Confessions of a Book Collector

Confessions of a
Book Collector

The Hobbit

Yes, it’s true, I love books. Go figure :-)

From early on in my life, I found the special sanctuary of books, transporting me to times and places innumerable and giving me the benefit of their knowledge. In more recent years, book collecting has become a pursuit of mine. I see books as an art form as well as a source of information. They have a beauty all their own, in particular those published in the 1800's when great love and care went into the printing process.

Like any good reader, books seem to find a way onto my shelves, but I’ve become very selective and learned a good deal about book collecting along the way. First, book collecting is not for the casual collector.


What Makes a Book Collectible?


The first thing you’re likely to consider is age, but not all old books are valuable—collecting is market-driven so you have to know what the “big draws” are. Big names can be big draws, such as books by famous authors. But again, just because the book has a big name on it doesn’t equal big dollars.

So let’s start with the first and most important factor, condition. If a book’s in poor condition, it’s not going to bring a lot unless it’s extremely rare or the only one of its kind. In that rare case, condition is less of an issue, but 99 percent of the time you have to think about condition first.

Books are graded by condition. I won’t bother going into those grades here, but you can read those for yourself on several sites, including that of the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA). Suffice it to say, unless a book’s in extremely fine condition, it’s not going to get top dollar. But there is one factor that makes a huge difference.


Condition of the Dust Jacket


Go to any bookselling site on the net, such as Alibris, and you’ll find that books without a dust jacket sell for far less than those with one. Books with tattered dust jackets sell for less than those with jackets in good condition. Most dust jackets are made of paper, which tears easily, making a classic book with a clean and untorn jacket worth a good deal.

Beware of buying a jacketed book without doing your research, though. There are people out there making fake dust jackets, believe it or not. How do you tell the difference between a real jacket and a fake one? Here’s a good article on the steps you should be prepared to take. Here’s another on proper grading of book covers.

Use common sense, too. If the book is a famous one and has an immaculate dust jacket on it, you want to go over it more carefully. If the price they’re asking doesn’t sound right, that could indicate a fake as well.

Okay, so we’ve got condition down and we know to find our book with a good dust jacket too. That said, there’s a third criterion to consider that can make the first two factors worthless without it.


Is it a First Edition?


Collectors want the first edition of the book, the very first printing off the press. So you may get a great book with a great dust jacket, but if it turns out not to be a first edition then the value plummets.

Be very careful at this point. Evaluating whether a book is a true first edition requires research and some experience. Remember I just said “the very first printing”. There can be more than one printing of a first edition—yes, more than one! It’s the first printing of a first edition that carries the greatest value.


Bad Choice, Great Choice


I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own collecting experience. I found a first edition of Zane Grey’s 1925 book The Vanishing American. Zane Grey is of course a big name, and the book was in excellent condition. It didn’t have a dust jacket, which reduced the value considerably, but I like Zane Grey so I couldn’t resist. I brought it home and did a little research.

The first printing of The Vanishing American has an I-Z code on the inner title page. Mine has a C-A code, meaning it’s a subsequent printing and thus worth a lot less. Given the lack of the dust jacket, it makes a good souvenir for a Zane Grey fan but a real collector won’t bat an eye at it.

That kind of sad story is rare for me, though. Let me tell you a happier one. I recently came upon a very good first edition, first printing copy of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden with the dust jacket in good condition. When I checked the book further I found that it was not only a first edition but a first state edition. This means that sometime in the printing of the first edition the writing (usually just on one page) was changed. A book that has the original wording before that change is in first state condition.

So with a first edition book in very fine condition with the dust jacket in good condition (yes, you should grade them individually) and the book itself the first printing in the first state we’ve got a find that any collector would love to see. Yes, it would be better if the jacket were in a little better condition, but at this point you’re in rarified air so you know that the time you spent looking was worth it.


Other Factors – Signatures, Book Club Editions


My first edition of “East of Eden” is worth at least 500 dollars on the market as it stands. But if Steinbeck had signed it we’d be talking about another zero behind that dollar figure at least. A first edition, signed by the author, raised the value considerably. If the book is very sought after, it can make the value skyrocket.

Again, be aware there are forgers out there. If you buy a book in a shop for its signature, make sure the signature is authenticated. You can’t always do that, if for instance you’re looking through an antique shop, but where a book is being sold for the signature the seller should have some authentication of it.

Now I’m mentioning Book Club editions to warn the newbies to book collecting. In nearly all cases, Book Club editions are worthless. It’s one of the first things you should check for when you open the book. In the same line, there may be a “special” edition of a book that comes out in the same year as the first edition. I bought one of these early on, a “Lassie Come Home” from 1940 which turned out to be worth about 20 dollars. Again, do your homework.


One Last Factor – Popularity


A very popular or “legendary” book can at times break the mold of everything I’ve said, especially when it comes to first editions. Don’t assume it will, though. However, I’ll give you an example.

I found a 1966 copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in very good condition with the dust jacket in good condition. This book is highly collected and studied in its various editions. The 1966 copy, for instance, has the same book cover that the original 1937 book used. However it is the third edition of the book, and the sixteenth impression (or printing) overall.

That said, the book would sell for around a hundred dollars. Why? Because of the book’s own popularity. There are many printings of this book collected, and some of the more recent, including the rare 1987 printing are highly sought after. So popularity can trump age and edition—but not condition.


Go Forth and Seek


Book collecting is an area where the casual collector can start building a good collection early on. If you have several antique and thrift stores, go through them with the knowledge of what makes a book valuable. Always put condition first, no matter what else you see in a book.

In a normal search, I’ll usually go through several hundred books and come away with maybe a half-dozen of value. Of those, I’m fortunate if one or two is a real “find”, though as I pointed out with East Of Eden you’ll find a treasure every now and then. On average, the books I find are worth at least 100 dollars.

Can you do as well? Certainly, if you keep the priorities in mind.