Weekly, you probably already have many books on your shelves. But a good book collection is not defined by quantity but quality. New books from successful authors often have a large first edition print run but you need to find the first edition of that writer’s debut title where only 1,500 copies were printed. A famous example is J.K. Rowling’s first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. She was an unknown writer and only 500 first edition copies were printed. One of those books sold for $37,000 on AbeBooks in 2005 at the height of Pottermania.
If you already have first editions from up-and-coming authors on your shelves, you need patience. The big bucks are generated by books from legends of literature such as Kipling, Hemingway, Kafka and Tolkien – writers who have inspired millions of readers. It can take a long time to become legendary.
Another key question is how much should be spent on a book collection? Thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to spend $40,000 on a signed first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming. Set a budget and stick to it. If you are collecting books that have prices out of your reach, be smart – spread your net into charity book sales, library sales, and thrift shops. Spot undervalued copies and snap them up. I met one collector who loved first editions from Fleming but could not afford them – instead he bought later editions and added facsimiles of first edition dust jackets. Facsimile jackets can be bought for $20.
There are hundreds of ways to build an eye-catching collection without breaking the bank. A bookshelf filled with vintage Penguin paperbacks will impress anyone. Penguins published in 1936, the company’s first year, can be bought for under $5. Pulp paperbacks are also plentiful, fun to collect, and just as cheap.
For more on book collecting, visit AbeBooks's online guide to book collecting.
RICHARD DAVIES has worked for AbeBooks.com since 2005, and manages merchandising and PR. He writes about used, out-of-print and rare books on a daily basis for AbeBooks.