What is Your Old Book Worth?
The value of old books can vary based on many, many factors. Unfortunately, your book may not have a high value just because it is old – or even because it is a famous title. The following guidelines for 19th and 20th century books are just a few areas that may help explain valuation.
A first edition is always worth more than subsequent editions. First editions (by new authors) were usually published in smaller numbers to reduce risk for the publisher. Those who purchased these books did so without foreseeing eventual popularity and value. If a first edition sold well, the publisher could quickly print additional copies. And sometimes the second printing of a book followed the first by only a few weeks.
But identifying a first edition can be very difficult. For some books, it is as simple as noting the words “First Printing” on the title page – or even matching the published date with the copyright date. But for most books, it may be as varied as the particular publisher, the title page printing scheme, complex numerical notations, specific advertising in the back of the book or on the dust jacket, typographical printing errors which were later corrected, colophons, illustration changes and many other fine points. Scholars and historians who have researched the various states of a book are sometimes the only authorities on first editions.
And some first editions are also the only editions. A book that was not reprinted because it was not popular will not necessarily be valued as a “first”.
While value drops dramatically for subsequent editions, it is true that early editions (especially in the original format by the first publisher and illustrator) can be more valued than later editions. Many popular books were eventually reprinted thousands of times, by many different publishers and often with many different illustrators. In fact, some books from the 1800s have never been out of print.
Collectors should be aware, however, that the copyright date often has no relation to the latest publishing date. In fact, the copyright date could be more than 50 years older than the true publishing date (which may not be noted at all).
In times past, dust jackets were considered as disposable as candy wrappers or paper sacks. Buyers tore them off and disposed of them as soon as they were brought home. Therefore, a vintage book with an intact dust jacket is rare and highly valued. In fact, a dust jacket in excellent condition can more than quintuple the value of a book, particularly for books printed prior to the 1940s, when people more commonly began to save the jackets.
Buyers must be cautious, however, because modern laser printers can duplicate original dust jackets. Paper thickness, stiffness, dimensions and quality can help identify laser copies. Defects or tears that appear in the copy (without actually being physically present) are obvious signs of a reproduction. If the condition of the book under the jacket is worse that the jacket (which should have protected the book from sun damage and the like), then the jacket is probably not original to the book and was added later.
Just as a home is famously valued by “location”, a book is valued by condition. Dust jackets that are frayed, torn, stained or inked are greatly devalued. Books with loose bindings, missing pages, bumped or chipped edges, yellowed and crisp “war paper”, sun-damaged covers, cocked or missing spines, brown age spots, mold and other defects are not worth anywhere near the same as books in mint condition.
I happen to be a collector who values inscriptions on the inside front covers. To me, these personal notations from grandparents, aunts and uncles add to the character and history of the book. However, most experts devalue books with an unknown owner’s name or writing inside. Especially if it is lengthy and in ink.
Book Club Editions
Popular authors often released their latest book in a book club edition as well as a first edition. Because book club editions were massively produced, they are also greatly devalued. A book club dust jacket usually does not contain a price in its upper inside corner, which is a good indication of its origination. (And if a dust jacket is clipped in its lower inside corner, it is possibly a clip that has excised the “book club” designation.) However, book club editions can be hard to identify when the dust jackets are missing. Sometimes they have lesser quality or thinner paper. Sometimes they have an embossed mark on the back of the book. Sometimes they are slightly smaller. But to an untrained eye, they often they seem very similar to the trade editions.
Association and Autographed Copies
Association copies are books that include a personal note and autograph by the author or illustrator and were given to family, friends or colleagues. Association copies might also be books that simply belonged to someone of historical interest (with that owner’s name inside) or perhaps belonged to someone connected with the actual contents of the book. If the author, illustrator or owner were renowned, then these books are valued highly. Of course, the inscription must be authenticated and provenance assured.
Some authors and illustrators from the past rarely signed books. However, others autographed thousands of books – in public book signings and more recently in chain bookstores – and their inscriptions are thus worth much less. This is particularly true of modern celebrities and some prolific authors. Buyers should also be aware of “signatures” that are part of the typeset and are automatically printed into every single book.
Once an author or illustrator became famous, subsequent books were sometimes issued in unique limited editions, which were specifically reduced in number and included particularly nice bindings, autographs, special inserts, tipped-in illustrations or other such amenities. Because they are scarce and often very artistic, many collectors seek them.
In the past, library or school editions were often produced with lesser quality bindings and paper. Color illustrations, dust jackets, embossments and other features may have been eliminated since these copies were made simply for reading, not collecting. Indelible filing-system spine numbers, pasted-in borrowing card envelopes, ink stamps and other such markings all drastically drop the value of an ex-library book.
Although popular titles may have literally hundreds of different editions, they do retain a certain value when compared to more common titles. Famous artists sometimes illustrated popular titles long after they were first published. And some publishers celebrated popular titles by producing beautifully ornate versions. These books can be quite collectible.
But the forgotten novels of yesterday probably have very little value – unless they have unusual illustrations, photographs or bindings. Millions and millions of books have been printed. Therefore, for most unknown titles, age alone is not a valuation factor.
Books that are rare are obviously more valued than books that are widely available. It is a simple economic formula of supply and demand. The Internet has now opened access to sellers and buyers from all over the world. It has helped collectors find longed-for books, but it has hurt the value of some books that now may not seem so rare. There might be only 20 copies of a particular book in the world, but if 15 of them are available for sale and the market is not showing much interest, then it is price and condition that will determine the ones that sell.
It is true that some old books can sell for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, particularly antiquarian books. In 2007, a copy of the Magna Carta from 1297 AD sold for $23 million. And an 1823 first edition of Frankenstein can sell for the price of a small house. But these books are rare and exceptional.