Is This Book Valuable?

We always love for you to call us at (609) 474-0640, email at info@nelsonrarebooks.com, or use our Contact Form, to discuss the sale of one or your books or your entire collection, library, or estate, but we understand that sending photographs and lists/spreadsheets of your collection can be a tedious process, so we hope that the below will be a useful initial guide in selling your books.

Every day we receive phone calls and e-mails from an owner asking "Is this book valuable?"

Unfortunately, the vast majority of books have little to no value to collectors.  While certain books used to be scarce regionally, with the ease of purchasing books nationally and internationally on the internet, the lower-end of the book market has seen a race to the bottom price-wise.

In determining the value of a book there are three basic elements: 1) rarity, 2) condition, and, 3) demand.  Books with the most value normally have all three of these elements, and the loss of any will likely result in a loss of value.

Rarity

Age Age of the book is not always a key factor in value.  Along with the receiving questions about a book's value, we equally frequently hear that a book is "old."  While it only takes a car 20 years to become a classic, and an item may become an antique at 100 years old, in the rare book world, 100 years is young.  As a very basic cutoff, books published before 1830 are generally considered "old."  After this date, printing methods changed, and books were published on a greater scale.  As a result, books published after 1830 are likely to be more common than those beforehand.

Scarcity Likewise, just because a book is rare or scarce, it still may not be of value.  Books are often rare because of a small printing due to its lack of importance.  But without demand, rarity does not, in and of itself, establish value (for instance, take a look at our Shop, we have several books that cannot be found elsewhere, but (unfortunately) the demand is not high and they are still in inventory!).

Condition Additionally, there are many books, particularly modern fiction, and other books published after 1900, that are quite common, but in near fine/fine condition, are much rarer.  Perhaps the most striking example is the The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Over 25 million copies have been sold since it was published in 1925, making it an extremely common book.  A used copy printed in 1925 is rather common and can bring $300.00.  A first edition, first state without a dust jacket is of significant value (given great demand), the asking price at retail is around $3,000.00, but is still relatively common with dozens available for sale at any given moment.  But a fine copy with a very good dust jacket can go for well over $100,000.00 given the rarity of copies with quality dust jackets.  Thus, rarity, combined with demand, and condition, can bring exponential increases in value.

Signatures, Inscriptions, and Provenance There are also other reasons for the rarity of a book.  For instance, if the book is signed or inscribed by the author, the illustrator, or a notable person, it is likely rarer and of more value than an unsigned copy, and this is particularly true of books published prior to 1900 when authors signed books on a much less frequent basis (i.e. no Barnes and Noble book signings).  Also, if the book is of interesting provenance or is owned by a notable person it will be rarer than a copy owned by you or I.  The book may also be in a limited edition, and by way of example, notable late 19th and early 20th century publishers such as Kelmscott Press and Doves Press issued very limited editions of beautiful and important books that are largely all collectible and some of immense value.  Additionally, books in exquisite leather bindings or books that contain hand-colored illustrations and plates are likely to be rarer than unadorned copies.

First Editions Finally, and more particularly with books published post-1900, there may be a variety of editions, printings, and states of a particular book.  As a general matter, a book is likely to be of more value the closer it is to a first edition, first printing; the further from that, the less likely it is of value.  Some publishers such as A.L. Burt and Grosset & Dunlop even specialized in reprinting books, and the Book of the Month Club in the mid 20th century published countless reprints, and while a few of these books are valuable in their own right, the vast majority are not.

Condition

This is the easiest topic, in the rare book world condition is of immense importance.  Condition condition condition!

As with the The Great Gatsby example above, a tear in a dust jacket may reduce the value of the book by thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars.  Collectors pay for condition! 

Most hard cover books published since 1910 were sold with a dust jacket. Dust jackets are delicate and were often disregarded.  Dust jackets that are missing, when called for, from books or dust jacket that are in rough condition can reduce a book's value by up to 90%.

Again, while condition is not everything, and demand and rarity are also necessary, fine condition books certainly maintain a handsome premium.

Demand

Finally, the last element in establishing a book's value is demand.  A book without demand is unsaleable regardless of condition or rarity.  Oftentimes, only a rare book specialist has the resources and knows the business well enough to gauge the demand of a particular book.

A book can be in demand due to its importance.  For instance, most students in high school learn about Charles Darwin and may read his On the Origin of Species.  The book is available in paperback for a few dollars and can be found as a free public domain e-book. The book is important to humanity's understanding of the science of evolution and will be in demand well into the future.  However, a first edition in near fine condition from 1859 is much, much rarer than a modern paperback copy, or even a copy printed in 1880, with a price in the six figures.

As discussed above, a book can also be important because of its notable owner or provenance, because of annotations of its notable owner, or the content or inscribee of a book inscribed by the author.

As a (far too) broad generalization, the more popular and famous the author or title of the book, the likely greater the demand.

Valuations and Offers

We all know the feeling when we search for a book we own on Abebooks or Biblio and see the top asking price is in the five or six figures.  However, that is the retail asking price, and is often quite high!  Additionally, those are frequently exceptional copies, in fine condition, with notable provenance, or with important author signatures or inscriptions. While we hope you would offer us your exceptional copy, in most cases those sky high prices found online are not reflective of the prices for which a book can be sold.

We base our valuations, and offers that we make, on the above attributes: rarity, condition, and demand.  We rely not only on online retail listing websites but also on on auction records, bibliographies, and databases such as OCLC/Worldcat to locate copies held by institutions (often a useful way to measure rarity).

When we make an offer, we always make it in good faith and based upon an honest assessment of what we can in turn sell it for and in what time frame.  

We invite you to call us at (609) 474-0640, email at info@nelsonrarebooks.com, or use our Contact Form, to discuss the sale of one or your books or your entire collection.  We hope this guide helps along the way (just please note that this guide is not formal advice and is only our personal opinions).