How To Start a book collection
Keen to start your own rare book collection? These hints should set you on the right path to an enjoyable collection that could increase significantly in value over the coming years.
First editions: When it comes to value, collectors place the greatest emphasis on first editions: the first time a book was printed. There is no convention for denoting a first edition among publishing houses, it’s a case of researching the habits of each one - infuriating at times, but certainly rewarding for those with the application. Great care must be taken to ensure that a first edition is the true first edition, for example, there is often both an American first and English first. Another detail to look out for is whether your first edition is a first issue, as first edition printings can have several runs. A first edition seventh issue is not as valuable as a first edition first issue. First editions sometimes also had a limited run of just a few hundred copies, sometimes numbered as one of 500 for example, sometimes with some special element like being printed on Japon or vellum paper, or being signed by the author. These are more rare and therefore, of course, more valuable. A signed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses is currently the world’s most expensive first edition at $460,000.
Talking of signed…: An author's signature to a book will make its worth soar. Often, these signed books will be presentation copies, inscribed by the author to a friend or contemporary. If there is an interesting history surrounding the relationship of the author and the recipient, this increases interest in the book and makes it more desirable to collectors with a particular focus on that author or that era. However, other inscriptions and signatures of previous owners, if not relevant or interesting, will detract from the value.
Bookplates and stamps: Especially in Victorian and earlier books, you will often see engraved bookplates pasted onto the insides of the covers. These are tricky, as some simply detract from the value if they belonged to no-one special. However, if you research the name on your bookplate, especially if it has a coat of arms or crested image, it may turn out to be someone very interesting - this gives the book and interesting provenance that will add value. Ink stamps on the other hand, are to be avoided like the plague. Libraries are terrible for tramping ink stamps all the way through perfectly lovely books, rendering them practically worthless to fussy collectors. Any ex library book, however rare or valuable, will be sneered upon by any self respecting collector.
Rarity and demand: The owner of a first edition book that is in great demand but scarce in number is in a strong position indeed. Older books, those of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, printed before the widespread use of the printing press and mass production, are usually very valuable because they are so scarce, but also often found in a more dilapidated condition. Contemporary books can too quickly prove of worth, the difficulty comes in identifying desirable works or authors before they become global bestsellers. Those who bought one of the 300 first editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 now have a book worth thousands of pounds.
Condition is key: Books are meant to be read. But in collecting terms, those that have never been thumbed are worth considerably more than oft-frequented copies. Some collectors buy books only to look attractive and impressive on stately home private library shelves. When it comes to choosing between copies, the tiniest difference in condition can make a vast difference to worth. As a general rule, always buy the best condition you can afford.
Bindings: Books up until the 1900s were bound initially in a cheap publisher's binding: usually cloth or paper-covered boards. The point was that once bought, the owner would take them to be rebound in their own particular preferred style of leather binding, such as gilt decorated full calf, or half leather to the spine and corners with marbled paper boards and endpapers. However, people could not always afford to do this, so some copies remain in their original bindings. These are delicate and often deteriorate, but can be worth more despite the appearance due to the rarity of finding them in the original publisher's binding. It is harder to keep them in this condition however, and they are often bought by collectors with an interest in re-binding in leather themselves.
Jackets are vital: If a book was issued with a dust jacket, it is important that it retains it. A dust jacket has been said to contribute 75% or more of a book’s value. Dust jackets were also often price clipped, the corner with the price on snipped off on the inside. The book will be worth more if the dust jacket is unclipped.
Go for early works of great authors: First editions of works written before the author became well-known are among the most collectible items. For example, Sinclair Lewis’ originally unheralded 1912 work Hike and the Aeroplane, written under a pseudonym, is worth significantly more than a first edition of his much-loved later work It Can't Happen Here.
Consider non-fiction: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species sold at Christie’s for $194,500 in June 2008, and the world’s most expensive book is John James Audubon’s early 19th century Birds of America, a copy of which sold for £7.3m at a Sotheby’s London auction in 2010. You may wish to set your sights a little more conservatively, but non-fiction can be valuable. Antique cookery and medical books are particularly in demand at the moment, and antique works on science, hunting, fishing, sports and games are always collectible.
Concentrate your efforts: By concentrating on a specific author, genre, or era, book collectors have the opportunity to become quickly knowledgeable in their field.
Purchase through a reputable dealer: Purchasing through a well-respected dealer offers you confidence that the books you are buying are genuine. Try to choose a dealer who offers a lifetime moneyback guarantee. If possible, it is much better for you to see and handle the book before deciding to purchase, as you may find faults, damage, or even something positive that adds to the value that the dealer may not have noticed.
It is worth looking overseas. For example, the UK and US markets don’t entirely match up. Each nation undervalues the favourite books of the other. What might be tricky to find and highly priced in England may be unwanted and inexpensive in America.
Become part of the community: There are many well-frequented book collecting forums out there, with experts ready to solve your queries and to encourage your passion.
Look after your books: There’s no point buying a load of valuable first editions if you’re not going to care for them. Keeping them away from high humidity, excessive heat, direct sunlight and dust is a good start. Storage in an acid-free, alkaline-buffered archival box is also highly recommended. If bound in leather, the binding must be 'fed' with leather cream on a regular basis so it does not dry out and crack.