The simple answer is: Supply, Condition & Demand.
If a book, or any product for that matter, is in short supply and high demand, then the price of that item will skyrocket. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s rare and people want it, it will have value. The same is true in reverse, if something was once highly sought after but is no longer popular, its value will drop.
This blog is likely to be full of contradictions, but hopefully by the end you will have some idea of what might or might not be considered valuable in the book collecting world.
Some people think that if a book is old, then it must be valuable. This is not true, however, if you have an incunable book (a book printed before the year 1501) then it probably does have some value. Here are a few incunables to keep an eye out for…
Johann Gutenberg’s Latin Bible 1455.
Furst and Schoffer’s Bible 1462, and Seneca 1463.
Albrecht Pfister’s Del Edelstein (Aesop’s Fables) 1461.
Erhard Ratdolt’s Euclids Geometry at Venice 1482.
Nicolaus Jensen’s De Evangelica 1470, Pliny Naturalis Historia 1475, and Diogenes Vitae 1475.
Aldus Manutius’ Aristotle 1495, Aristophanes 1498, Herodotus and Sophocles 1502, Plato and Pindar 1513.
William Caxton’s Trojan Wars 1475, Dicts or Sayings of Philosophers 1477, Chaucers’ Canterbury Tales 1478 (later illustrated 1483), Illustrated Aesop’s Fables 1484, Voragines The Golden Legend 1484, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur 1485.
Books printed during the war may have some value as paper was in scarce supply during the war years and many books have not survived from this period. If you have a book that is in good condition and printed during WW1 or WW2, it is worth checking to see if it’s valuable.
Nowadays, a modern first edition is unlikely to be valuable unless it had a small print run and the author became famous relatively quickly afterwards. This is true for the true first edition of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. Only 500 copies of this book were produced in an illustrated hardcover binding with no dust wrapper. Similarly, the first British edition of The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, the first book of the Discworld series, consisted of only 506 copies.
Just because you have a first edition of a book doesn’t mean that it’s valuable, even if the print run was small. Some authors are just not sought after at the moment. It is always worth checking your first editions, but don’t be too surprised if they’re not valuable.
There are some authors where it is always worth looking out for early editions of their works, these include but are not limited to; The Brontë’s, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, Ian Fleming, Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Carroll, etc.
A signed book may or may not be valuable depending on who has signed it. A book that has been signed by a popular author may have value if that author hasn’t signed hundreds of their books. Sometimes books that have been left unsigned by authors are scarcer than the books that have been signed.
A book that carries just the author’s signature, is often more sought after than a book that has a dedication to a person followed by the author’s signature. It is harder to gift a signed book to someone or even to yourself, if it has ‘To Sarah from famous author’ inscribed on it and you’re not named Sarah or know anyone called Sarah.
Books signed by deceased authors from the late 18th, 19th and even early 20th Century tend to be scarce and potentially valuable as a lot of authors did not sign their books back then, or at least didn’t sign many of their books.
There is always the risk of forgeries with author signatures, especially famous authors like J.K. Rowling. It can be difficult to prove authenticity, so be careful if you’re thinking of buying a signed book.
Dust Jackets/ Dust Wrappers
Most hardbacks come with a dust jacket/dust wrapper, this isn’t always the case though. Older cloth and leather books were issued without dust wrappers and even some modern hardbacks are issued without dust wrappers. If a book originally had a dust wrapper and the dust wrapper is missing, it can seriously devalue the book. The same can be said if the dust wrapper is in poor condition, dust wrappers kept in near mint condition are more valuable than torn, stained dust wrappers.
A lot of people in the previous centuries tended to remove the dust wrappers from their books. Books from the 18th, 19th and early 20th Century that have dust wrappers in good condition may have some value.
Books with author-signed bookplates from the date of publication tend to have the same value as a book that the author signed directly on the title page. However, a book may lose value if the owner affixes an author-signed bookplate after the purchase of the book.
Personal Bookplates may have value if the owner of that book and bookplate has or had some sort of importance. If that owner signed their name on the book then that may increase the value of the book too. It really depends on who the owner was and whether or not their signature or personal items are sought after. A lot of people write their names in books on the endpapers in pencil, it is always worth checking these signatures before erasing them, and often it is best to leave them in the book if you’re not sure.
Condition of books tend to deteriorate over time, so the older the book and the better the condition, the more chance it has of retaining some value. Some collectors may keep books that have been originally sealed in plastic, sealed to protect the book.
Collectors prefer books to be kept as close to their true original form as possible, if the book had a dust wrapper originally, a collector will want that book with a dust wrapper. The better the condition of the dust wrapper, the more value the book is likely to have.
A book must be complete to have real value. If a book has missing pages or missing plates, then it will be considerably less valuable than a complete version of the same book.
Needless to say, if your book is falling apart and missing its spine then it’s unlikely to have any value. However, sometimes an old book may be worth re-backing with a new binding if the book is scarce in general, or if it has sentimental value to the owner. It is best to seek out a professional book binder if you have a book that is in need of repair.
The key is to look after your books. Keep them in a dry, comfortably warm environment, away from direct sunlight and away from open fires. If you are storing books in boxes, make sure they are not kept somewhere cold and damp.
The Folio Society
You may have heard of The Folio Society. They are a London-based publisher founded by Charles Ede in 1947. It now operates as an employee ownership trust since 2021. They produce beautifully illustrated, hardback books with matching slipcases. The more sought after editions are those from the late 1990’s onwards. It is important to collectors that the books have their slipcases, Folio’s without their slipcases or damaged slipcases are worth less than those with their original slipcases in good condition.
Some books are sought after not for their content, or the author, but because of the illustrations they contain and the artist. Illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, N.C. Wyeth, Walter Crane, etc… are popular and known to collectors. If a book is illustrated, and is signed by the author and the illustrator, it is likely to be more valuable than an illustrated book just signed by the author.
Woodcuts and Wood Engravings are also sought after in books, and can increase the value of a book.
Collectable books only really have value to the person who is collecting them. There are some books and series of books that numerous people collect today that in the future may not be sought after at all. Book trends, like all trends, change over time. From my own observations working in a second-hand bookshop I can list a few series of books that people are collecting today…
Early Ladybird Books
Early Penguin Books
Early Wainwright Books
Pevsner Architectural Guides
New Naturalist Books
Early Hardback Editions Of Classic Fiction
Andrew Lang Fairy Books
Folio Society Books
Early Beatrix Potter’s
Early Editions by ‘BB’
and many more…