Thursday, 10 November 2011

Reading Habit's Top Ten: Influences on the Value of a Second Hand Book

As a second hand bookstore operator I often get asked to value a book. In most cases, the book in question isn’t worth much more than $10 or $20 and I watch as a wave of disappointment creeps across the customers face. This disappointment generally stems from the common misconception that if a book is old it must be worth something. There are two glaring problems with this assumption. The first is the customers’ perception of what defines old. In book collecting terms, a book is not old if it was printed in the 1950s, yet most customers perceive it to be old and therefore valuable. In collecting terms a book must have been around more than 100 years to even begin to be considered old and preferably more like 200 years. The second problem with this perception is that people equate age with value. This is a complete falsehood. Whilst age can contribute to the value of a book, the most important indicator of a book’s value is its rarity. And even this statement needs further elaboration because the truth is that second hand book selling is just like every other global marketplace. It’s controlled by the forces of supply and demand. So whilst a book might be scarce and the only one of its kind in the world, if nobody wants to read it then scarcity means nothing. The book is worth nothing. For a book to be considered rare it must be more than scarce. It must be scarce relative to the demand for it.

All that considered, let’s look at what different characteristics can make a book rare and thus influence its value. I have listed what I consider to be the top ten influences on value below, in no particular order.

Book/Dust Jacket Condition
In real estate its location, location, location. In the second hand book trade its condition, condition, condition. The closer a book is to its original state the more value it will carry. This refers just as much to the dust jacket as it does to the book itself. A book in very good condition is worth little if its’ dust jacket is missing. It’s also important to understand that a very, very old book is worth little if it’s falling apart. The second hand book industry has developed its’ own grading terminology to help describe the condition of a book. This information is usually presented in the form of VG/VG, Fine/Good, VG/--, etc. The first part refers to the condition of the book, whilst the second refers to the dust jacket condition. If a "/--" is present, it usually means that the dust jacket is not present. The terminology used is as follows. 

New - Unread, in print, perfect condition with no missing or damaged pages.
As New – The book is in the same condition it was published.
Fine – Close to the condition of ‘As New’, but without being crisp and has no defects.
Very Good - The book shows some signs of wear, but has no tears or defects noted.
Good - The average used worn book that has all pages intact and defects are noted.
Fair – A worn book that has all pages intact but may lack endpapers, half-title etc. Binding or jacket may also be worn and defects are noted.
Poor - Describes a book that is sufficiently worn to the point that its only merit is as a reading copy. This copy may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc. Defects should still be noted. 

NB: Despite this industry standard terminology there will always be discrepancies between people and their perception of the condition of a book. Where possible you should see the book for yourself and when buying over the internet we suggest you ask to see photos.  

Generally speaking, if a book has been signed by the author or the illustrator then this will add some value to your book, but don’t get too excited. If no-one has ever heard of the author or no-one wants to read the book then a signature can mean absolutely nothing. Further to this, contemporary authors are known for their book junkets when their latest novel is released. This means they sign many copies of their books at public events in an effort to promote sales. This makes their signature fairly common and adds little to the market value of the book.  Also be careful of the printed signature because this is not the same as a penned signature. A printed signature is one that is printed in every copy of the book using the same process as printing the text. A penned signature is added to the book personally by the author after publication. A printed signature is worth nothing, whereas a penned signature can add value. I will also make note here of inscriptions by authors. An inscription generally has more wording than just a signature and can add a little more value. Where inscriptions can really affect the value of a book is when they have been presented to an important associate, friend or family member. These inscribed book copies are often referred to as as presentation or association copies and they can often demand a high price.

NB: Signatures can be a tricky thing to authenticate, particularly if the authors signature is a squiggle and resembles nothing like their name. Do your homework and try and authenticate the signature. There are websites, like TomFolio, that archive scans of author’s signatures just for this purpose, so take the time to check them out.

First Edition
The term ‘edition’ as taken directly from The ABC for Book Collectors (Carter, 1997, p84) refers to “…all copies of a book printed at any time or times from one setting-up of type without substantial change.” Usually, information about editions is included on the copyright page of the book. In cases where this information is not provided you will need to do further research to determine whether a book is a first edition or not. First editions are one of the most collectable types of book and therefore their market value in fine condition can be at a premium. Though, as with all items on this list, just because a book is a first edition doesn’t make it valuable, as there has to be demand for it at the same time. I will also note here the importance of limited editions. This term is used for editions where there is a limitation statement. A limitation statement usually gives the total number of copies and then assigns an individual number to each specific copy (e.g. No 53 of 1000). Limited editions can in some cases derive a high value.

First Book
A first edition of an author’s first book will generally be worth more than their subsequent books. The underlying reasoning here is that in most cases the print run of an author’s first book is generally quite small in comparison to the print runs of their later works. The perfect example of this is J.K. Rowling. The first instalment of her Harry Potter series only had a print run of 500, whereas the last in her series had a print run of around 12 million. Needless to say first edition copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are valued in the tens of thousands, whereas a first edition Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows carries little value unless signed by Rowling herself.

Association with Previous Owner
The association of a book with a previous owner can add value to a book where that person is either famous or important, or if that particular book held special significance. Here’s an example. Let’s say you found a book inscribed to a friend by Hemingway’s wife. This would add value to that copy of the book. 

NB: There are pirates in every trade and the book dealing trade is no different. Forged signatures and other distinctive markings like bookplates and ownership stampings are more common than you think. So make sure that any association with a previous owner has been authenticated. A quality book dealer should be able to provide you with the correct documentation.

As I’ve already touched upon, age by itself is not enough to make a book valuable. The importance of the text, the condition of the book, and demand for it will determine the value of an old book. However, certain age categories of books are more sought after. As a general rule, most books printed before 1501 are rare and there is normally value attached. If we are being specific to certain countries, it’s also fair to say that English books printed before 1641 are prized, and books printed in America before 1801 are also highly collectible.

Materials Used
In the era of mass market paperbacks and e-books, book binding is fast becoming a dying art. So much so that many people will never set eyes on a finely crafted book. Leather bound books, bamboo folded books, limp vellum, wooden boards - you name it and there’s probably been a book made out it. There are even books that have been bound in human skin! Techniques used include Coptic binding, Ethiopian binding, long-stitch book binding, Bradel binding, secret Belgian binding, Japanese stab binding – the list goes on. Suffice to say, books that have been published using some of the older and more traditional styles and materials of book binding can often command a high premium.

Importance of the Text
People value books either because of their contents or because of their physical characteristics. First editions of important literary or historical works and initial reports of scientific discoveries or inventions are prime examples of books that are important because of their contents. Illustrated books that give a new interpretation of a text or are the work of an esteemed artist are also valued. Books that were suppressed or censored can be considered both important and scarce, since few copies may have survived. Physical characteristics, such as a special binding, an early use of a new printing process, or an autograph, inscription, or marginal annotations of a famous person, may also contribute to a book's importance and its market price.

By themselves, the influences I have listed so far add a certain amount of value to a book, but found in combination these characteristics can add a whole lot more. Let’s consider. A first edition of a popular author in good condition might be worth OK money, but a signed first edition of a popular author in good condition will be worth more money. And, a signed first edition of a popular author in fine condition will be worth even more money. You see where I’m going with this. Essentially, the more characteristics listed here that you can find in combination with the one book, the rarer it becomes, and more value is placed upon it.

It might seem like a cop out to finish off with this one, but it’s actually really quite important. So far, this list refers only to the collecting value of a book. It makes no attempt to address any sentimental value that one might have attached to a particular book. The most valuable books I have in my collection are not signed, nor are they first editions. They are made up of the books that my parents read to me in childhood, were given to me by special friends, or include the characters I admire or fell in love with. It may sound a bit cheesy, but sentimentality does add value to a book and the memories we attach to books can often make them seem priceless.


  1. Thank you so much for this entry, dear friend. I've needed this clarification. Over the years I've collected first editions and have had family books handed down to me, which I treasure. It's so good to know how they would be valued. Not that I'm ever parting with any of them in my time! :}
    Just happy to skip over here and see you once in a while..
    Please stop by my other blog if you get a moment.

  2. Hey, Nice to be in this blog. Very well said and I totally agree with your thoughts here. Keep posting more about books.
    Do stay in touch.

  3. Excellent article! Definitely worth the read.

  4. Thanks for all the positive comments about this article so far. Much appreciated!!

  5. well worth reading! happy to see a new generation picking up the habit and being interested in book selling. my hat of to you.

  6. Yep, clearly expressed and enjoyable to read. What else have you written?

  7. Hi Ruth, Thanks for the positive feedback (you too Adrian!). Everything I've written has been uploaded to this blog, but I have to admit to only recently putting my head down and really working on quality content. I plan on continuing with similar articles about the book collecting trade, so please follow!! Thanks, Amber.

  8. Thanks for providing your lists of factors affecting a second hand book's value. I enjoyed reading your aspect on this, which is more considering of the personal value developed. Similar lists such as the one presented on -
    are more geared towards the general collector value. Thanks again, for the post.

  9. Hi Liz, Thanks for your comment. I popped across to the Rare Books Digest and read through the post you suggested. You're right - our lists are similar!! And as you pointed out my list is probably a little more personal. You can't put a price on sentimentality!!


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