Books are among the most collected items in the world. They have been deemed precious articles since ancient times, representations of knowledge and a record of one of mankind’s proudest achievements – the history of reading and writing.
Collecting books is a hobby that draws a large and diverse crowd, from millionaires seeking great rarities, right down to budget book lovers looking for inexpensive nostalgia. Collecting rare books is often described as treasure hunting, and this thrill of discovery is great part of its attraction.
Books developed from scrolls, sheets of paper, cloth or papyrus attached in one continuous piece and rolled for storage. Text was usually written on one side and divided up into readable sections called paginate.
As the Ancient Egyptians developed a written alphabetical language they discovered a need for a medium other than stone to write upon and used scrolls made of papyrus, a common plant.
The earliest surviving papyrus scrolls containing written words date back to approximately 2400 BC and the Fifth Dynasty of King Neferirkare Kakai, although it has suggested by historians that papyrus could have been used as early as the First Dynasty (3100 BC).
These papyrus scrolls were used for over a thousand years before being replaced by parchment, a fine material made from animal skin developed by the ancient Greeks in around 200BC. Parchment was used extensively until around the 15th century, and was the standard writing surface of medieval scribes. The finest quality parchment, know as vellum, was used for the majority of the famous illuminated manuscripts of the time.
During this period the scroll was also replaced by the codex, a book bound with separate pages and recognisable as the modern format of the books we use today. It was developed for its practicality, using both sides of a page and being more durable than a scroll, and was made popular amongst Christians during the 2nd century AD.
The invention of paper and the movable type
Across the other side of the globe, in 105AD, the first ever paper was produced in China. Made from tree bark, cloth rags and bamboo fibres, it was far more lightweight and flexible than parchment but took a further 1000 years to reach Europe.
It was introduced via the Middle east during the Renaissance, and there are records of paper being manufactured in both Germany and Italy by 1400.
The most important development in the history of the book was that of moveable type. The idea of typesetting had originated in China and the first printed book dates from 868AD, printed on paper with a wooden block.
However, the first mechanical moveable type was created in Germany by goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in around 1439, along with the first printing press. It is widely seen as the most important invention of the modern period, playing a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution and laying the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.
The first printed books
The first ever book created with a moveable type printing press is the ‘Gutenberg Bible’.
As the technique spread across Europe, printed books (known as incunabula) quickly replaced manuscripts. By the end of the 15th century the ‘Printing Revolution’ had taken place and more than 200m books had been produced by more than 236 countries across Europe.
In 1501 the first ‘paperback' as we might know it was produced, by Italian humanist [Aldus Manutius. Driven by his love of classic Greek and Latin literature and a desire to save it from further loss, he decided upon a small-format, lightweight book featuring italic type that would be affordable and easy to carry. His first ‘octavo’ as they were known was Virgil's "Opera" in 1501.
The mid 19th century saw two interesting developments: the invention of the book jacket and the ‘Penny Dreadful’, a type of British fiction publication in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing a penny.
In 1832 detachable book sleeves, or dust jackets, were introduced. Such sleeves are important to collectors, as books with their sleeves intact are of much higher value than those without them, and the condition of a dust jacket can hugely affect the value of a book.
The ‘Penny Dreadful’ was the first mass-market paperback, aimed at the juvenile working-class market and featuring horror and crime stories for a penny each. Paperback were seen at this time to be low-brow, with lurid, poor quality content. This perception continued until the printing of the first Penguin Books Paperback in 1935.
Founded by Sir Allen Lane, the principle idea behind Penguin paperbacks was to print high-brow titles in large quantities for an available price. The revolutionary idea was a success, and a mere ten months after their creation Penguin had printed over 1m books.
There is a large collecting community for Modern First Editions, classics of 20th century literature. Due to the increasing availability of digital books, the value of these are largely based on the condition of the binding and illustrated dust jackets of each volume, as well as authors signatures and inscriptions.
The 21st century has seen the development of the e-book, a digital book which can be downloaded and read on computers, phones and dedicated devices known as e-readers. E-books represented 31.1% of all book sales in 2012.
Collectible authors & writers
It is often specific authors who attract the attention of bibliophiles. They have to narrow their interest down somehow, and many may have a nostalgic or intellectual interest in one literary figure.
Many collectors veer towards fiction. They focus on the authors that they love to read, those who paint the world in a light that is at once revealing and familiar. These authors are often famous historical literary figures, whose stories have been studied across centuries. From the escapism of C. S. Lewis, to the romanticism of Charlotte Bronte, the adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson, the dark world of Edgar Allen Poe, the mystery and suspense of Agatha Christie, and the politically stirring tracts of Graham Greene, fiction boasts endless favourites among collectors.
However, there is a whole world of non-fiction books that entice others. Some focus on antique medical books, travel and exploration, or early works of natural history. An exciting focus is books that changed the world, books that altered the course of history. Whether this means the Gutenberg Bible, or Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it is safe to say that collectors love a book with historical significance.
Others focus on modern literature. While this is more accessible, as it was generally mass produced, first editions in good condition can be extremely valuable – particularly if the work in question is considered a modern classic. For example, a first edition of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, written in the 1920s, achieved $163,500 in 2002. Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels, replete with fantastic illustrated dust jackets, are extremely popular.
Some collectors focus heavily on nostalgia, and antique & vintage children’s books have a vast collecting community. The Victorian adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, with illustrations by John Tenniel, or A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books, or the classics of Beatrix Potter – all these, as well as numerous more obscure works, are snapped up by collectors interested in the charming history of books for children. More modern children's writers are also receiving increasing interest from collectors, such as Maurice Sendak and Dr Seuss.
Others may be drawn to writers because they were, at their time of publishing, extremely controversial – often banned. Many of these works, today considered classics, were too contentious or explicit for the era they were written in. Works such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, banned for its exposure of the cruel treatment of migrant workers during the depression, is now considered a great American classic. Even the children’s adventure favourite, Mark Twain’s Adverntures of Huckleberry Finn was once thought of as too coarse. George Orwell’s criticism of Soviet corruption, Animal Farm, was banned during the Second World War as the U.S.S.R fought alongside the allies. All these and numerous others, once considered not fit for public regard, are now some of the most valuable books on the market.
See our List of collectible authors and writers for more info.
Types of book
We’ve touched on the various different types of book that people can collect. Here are a few more examples:
- Antique and vintage children's books
- Vintage Photography Books
- Fine bindings & leather bound books
- Vintage cook books
- Medical books
- Modern first editions
- Natural history books
- Travel & Exploration
- Penguin Paperbacks
- Auction catalogues
Guide to Collecting
A lover and collector of books is called a bibliophile, and the hobby of collecting books is known as bibliophilia.
Book collecting is so popular because the hobby can be as inexpensive and easy (or as expensive and difficult) as you want it to be – from avidly hunting down an elusive and valuable volume, to picking up something interesting-looking for pennies in a local store.
There are millions of books in the world, with such a diversity in binding, subject matter, illustration, edition, quality and other factors.
Due to this multiplicity of options, most rare book collectors will focus their collection on a specific area. Some focuses for book collectors include:
- Specific authors
- Specific publishers
- First editions or special editions
- Books from a particular time period such as Modern First Editions
- Books about a certain topic, such as natural history or medicine
- Books owned by a notable historical figure, particularly with their bookplate or signature inside.
- Books with fine bindings by notable bookbinders, including fore-edge paintings and leather bindings
- Books with particular illustrators
- Books for their covers or dust jackets
- Books with signatures and inscriptions
In no collecting category is it more true that rarity + demand = value. Even a book in terrible condition will be prized by collectors if it is one of very few, and very significant or sought after. On the other hand, a book can be the only copy that remains extant in the world, but if no collector is interested in it or knows about it, it remains worthless.
However, condition does have a bearing on value, particularly when there are many copies of the same book and it is only the wear and tear which distinguishes them. For example, modern first editions – mass produced but still very sought after – can vary in value hugely depending on the smallest differences in the condition of the dust jacket alone. Always buy the best condition you can afford.
See our guide on How to Start a Book Collection for hints and tips for beginners.
If you are looking to collect books as an investment, read through our page on investing in books and manuscripts.
The terminology used to describe books in the collecting world, particularly condition, is quite specialised and exacting. See our A-Z of books collecting terms to familiarise yourself with the language of bibliophilia.
Where to find
If book collecting is a treasure hunt, then one of the main joys of the hobby is rummaging through bookstores, antique shops, charity shops and second hand stores.
There are also numerous auctions dedicated to books. While rare and special volumes will be sold individually, it is common for auction houses to sell some books in bulk, as job lots of rare books. Collectors can find some gems with a shrewd bulk purchase, and can then sell the unwanted volumes on extremely easily on the internet or otherwise.
In the digital age, there are an increasing number of online book dealers. Most can be found on collective databases such as Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon, Biblio, and eBay.
See our List of rare book dealers to find a reputable dealer near you.
Did you know?
The most expensive book ever sold at auction is the the Codex Leicester, a 72 page handwritten manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci.
The book, dating from 1506 -1510, features many of da Vinci’s drawings and scientific theories. It was purchased at auction in 2004 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates for a world record price of $30.8m.
The most expensive printed book ever sold at auction is John James Audubon's ‘Birds of America’. The book is a comprehensive ornithological study, featuring 435 hand-coloured engraved plates based on Audubon's original watercolours.
It was written as Audubon travelled across America over a period of 12 years between 1827 and 1838, and published on his return to England. There are only 119 copies known to exist, with 108 owned by libraries and museums.
In December 2010 a copy sold at Sotheby’s in London for $11.54 million, breaking its own previous record of £5.5m.
See our Top 10: Rare Books and Manuscripts for more of the most expensive books in the world.
You might also like our other book related top 10 lists:
- Top 10: Books that Changed the World
- Top 10: Modern First Editions
- Top 10: Children’s Books
- Top 10: Banned Books
- Abe Books
- Abe Books’ basic guide to Book Collecting
- Alibris – A guide to book collecting in the 21st century
- Alibris UK – Book collecting articles
- The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association
- The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America
- The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers
- Fine Books and Collections Magazine
- Books on Picollecta - A social networking pinboard filled with images of antique & vintage books.
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