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What is your old book worth?

by Liz Holderman (09/21/08).


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.


First Editions

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”.


Early Editions

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).


Dust Jackets

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.


Condition

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.


Limited Editions

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.


Library Editions

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.


Popularity

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.


Scarcity

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.

24 Responses to “What is your old book worth?”

  1. yolanda295 says:

    I have old books one called short story masterpieces edited by robert penn warren and albert erskine ive look them up on the commputer but there cover is different then mine.my cover is half white and half black with circle rainbows going across the middle of the book, it says dell laurel edition lx102 on the top left hand corner.

  2. Goldielox says:

    I have 4 books I need monetary value on. Please help with any info.
    1. Ecce Orienti-Rites and Ceremonies of the Essenes-National Series 11—5th edition.
    2. The Corner Stone -by Margaret Hill McCarter-published 1915.
    3. The Holy Bible–revised by his majestys command. Oxford.
    4. Communion Prayer Book-14th edition.

    Thank you for your time.

  3. Jan Spikes says:

    I have a set of 3 books by Alexander Dumas. They are The Count of Monte-Christo, books I-II, III-IV, and V-VI.
    The title page of each shows Chicago, Glydahl & Hansen Publishers, 1914. Across the bottom of the page are the words Berlin, Copehagen and Malmo.
    These hardback editions have red covers with gold embossed printing. The authors name is at the top, and the title below, all enclosed in an ornate gold design topped by a crown. At the bottom are crossed swords. Are these books first editions? Of any value? Their condition is good.
    Please let me know. Jan Spikes E-mail is:
    jan.spikes@gmail.com

  4. Donelle says:

    I have the Complete Works of Robert Burns Vol 1 and 2 published by Ballantyne press, with no publishing dates. Very Old covers. Containign hisPoems, Songs and Correspondence with Illustrations on steel. Wondering how I would go about valuing these books.
    Many thanks

  5. Liz Holderman Liz Holderman says:

    Hi Donelle -

    WorthPoint actually has a feature that allows you to receive research information and appraisal values for your collectibles. Just go to “Ask a Worthologist” and follow the instructions there. Best of Luck!

    Liz

  6. brenda zwadlo says:

    while reading a mystery book,”death of a bibliophile” it was brought to my attention that early antiquarian books had no copyright and different publishing houses could print copies of the same book. so how do you know if the early copy you have is valuable? do you use the publisher as the basis to find pricing thru the computer?

    also i have inherited my dad’s collection of antiquarian books. what is the best and cheapest way to have them appraised? is it cheaper to do them in groups as opposed to individually? i’m sure some are only worth a $100 or less while others may be in the thousand category.

    • Liz Holderman liz holderman says:

      Hi Brenda -

      The value of antiquarian books without copyright dates can be determined by various points including the particular publisher, binding variants, advertising, paper stock, quality of print, typographical errors and changes in the text or illustrations, among many others. Historians have studied and documented these points for dating books of worth.

      If your father’s books are from the 1600s or 1700s they can indeed be valuable an antiquarian items. If they are from the 1800s and 1900s, the value could be determined by a lot of factors, including collectibility of the title, condition and edition. Unfortunately, an old book may not have great worth just because it is old.

      As a starting point, you might submit a couple of them to the “Ask a Worthologist” section of WorthPoint. That will give you an idea of their potential.

  7. david clancy says:

    Hi. Im just wondering the monetary value of an old book which I have in my possession. It is a hardback, John Clanidge book titled “A mirror for the burgesses and commonalty of the city of Bristol” from 1818.

  8. colin watts says:

    Hi. I have 14 hard back editions of The War Budget a photograghic record of the Great War published by the Daily Chronicle in 1918 which arent in mint condition a bit mottled but perfectly readable and I was interested in there value if any. Thanks for your time.

  9. Josh B` says:

    I have what I believe to be a first edition of Jack Londons Call of The Wild, Robert Louis Stevensons Treasure Island as well as some hardback versions of both Lincolns Gettysburg address and The Life and Times of General George Washington. All are not in terribly good shape ( in my humble opinion) but are still very readable and in no damage of falling apart any time soon. Curious if any of these books may carry any value as they were part of a collection I inherited from my great grandmother. There are rloughly about 300 book in all but those are the only ones of note that I have discovered out of the small amount I have gone through.

    Thanks in advance for any assistance and Happy Holidays!

  10. Hi Liz Holderman
    I enjoyed reading all of your articles on books and at the age of 77 you can still learn, but thats my problem,being a senior I don’t want to collect any more. I have 4 large plastic tubs of very old books that would be too expensive for me to have evaluated. I would appreciate it if you could give me some ideas on how to liguidate and as reasonable as possible. I think 2 of these are blue vellum of Edgar allen Poe. most are 1800′s and upm to 1960′s

  11. Sorry Lis Holderman I tried to Thank you for your time of reading this and any thing that you might be able to do for me and I hit the wrong buttom.
    almost sounds like the story of my life, not really
    Thank you so very much
    Lynn

  12. pauline says:

    I have three books one is The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge farm cookbook first edition signed by Margaret Rudkin made 1963 good condtion ,The Friendly Farm by Edith Lowe 1948 fair condtion, The Lensmen A Portfolio for Railroad Photography in 1972 really good condtion

  13. Ferga Lynch says:

    Would this book in good condition be valuable?
    Harmsworths – Atlas of the World and Pictorial Gazatteer with an Atlas of the Great War. Edited by J.A.Hammerton. First edition.
    Also
    The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Published 1992.
    Also
    The Dramatic wowrks of William Shakespeare by Nicholas Roe. Published 1823

  14. Brigitte says:

    Hi, I have a Bibel. from ( Dr Martin Luther;s Berlin 1802 )… Druk von R. Grassmann in Gtettin… where would i be able to find out the Value of this book…Thank you ..

  15. Angus McAulay says:

    I can send you a list of old books to your email some of which are first editions

  16. Michael Tucker says:

    What is the value of old law book called “Where and How to Find the Law’by Frank Hall Childs dated 1923/

    Thanks.

  17. Lindsay says:

    My husband and I have what we believe to be the original Poetical Works of Henry Longfellow. It is in great condition. It has a picture of himself in the front of the book with his signature under it. We also have a seperate picture of whom we believe to be his second wife. This book has been passed down from generation to generation, we were told it was given as a gift by one of Longfellows relatives. How do I find out if this is an original and appraisal value.

  18. Nancy Beckel says:

    I have a book by Margaret Rudkin “Pepperidge Farm Cookbook”
    Copyright 1963 Published in 1992 in very good condition. I
    was wondering what it might be worth?

  19. Abe says:

    I have a burns poetical works by robert burns published 1923 it’s an oxford edition it was also printed in England. I was wondering the value of it?!?

    • Liz Holderman Liz Holderman says:

      Hello Abe -

      A book’s value depends on a lot of different elements, such as condition, binding style, edition, illustrations, publisher, etc. Most books need to be researched and photos are usually necessary. WorthPoint has a feature to help with that. On WorthPoint’s home page, click on the “Research Your Items” tab and then on “Ask a Worthologist”, you will see instructions on how to proceed. Best of luck!

      Kind Regards,

      Liz Holderman

  20. Gary Railton says:

    I am wanting to know the value of a Robert burns book. Complete poems and correspondence of Robert Burns vols.1.2 with notes by Hogg and Motherwell. Thank you.

  21. Abbye Stooksbury says:

    Hi. I am wondering the value of Betty Trevor by Mrs. George De Horne Vaizey. I cannot find one image online of this light blue hardback with yellow flowers.
    G.P. Putnam’s Sons The Knickerbocker Press 1917, first edition I pressume.

  22. barbara Lilley says:

    what would a 1913 copy of “Gifts of the Wise Men”, paper cover, bound with a cotton like ribbon be worth.

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