How Much is My Old Book Worth? Part 2

Oscar Wilde once said (sort of) in one of those epigrams of his, that there are people who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Now that we’re in the Ebay generation that may be even truer than it was in the late 19th century, although I suspect Wilde was primarily grousing about the commodity art of his era. Anyway, I’m a used bookseller so the monetary value of the books I encounter is pretty important to me.

Many people would love to know how I pick out the choice collectible book out of a big box of assorted books. If only they could learn my secret! But the fact is, I’ve been picking books out of boxes off-and-on for thirty-five years, so a lot of my secret is based on long familiarity with books. But the important point is that I not only recognize valuable books, I also recognize the very common ones

I’ve given book-collecting and valuation seminars over the years. The folks who come to these sessions usually ask me for the names of reference books I use and internet sites I go to in order to look up the value of books. But without the ability to recognize the common books, the books that usually are not valuable, these people would be wasting their time. Mr. Cunningham — my first mentor in this business — once proposed putting on an educational display at the Antiquarian Book Fair of very common and worthless books: elegantly displayed Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, old text books and novels nobody reads anymore, held open with those fancy brass clasps, and with small white cards alongside saying things like “Extremely Common,” and “Worthless.”

Here are some rules of thumb for identifying the most common books, the ones that are mostly not valuable:

  • Hardcover fiction and book club books. Fiction is a book-collecting area where newbie collectors and dealers waste a lot of time and energy. Most hardcover fiction has little value. Why? Because many, maybe most of the hardcover fiction books you’ll encounter in thrift shops, library sales, and garage sales are book club editions — published for mail-order sale — that are more cheaply made than the regular trade editions. Trade editions are the versions of books sold in new book shops. They can usually be identified by the price printed on the front inside flap of the dustjacket; and of course they don’t have the words “book club edition” printed on the flap (although not all book club editions identify themselves as such). But even when one has a trade edition of a book of fiction, the odds are still very high against it being worth much of anything. That’s because collectors are usually looking for pretty specific editions of works by collectible authors. Most popular works of fiction are light reading and may briefly have value when a particular title is hot — and not yet issued in paperback. But once it’s out in paperback, the hardcover version usually becomes pretty nearly worthless. This applies to the majority of hardcover fiction but there are many specific exceptions.

    Readers’ Digest condensed books are not collectible. Period. (I realize that I may offend some person out there who does indeed collect Readers’ Digests. Sorry. You gotta realize that to most bibliophiles, Digest collecting is a lot like collecting string.)

  • Dustjackets. Hardcover books that were issued with dustjackets that lack their dustjackets are always reduced in value. An expensive collectible book without its dustjacket will be worth a small fraction of its complete value. Fiction of modest value will be almost worthless.
  • Condition, condition, condition. As collectibles, books are rather like coins or stamps in that condition is everything. A book that has great value in fine condition will be worth a lot less, usually a very small fraction of its best value, when it’s in poor condition. A modest collectible in bad shape will be next to worthless. Another and important point is that book condition appraisal is supposed to be absolute. Allowances should not be made for the age of the book. If a book is 200 years old and in less than good condition, you can’t upgrade it to fine because it’s old. It’s still in less than good condition.
  • Age. A book’s value is not dependent upon its age. It’s a true statement that most books are not very valuable. It’s also true that most old books are not valuable. There are books issued 200 years ago that are worth far less than some books that were issued two years ago. There are certain kinds of books that are both old and common. Most books published before 1850 were either religious books or school books. And it may sound sacrilegious, but old Bibles are generally not worth much. Most families who could only afford one book would have had a family Bible. Consequently, old leather-bound Bibles from the 1800′s are amazingly common. They may have spiritual value and they may have sentimental value if they’ve been in the family a long time, but typically they won’t have very much (or any) collector’s value. Usually old family Bibles are in rough shape from heavy use and age. The same goes for old McGuffy’s Readers. The rule about condition applies to both.

(More rules of thumb next time.)



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