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Old and First-Edition Books are Valuable … But Not Always

by Michelle Staley (10/23/12).

A 1957 first edition, first printing of Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” by Random House Publishing, with the blue and white matte paper-over-board covers and original dust jacket, has sold for as much as $5,000 at auction. This is not that edition, and therefore, worth much less.

A book appraisal I did this past week got me thinking about the common misconception that just because a book is old it is worth a lot of money or all first-edition books have considerable value. In fact, this is the exception instead of the rule.

Books are a somewhat complicated genre of collecting, buying and selling. It is one area in which condition is everything. Buyers want books that are in pristine condition. If the book originally had a dust jacket, the price is reduced quite a bit if the dust jacket is missing. Other condition issues to be considered are cosmetics, such as: rounded corners; fraying of the covers along the edges and spine; foxing (browning) of the pages; the smell of the book (looking for mildew); and cleanliness of the book exterior and interior.

Book collecting can be for anyone. It does not require a lot of money to get started, buying authors or illustrators that you love or books with pretty covers. And you don’t have to stick with one type of book. Instead, investigate multiple genres of books. Then, as you become more educated about the value of books, you can begin to upgrade your collection and sell the books that no longer fit into your plan.

I have been an avid book reader ever since I learned to read, which led to buying books, collecting certain books and, ultimately, selling books. Over the years, I have made some great purchases and sold them for a tidy profit. But by the same token, I have overpaid for books and made no profit at all. It is a very fluid market that requires almost daily research of book auction sales and collecting trends.

[Author’s Note: There are two books that I recommend having in your library if you are considering getting into the book selling game: 1) “ABC for Book Collectors,” by Nicolas Barker, John Carter; and 2) “How to Buy Rare Books; A Practical Guide to the Antiquarian Book Market,” by William Rees-Mogg

The question posed to me for appraisal concerned “The Cat in The Hat” by Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodor Geisel. The 1957 first edition, first printing of this title by Random House Publishing, with the blue and white matte paper-over-board covers and original dust jacket, has sold for as much as $5,000 at auction. The customer presented to me a green cloth-cover book with a colorful pictorial front cover of the “The Cat in the Hat” dated 1957 but printed by Houghton Mifflin Co., and she wanted my assurance that her particular book was a first edition worth $4,000-$5,000. This is not the case.

The green cover book was issued at the same time as the trade book but was distributed to schools throughout the United States for 6- and 7-year-olds to read. It turns out that Mr. Geisel was issued a challenge by a friend of his who, at the time, was the director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division, William Ellsworth Spaulding. Mr. Spaulding was tired of the “insipid characters” and “slicked up lives” of the children depicted in primers that this age group was reading at the time. His challenge to Geisel was to write a book with whimsical characters using no more than 225 words from a list of 348 that every 6-year-old should know. It took Geisel nine months to create the book and he used 223 words from the list and 13 that were not on the list.

The value of the green cloth cover book is $50 or less, as there does not seem to be a demand for this particular book. Why is this book not as valuable as the trade book? I really don't have an answer for that, other than the books issued to the schools were most likely distributed in a much larger quantity than the first edition run of the trade books. Many of the school books are probably ex-library books (these are not as desirable) and show greater signs of wear.

Other indicators of a true first edition of “The Cat in the Hat”:

• The inside of the dust jacket, where the price is, will show “200/200”;
• No mention of Beginner’s Book Series on cover;
• Covers are a matte finish instead of the customary glossy;
• The inside of the spine will show one signature instead of two;
• It is a blue cover with white accents.

Besides my collection of very early children’s books with beautiful graphics, I collect early books on running a home, raising children, keeping animals and in general survival. A few years ago I came across “Chase’s Receipts; or, Information for Everybody: Consisting of a Large Number of Medical Recipes.” It contains information for salon keepers, merchants, grocers, shopkeepers, physicians, druggists, tanners, shoemakers, harness-makers, painters, jewelers, etc. This was the go-to book for anything you would every need to know to survive back in the 1800s.

My 1866 copy of “Chase’s Receipts; or, Information for Everybody: Consisting of a Large Number of Medical Recipes” is the 38th edition. As you can tell from all the bookmarks stuck in my book, I have put some of the information to use or have plans to so.

An example of the prose to be found in “Chase’s Receipts; or, Information for Everybody: Consisting of a Large Number of Medical Recipes.”

My copy was printed in 1866 and is the 38th edition. I love it because of all the ads in the front and back, but also because of the wealth of information contained within. It is in perfect condition, with morocco leather covers and gilt text, tight binding and good, clean edges on the covers. I just knew that this amazing little book had to hold some resale value. I rushed home with my special purchase and, upon researching it, I found that this particular title sold more volumes than the Bible during its years of publication. There were very few households that did not have this very title or one similar to it, and many homes still have their early copies and have been handed down through the family. The resale value of these all-encompassing do-it-yourself books is in the $20-$30 range. As you can tell from all the bookmarks stuck in my book, I have put some of the information to use or have plans to so, so all is not lost.

The point I would like for you to take away from this article is that age has nothing to do with value when it comes to the printed word in book form. Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, which paved the way for the mass production of books. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are some first-edition contemporary books that have considerable value.

Just enjoy the feel of these wonderful books and you never know, you might just come across a first of “The Great Gatsby” with original dust jacket ($180,000) or the first Harry Potter book ($17,000).

Michelle Staley, who insists that collectors are the happiest people, is an antique collector and dealer. Her shop, My Granny’s Attic Antiques, Collectibles and Memorabilia, is in Lenexa, Kansas.

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