How much is my old book worth? Part 3

“I buy ‘em three-for-a-dime and sell ‘em two-for-a-nickel. How do I do it? Volume!” This was the wry joke of an old friend of Mr. Cunningham’s that pretty well characterized the way he ran his chain of bookshops. Recently, one of my customers used a similar phrase to express something essential about my trade: Better a fast nickel than a slow dime.

When people bring books in to trade or sell, the first question on my mind isn’t: How much are these books worth? My first question is: Are these good books? The trick is in defining what makes a “good” book. That is: saleable. Sometimes it’s as simple as the book being the most current title by a popular author. Other times, it’s a recognized classic that all the reading clubs or school teachers are using. Sometimes it’s a cult favorite, not widely popular but with a devoted group of readers who are always looking for that book or that author. When the book in question is nonfiction, a whole other set of questions come to mind. Is this a useful book? Or is the information a bit dated? Is this diet, or this self-help method, or this fad interest still popular or has its time passed? Or is it so old as to have acquired that ineffable quality, quaintness? Is this book a really good one on the topic, or is it kind of so-so, tossed off by the author to make money and put out by the publisher just to fill out a catalog? Is the book very specific about its chosen topic or is it more general? These are among the many factors I consider before I even get to value.

When I do get around to value, the rule of the fast nickel applies first. There’s a certain kind of book you’ll find listed at high prices on the internet — but yet, they aren’t exactly popular. They may not even be all that rare (giving rise to the term “common rarity”). These books will sell every now and then for a pretty good amount of money, but they sell very slowly. The thing is, they may not sell very much faster even when priced a lot lower. I call these books the slow dime books.

Conversely, the fast nickel books are books that don’t necessarily sell for a lot of money but do sell regularly, the kind of books that when offered, I never turn down. I once tried to compile a list of all the fairly common titles that I’d always buy or trade for, the fast nickels. It was an endless list but included everyday copies of books like A Clockwork Orange, Catcher in the Rye, and common editions of Gone With the Wind, most titles by John Steinbeck, most titles by Charles Bukowski, Spanish/English dictionaries, etc., along with a bunch of currently popular HOT authors… and so on. Fast nickel books come in the door, and go out again, at a pretty steady rate.

A lot of high-value books — maybe most of them — don’t sell very quickly. High value books that sell fast are the real rarities. A true high value rarity that sells quickly (if not instantly!) is the true first edition of Gone with the Wind. However high the price — and it can get pretty high — there always seems to be a customer willing to pay a little more for a particularly choice copy. That book is definitely a phenomenon. It’s books like GWTW that I think most would-be collectors and amateur book scouts imagine finding when they go book hunting. The first edition of Gone With the Wind is a “fast dime” book.

It’s not impossible to find a hot, rare book. But the operative term is “rare.” There are many, many knowledgeable dealers and collectors looking very hard for the same fast dime books, so it means you have to be really lucky as a beginning collector to find such books.

Where do you find the fast dime books? Estate sales, Friends of Library sales, book stores, antique stores, garage sales, in other words, all the usual places. They’ll be mixed in with the fast nickels, the slow dimes, and of course, the 3-for-a-penny books that outnumber them all.


The scan of Gone With The Wind is from Gone With the Wind: A web site dedicated to Collecting the Book. This site will tell you everything you need to know about collecting every possible collectible edition.


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