As a second hand acim 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 customer’s 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.
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.
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 presentation or association copies and they can often demand a high price.