Estate Executors’ Headaches: Shelves and Shelves Full of Books

Estate executors are often confounded by large accumulations of books. Hardcover books have always been the most expensive choice in buying books, so some executors panic when they see floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with hardcover books.

From the time I was a college student, I’ve been a collector of books. Well, not a collector exactly; more like an accumulator. Over the course of a lifetime, avid readers can accumulate a lot of books. In my house, books are like Kudzu; clean them out, get rid of them, and next year they’re back again.

Estate executors are often confounded by large accumulations of books. Hardcover books have always been the most expensive choice in buying books, so some executors panic when they see floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with hardcover books. They ask me which, if any, are valuable.

“How do I tell?” they ask. “If this is a first edition, isn’t it worth something? These books are really old; should I notify Antiques Roadshow?”

My answer is usually not to their liking: some may be valuable; most will not be; and the only way to tell is to take them down from the shelf, one-by-one, and inspect them. If they don’t have the time or inclination to do that, then they can pay me to do it or ship them all off to the local library or thrift store.

For executors with the time and inclination to sort through an estate’s accumulation of books, here’s how to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ll start with a discussion of what makes some books more valuable than others. Book collectors will be horrified at my simplification of a complicated business, but I’m not writing this for collectors; I’m writing this for executors who are faced with the monumental task of sorting through an estate’s personal property.

To begin with, you don’t have to be very precise in your evaluations. Your primary job is to sort the books so that interested buyers can easily find what they want when you have an estate sale. If, along the way, you find some real gems, then you can decide what to do with them.

A leather-bound set of C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” could fetch more than most hardback books.

The three primary used book valuation criteria are condition, edition and subject matter. Beyond that, old books can be divided into three categories: used, out-of-print and rare. The age of the book isn’t important, initially; subject matter trumps age. Like cars, books don’t automatically become valuable because they are old; they only become valuable when there is a demand for them. Old books, by themselves, are fairly commonplace. To attain a high price, an old book must be rare, in demand and in good condition. Most estate books are simply used. A few might be out of print. Precious few of them are rare. Unfortunately, you can’t tell whether a book is out of print simply by looking at the book; you have to research it online.

For the most part, readers buy used books; dealers buy specific subjects and out-of-print books; and collectors buy rare books. If, during your sort, you find some out-of-print books, advertise them and you will be sure to get some used book dealers at your sale. If you find a rare book or two (wouldn’t that be nice!), set them aside. Dealers won’t pay anywhere near what a collector will, so it’s best to sell such books through a venue other than an estate sale.

At used book sales, non-fiction is preferred over fiction by a margin of about 2-to-1. In 2011, Helen and Thomas Oram conducted a survey of used book buyers for BookSaleFinder. For executors and estate sale operators, the salient points of the survey were buyer’s preferences for book subjects and formats.

The interest spread for shoppers at used book sales was as follows (shoppers could indicate preferences for more than one topic). Five of the eight topics above are non-fiction topics:

Fiction 66% Reference 36%
Cooking 35% Children’s 35%
How-to 26% Young Adult: 24%
Travel 20% Textbooks 12%

As for format, buyer’s preferences were as follows:

Hardcover 81% Paperback 64%
Trade paperback 51% Library discards: 51%

While sorting for subject matter, separate the hardcovers from the paperbacks, and price according to likely demand. Price conservatively, but avoid signs that say “all hardcovers $1 and paperbacks three for $1.” There will be more interest in a hardcover Richard Russo novel than in a hardcover cookbook. Paperback Harry Potter’s will draw more attention than a hardcover biology textbook. A four-volume paperback Home Study Course in Upholstery will bring a higher price than a four volume paperback collection of teenage fantasy novels.

A first edition and first printing of l. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” will definitely go in your “specials” pile.

As with all used consumer goods, condition affects value. Book collectors and sellers have detailed guidelines for assigning condition; the Independent Online Booksellers Association lists 10 separate levels of condition. Frankly, I’ve never been able to grasp that many levels; they are too subjective for me. One person’s “near fine condition” is another’s “very good condition.” For the purpose of an estate sale, I have only two criteria: is it desirable or not? In determining desirability, I have two criteria:

1. Does it stink? (The odor, not the writing) Books that have been stored for a while (especially in basements or closets) will mildew and you can’t sell books that smell of mildew. If the book is dirty, throw it away.

2. Is it ratty? Books with broken bindings, missing pages, dog-eared corners and notations in the margins are unpleasant to read. Other considerations notwithstanding, a book has to at least be readable.

As long as a book is clean and I can hold it in my hand and turn the pages without them breaking away from the binding, then it’s a desirable book.

As I sort through an accumulation of books, I quickly inspect the outside, open the book and flip through the pages, and then check the copyright date, printing sequence and edition. The copyright date is the date on which the author’s finished work received its copyright from the government. If a finished book remains unchanged for a series of printings, it is a first edition. If a publisher runs out of copies to sell, then another printing is done. Subsequent printings are “first edition, second printing,” “first edition, third printing,” etc. A new printing is not a new edition. If the text is updated (as with textbooks) then each successive update is a new edition. Usually, whenever the publisher changes, the edition changes. For example, if a hardcover book first published by MacMillan was then published by Penguin in paperback, the text would have to be updated and reformatted, so the paperback would be a first printing of a second edition.

Printing and edition are often confused, especially by casual booksellers. Once you know how to identify each on the copyright page of a book, finding first editions is easy… sort of. Each publisher has its own system for identifying the edition and printing of a book. Sometimes it’ll print the information clearly, right on the copyright page. With most publishers, however, you have to deduce whether or not you have a first edition. 

A sample title page; notice the string of numbers in the center of the page, beginning with 10 and ending with 1. This indicates that this is a first edition copy. This page is particularly helpful by stating: “First Edition: Sept. 2007.”

If you can’t find an explicit statement of the edition and printing, then start by locating the copyright date. A very old copyright date may indicate that the book is out-of-print, so set those books aside for later research. Next, look to see if the publisher has changed. If you don’t see more than one publisher listed, you probably have a first edition.

Next, locate the line of sequential numbers printed on the page; these are 1-10 and may be printed in any direction (Left to Right, Right to Left, or inside-out). The lowest number indicates the printing. If the lowest printed number in the sequence is a “1,” it’s a first printing; a “2” is a second printing, and so on. The most desirable books are those that are first printings of first editions.

If you find a first edition/first printing, don’t automatically assume that it’s valuable. In decades past, a first edition book had a printing run of 10,000 copies. These days, popular books such as the Harry Potter series can have an initial printing run of one million copies or more. In such a circumstance, first edition/first printing books are commonplace and cheap as chips.

There are dozens of ways to configure a copyright page, so if you’re not sure about a book then look it up online.

Once you have sorted your books by subject matter and format and separated any out-of-print, rare or first edition-first printing books (let’s call them “specials”), it’s time to research prices on the specials. The best resource for that is Addall. Simply enter the title and most available copies of the book will appear from multiple sellers. Choose your price, and offer the valuable books on whatever venue you prefer.

The remainder of the books should be displayed as you have sorted them, according to the subject matter and formats.

A Word of Warning: don’t become so interested in a book that you start to read it; you won’t get anything done. Next thing you know, the book will find its place in your home’s Kudzu collection.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books.

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