Gather & Bind:
The Fundamentals of Book Collecting

Part Six: What’s My Book Worth?

WHENEVER WE GIVE BOOK COLLECTING seminars we are asked the inevitable question, “What are books worth?” We generally answer, “Whatever someone is willing to pay for them.” This response seems facetious, but unlike government bonds, precious metals and items traded daily in securities markets, collectable objects—books included—have no instantly verifiable monetary value. There are too many variables involved in valuing books to be precise.

The most important factor is demand. The book market is “demand driven.” Any bookseller is free to put any price on any copy of any book offered for sale. That—in itself—is not enough to make it “worth” the asking price. The value of any copy is really determined at the time it is sold.

To give a classic example from my experience—slightly fictionalized to protect identities: one day a customer drove up to a bookstore with a box of fiction titles from the 1940s. After a quick look, the bookseller determined that most of the books were worth about $5 each to him. He offered $100 for all 20 books, which the man happily accepted. Later, examining the contents more carefully, the seller discovered a first edition of a movie title that he had not seen before. It had a familiar title, but perfunctory research yielded no further information. He put a price of $100 on the book, stashed it away in another box, and later took it to a book fair.

When he opened the box, a seller in the next booth spied the book in question and immediately bought it for the asking price. While he was writing his check another seller, one who specialized in the genre, asked what the new owner would take for it, and they agreed on $500. That dealer in turn sold it to another dealer for $2,000, who sold it to a pair of dealers in partnership for $5,000, who eventually sold it to a collector at the fair for $8,500. We know that the book was “worth” $8,500 to someone at that time. The point of the story is that there is no fixed price for a book. Any copy is “worth” what someone is willing to pay for it. The reason for the spectacular appreciation in value for this copy was that its scarcity meant there was no immediate information available for the booksellers involved to determine its valuation.

Still, there are ways to estimate values for most collectable books in the marketplace. You can consult the records of previous asking prices and sales, compiled in various guides and in the price ranges in Firsts checklists. It is important to understand, however, that the reliability of price guides vary with the knowledge of the compiler. There are several purported “official” price guides for books that really are quite useless. In addition, the book market changes all the time. It is, if anything, more volatile than other collectors’ markets because it is relatively small. One person actively seeking an elusive first can drive up asking prices profoundly. Several prominent collectors deciding to put their collections on the market at the same time can have the reverse effect if there aren’t be enough buyers to absorb the material.

However, it is demonstrable that prices for rare books do appreciate over time. Occasionally, Firsts runs price comparison tables for first editions giving selling prices over long periods of time; once a month, we update the checklist for an author we featured in the corresponding issue from 10 years earlier. Most of the books listed have appreciated over time; some of them have done so dramatically.

The dilemma facing collectors is that in order to determine the precise “worth” of any collection, it must be sold. Based on a lifetime’s experience, a professional bookseller may be able to appraise a collection and give it an approximate monetary value, but not until a check is written after a sale, or the final hammer falls in an auction, does that collection have a fixed price. In a sense, this fact makes collecting even more intriguing.

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