Evaluating Your Old Books
This guide covers some frequently asked questions about rare books and book values. The answers are meant only as general responses to these questions, and the many possible exceptions are not described. No attempt has been made to identify or to evaluate individual books.
1. What makes a book rare?
2. What makes a book important?
3. Where are rare books found?
4. Are all old books rare?
5. What is the difference between a rare book and a second-hand book?
6. Does scarcity mean rarity?
7. Does the number of copies printed determine a book’s value?
8. What about condition?
9. Will someone want my single volume of a set to fill in their set?
10. What kinds of books are usually not rare?
11. Are old letters, scrapbooks, and documents of interest to collectors, librarians, and dealers?
12. What is a first edition?
13. Is a book signed or marked up by a previous owner or autographed by the author more valuable?
14. Should I have my books rebound before selling them?
15. How can I keep my books in good condition?
16. Do I need to insure my books?
17. Can I sell or give my books to a library?
18. Where else can I give my books?
19. Who will appraise books for me?
20. How do I find a bookseller or appraiser?
21. How can I be sure that a dealer will give me a fair price?
22. How do I describe my books?
23. Where can I go for more information on book collecting and evaluating books?
Over the past 500 years, millions and millions of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, and broadsides have come off printing presses. Only a small portion of these pieces, however, would be considered “rare” by specialists. In simple terms, a book achieves some degree of rarity only when the demand for it is greater than the supply. Such a broad definition suggests that rarity is very subjective. Indeed it is, and this fact keeps collectors, dealers, and librarians constantly on the lookout for books previously neglected but now seen as important. Unfortunately, there are no easy formulas or unequivocal guides to rarity. In fact, there is often no one distinctive feature that will set a rare book apart from other books. In the final analysis, the most essential factor is the book’s intrinsic importance, for only books with some acknowledged importance will have a consumer demand that creates market value and a sense of rarity.
“Of the making of books there is no end”–and the topics books cover are equally infinite. The books that are most sought are the significant editions of major works in the arts and sciences. These include early reports of discoveries or inventions, early texts of important literary or historical works, books with illustrations that give a new interpretation of a text or are the work of a fine artist and early examples of printing-imprints–within a given country or region. Books may have added interest if the text was originally suppressed or little acknowledged in its own day, with the result that few copies survive today. A book also can have physical characteristics that lend importance – a special binding, first use of a new printing process, an innovative design, an autograph or inscription.
Because books are portable they turn up everywhere, from well-ordered private libraries to attics, basements, and barns. Books found in out-of- the-way places, however, often show signs of neglect. Given the importance of condition for collectors, librarians, and dealers, the book that has been well cared for has a much better chance of being valuable than a book treated poorly.
The age of a book has very little to do with its value. Dealers, collectors, and librarians, however, do use some broad time spans to establish dates of likely importance: e.g., all books printed before 1501, English books printed before 1641, books printed in the Americas before 1801 and books printed west of the Mississippi before 1850. These dates are rough guidelines at best and are always subject to the overriding factors of intrinsic importance, condition, and demand.
Books found in attics, basements, and yard sales often appear to be old, interesting, or valuable to people unfamiliar with the vast numbers of books that survive from earlier centuries. While it is always possible to find a rare book in any setting, the second-hand book is more likely to be encountered than the rare book. A gray area exists between these two categories, but for the most part, a second-hand book is a used book that is not distinguished by its edition, provenance, binding, or overall condition; its retail price generally is quite modest.
A book known to exist in only a few copies may have value if it has importance and is in demand. A book without importance or demand has little value regardless of how few copies survive. The National Union Catalog: Pre-1956 Imprints, other union bibliographies, and online databases such as OCLC and RLIN, available through most libraries, will give you some idea of the number of surviving copies in major institutional libraries in North America. Determining the number of copies of a book in private hands is virtually impossible.
The production figures for print runs are seldom available. Even if the number of original copies is known, this information seldom provides an idea of current worth. Exceptions occur in the case of works by noted authors that made their first appearances in editions of very small quantities. Also, some books printed in the twentieth century are finely produced on handpresses in very limited editions. A limitation statement alone does not make a book valuable, but the fact the edition is limited will be one of the factors that determines its value.
Condition is a major factor in determining a book’s value along with intrinsic importance, supply, and demand. Condition refers to both the book’s external physical appearance and to the completeness of its contents. A book in “fine” condition is complete in all respects, has no tears or other signs of misuse or overuse, and is in an original or appropriate and intact binding. A book that has been rebound or is in less than fine condition must be very important or in high demand to be of substantial value. Loose pages are a defect, and missing pages or illustrations are a major fault that will make most books almost valueless.
Single volumes of sets or incomplete sets have little appeal to booksellers, collectors, and librarians. The chance of finding a buyer with a set missing the exact volume or volumes is very remote.
No single work has been printed more often than the Bible: therefore, an extremely small percentage of the total number has any monetary value at all. Bibles are treasured by their owners and have considerable sentimental value. Sentimental value, however, does not translate into importance or demand. Certain important editions of the Bible have long been collected. Generally recognized as important are: the earliest printed Bibles dating from renaissance times; the first authorized English (King James) version; and a variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth- century oddities such as the “Breeches” Bible, the “Vinegar” Bible, and the “Wicked” Bible, which are sought because of some misprint or peculiar wording.
Sermons and Religious Instruction
The principles set down above for printed Bibles generally apply to other religious books as well. Much of this material was intended for wide circulation, and great quantities were printed. Moreover, the owners of the books often treasured them with the result that substantial numbers survive today. Religious texts often are printed cheaply and distributed as inexpensively as possible, which, combined with the size of the field and restricted present-day demand, give them a low monetary value. Religious tracts or sermons written by major figures in the history of religion or those that relate to historic events or significant people or which are the earliest imprints for a town or region are possible exceptions.
Collected Editions of an Author’s Work
After authors have become firmly established, publishers often take advantage of their success by putting out collected editions of their works. These editions are often fancy and may even be limited, but they are seldom rare. Most frequently, collected editions were prepared without the author’s immediate attention and consequently have little textual importance. If splendidly bound in high-quality leather and preserved in fine condition, they on occasion can bring considerable sums. Recently, certain scholarly editions of authors’ collected works have been produced that incorporate the results of careful textual comparisons. In these cases the texts are important and the published price of the full set may be high, but the volumes are scholarly texts rather than rare books.
In general, encyclopedias are bought for their current information. Obsolete editions of twentieth century encyclopedias have little monetary value whatever the historical interest of their articles. Earlier encyclopedias, such as sets of the first edition (1768-1771) and the eleventh edition (1911) of the Encyclopedia Britannica are exceptions. The former is in considerable demand, and the latter has a modest but steady sales record when in fine condition.
An old schoolbook rarely has any monetary value. Depending on their condition, American primers before 1800 may have interest to collectors and libraries. Values for the Eclectic Readers of William Holmes McGuffey vary considerably depending on the edition. The first six McGuffey Readers, published between 1836 and 1856, are in particular demand. Illustrated textbooks printed before 1850 also are sought.
Reprints and Facsimiles
Reprinting important texts in typographic or photographic facsimile is an inexpensive means of producing a previously printed text and is a common publishing practice. Except for extremely high-quality reproductions of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books, facsimile reprints seldom have much value in the rare book market.
Newspapers, Magazines, and Comic Books
While certain titles, years, and individual issues within these categories are sought by collectors and dealers, a great deal of material has little or no interest. In the case of newspapers, a few single issues have great significance, but these have been reprinted so often that the chance of having an original is slight. The Library of Congress Serial and Government Publications Division (Washington, DC 20540) has free circulars that give detailed information on how to distinguish facsimiles and originals of sixteen newspaper issues. These include: “The Ulster County Gazette” (January 4, 1800); “The New York Herald” (April 15, 1865); and the wallpaper editions of “The Daily Citizen” of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
In general, letters, cards, documents, and manuscripts written by or signed by figures who have made significant contributions in their fields are of particular interest to collectors. Letters or diaries of unknown writers are often of interest if they give new information about important historical events, places, or trends. The value of manuscripts, documents, and photographs, like that of printed books, depends on the interest and condition of the individual pieces. More information on such papers can be found in a brochure distributed by the Society of American Archivists, “A Guide to Donating Your Personal or Family Papers to a Respository.” (Write: Society of American Archivists, 600 S. Federal, Suite 504, Chicago, IL 60605)
In the strictest sense, “first edition” refers to a copy of a book printed from the first setting of type, constituting the first public appearance of the text in that form. Subsequent changes to the printed text through corrections of the original typesetting produces different “states” and “issues” but not a new edition. For more information see the attached bibliography. The liberal use of the term “first edition” has made it seem synonymous with “scarce” and “valuable.” This is by no means the case. Most books appear in only one edition. Determining if a book is a true first edition takes considerable experience or substantial work with reference books. Collectors of literary works especially are interested in first editions, and there is a lively and well documented market for these books. Condition plays an even greater role than usual in determining the monetary value of literary first editions. If an author revises the text for a later edition, it may be of interest too.
The association of a book with a previous owner can add to its value, depending on how well known the previous owner is and how important the book was in relation to this person. Indication of previous ownership may be in the form of a bookplate, signature, inscription, or other distinctive mark. All need to be authenticated before a positive statement of association can be made.
Finding a twentieth-century book signed by its author is quite common. Authors routinely make publicity tours across the country signing copies of their books, and their signatures alone do not have much importance. Still, autographed copies carry more value for collectors than unsigned copies. When trying to determine the worth of an author’s autograph, remember that books are signed for different reasons. In ascending level of interest these are: books signed as part of a publicity event, copies inscribed by request of the owner, copies of a book inscribed and presented by the author. The autographs of certain authors are always more desirable than others, and fads and fancies change so that only someone familiar with the market will be able to give a precise idea of the value of a signed or inscribed copy.
Few books are worth the cost of rebinding. Rebinding also may destroy or alter some special aspect of the book that might have given it value-e.g., original covers, an autograph or bookplate on the inside cover, or original sewing construction. Books in poor condition may need to be repaired to lessen the chance of further damage, but the cost should be judged according to the book’s worth-this would include, of course, the sentimental value of those books that the owner intends to keep. Conservators can construct tailor-made boxes as an alternative to expensive rebinding. A well made box will protect a fragile book and will help keep all of the parts together. Your local library may have a list of conservators or binders in your area.
Books are very sensitive to temperature and humidity. A cool dry environment is best. This usually rules out storing books in the basement or the attic. Sunlight, especially direct sunlight, is detrimental to books. Sometimes people go to the opposite extreme and store their books in cardboard boxes, first wrapping them in newspaper or plastic. Both materials can cause damage. Newspapers are printed on highly acidic paper, and this acid will enter the book and stain it. Plastic tends to be airtight, allowing mold to develop with the slightest moisture, and some plastics, like newsprint, are acidic. Books kept in bookcases under conditions comfortable to humans will survive for years, but even a solid book placed in hot or damp conditions will soon deteriorate. Very large books such as atlases, bound newspapers, or art folios need extra care. If at all possible they should lie horizontally on the shelves rather than stand vertically. Under no circumstances should any self-adhesive tape be used to repair torn pages. As the tape ages it will make a sticky mess that will seal and stain the pages and become almost impossible to remove. One can write the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), 100 Brickstone Square, Andover MA, 01810 for more information on the care of books.
Generally, your regular householder’s insurance policy will cover the value of your book collection. If a book in your collection has been professionally appraised at a substantial amount, you may want to have your insurance agent draw up a rider policy. To be safe you may want to compile a list of your books — include author, title, and date for hardbacks and the total number of your paperbacks — so that in case of fire, flood, or other disaster you will have a record of your holdings. Only in the case of quite valuable items, however, will your books make a significant contribution to your total household worth.
Libraries are obvious places to go to give or sell old books. Many academic and research libraries concentrate on rare and unique materials, but most public libraries collect materials that circulate frequently. Libraries are chronically short of money and must often depend on the generosity of supporters. By giving items to libraries you make unique and important materials available for study by scholars, students, and the general public. Before adding an old or rare book the library will consider the importance of the book, the reader demand for it, and the book’s condition. Research libraries may want to have materials on certain subjects regardless of current demand but will nevertheless insist on long-term scholarly importance and good condition. The “fair market value” of books given to tax exempt libraries may be claimed as a charitable donation on income tax returns. A professional appraisal may be called for. This is the donor’s responsibility. The cost of the appraisal must always be weighed against the value of the item. The free and downloadable IRS publication “Determining the Value of Donated Property” (no. 561) is helpful. All libraries buy books, but some find the administrative details of buying from individuals difficult and on occasion impossible. If the library wants a book and is willing to pay for it, the person offering it probably will have to set the price, since many libraries are not permitted to make offers for materials. An appraisal may again be necessary.
Many organizations receive books as donations and hold book sales to sell them at moderate prices. Volunteer thrift shops, charitable organizations, and church and school bazaars often are eager to receive book donations.
Professional book appraisers and most booksellers appraise and evaluate book materials. Individuals who have been in the business for some years know market trends and have often handled the book or books in question. They are well aware of the criteria that give books value. The charge for an appraisal should be based on the time the appraisal takes. Expenses, such as travel, normally will be added to these charges. Lists of appraisers may be obtained by writing: American Society of Appraisers, Dulles International Airport, Box 17265, Washington, DC, 20041; International Society of Fine Arts Appraisers, PO Box 5280, River Forest, IL, 60305; Appraisers Association of America, 60 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10165.
Booksellers and appraisers are listed in various directories, although none is comprehensive. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America publishes an annual membership directory that lists addresses, phone numbers, and specialties (available from ABAA, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020). An older listing which is still of use for locating ABAA members and smaller dealers across the country can be found in Rare Books 1983-84; Trends, Collections, Sources, ed. by Alice D. Schreyer (New York: Bowker, 1984). Other useful lists include: ABAA Membership Directory (New York: Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, annual); and those to be found yearly in The Bookmans Yearbook (Clifton, NJ: AB Bookman Publications, Inc.)
Booksellers, like other business people, depend on maintaining a reputation of trust, good service, and dependability. People who sell books often have no idea of their actual worth and must depend to a great extent on the trustworthiness and professional behavior of the dealer. Also keep in mind that many books that owners believe have great value are not necessarily saleable. It costs money to keep books on shelves, and the dealer must figure into an offer the possibility that it may take a long time to find a buyer. Dealers may also buy a whole box of books even though only one or two will readily sell. Often they do this as a favor to sellers interested in cleaning out things quickly.
Frequently dealers or librarians will want to see a list of the books being offered to give them a quick idea of the kinds of books available and to help them determine if the books fall into the areas in which they normally buy. Any listing of books should include for each item the name of the author, the exact title, the name of the publisher, and the place and date of publication. This information should come from the title page, not from the binding or dust-jacket. If the date does not appear on the title page, the back of the title page may carry a copyright date. The description also should include some brief comment on the book’s condition and the presence or absence of a dust jacket.
Many of the reference books listed below can be obtained at your local public library either directly or through interlibrary loan.
Book Collecting: Ahearn, Allen. Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide. New York: Putnam, 1995. Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors 7th rev. ed. Oak Knoll: New Castle, Del., 1995. Carter, John. Taste and Technique in Book Collecting. 2d ed. London: Private Libraries Association, 1970. Firsts. Los Angeles: Firsts Magazine, Inc. Peters, Jean, ed. Book Collecting: A Modern Guide. New York: Bowker, 1977. Peters, Jean, ed. Collectible Books: Some New Paths. New York: Bowker, 1979. Wilson, Robert A. Modern Book Collecting. New York: Knopf, 1980.
Evaluating Books: Ahearn, Allen and Ahearn, Patricia. Collected Books: The Guide to Values. New York: Putnam, [published annually]. American Book Prices Current. [New York] Bancroft-Parkman, [published annually]. Book Auction Records. International Publications Service, 215-785-5800. Bookman’s Price Index: A Guide to the Values of Rare and Other Out-of- Print Books. Detroit: Gale, 1964-. Mandeville’s Used Book Price Guide. Kenmore, Washington: Price Guide Publishers, 1983.
Bibles: British and Foreign Bible Society Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scripture. London: Bible House, 1903-1911. Herbert, Arthur Sumner. Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of the English Bible: 1525-1961. London: British and Foreign Bible Society; New York: American Bible Society, 1968. Hills, Margaret Thorndike. The English Bible in America.1777-1957. New York: American Bible Society, 1962.
Comic Books: The Comic Book Price Guide. Cleveland, Tenn.: R.N. Overstreet, 1970- Kennedy, Jay. The Official Underground and Newage Comix Price Guide. Cambridge, Mass.: Boatner Norton Press, 1982. Kesnick, Michael. Official Guide to Comic Books and Big Little Books. Florence, Ala.: House of Collectibles, 1977.
First Editions: Blanck, Jacob. Bibliography of American Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955-1991. Johnson, Merle De Vore. Merle Johnson’s American First Editions, 4th ed. New York: Bowker, 1942. The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Cambridge: The University Press, 1969-1975. In addition, many antiquarian booksellers will send their catalogues to those requesting them. See the directories noted above.