How To Identify, Collect And Sell Rare Books

How To Identify, Collect And Sell Rare Books

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, one of the U.S’ most famous used bookstores, recently showed off one of its most expensive titles, a first American printing of The Fellowship of the Ring for sale at $5,497.

On their Instagram account, they pointed out the telltale signs of this rare printing, including specific printing mistakes, as well as its special features, including a fold-out map of Middle-earth.

Go beyond Amazon

Before you donate or trash your old books, you might want to check if they’re valuable (even if you just want to maximise your tax deduction when you donate them to Housing Works). That’s a little more complicated than checking on Amazon, where different editions and printings get lumped together.

The American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section has a long FAQ on identifying rare books. They advise that you check bookseller databases — try AbeBooks, a book marketplace frequented by professionals and collectors, which offers better tools for distinguishing between editions and printings than Amazon does. Or try viaLibri, which aggregates search results from AbeBooks, Amazon, eBay, and a dozen more sources. The ALA advises:

Be careful to find as close a match as possible, not only in terms of publication details, but also in terms of condition, binding, and other unique features. You can also search some auction sites to find prices realised in recent sales.

You can also google your title and terms like “identify edition” to find any pages that list identifying marks from specific editions. For instance, bookseller Raptis Rare Books lists features, marks, and even 16 errors that appear in the first edition of The Hobbit.

If you can find several copies of your edition for sale around the same price, then that’s what your book is worth. But if you’re still not sure what edition you have, but there are signs that it could be rare or valuable, you need to consult an expert.

Get an appraisal

Dr. Terry Belanger, founding director of the Rare Book School, tells Lifehacker that there’s no one rule of thumb for identifying a valuable book. That’s why he built an entire curriculum around the study and care of rare books. You can’t crash-course your way into spotting rare books on sight. It takes time, education, and access to a lot of research.

Dr. Belanger can point out the features and “behaviours” of certain imprints, eras, and editions: “A Penguin paperback is notoriously long-lived. I’ve seen Penguins from the 30s that are still going strong.” Note the identifying marks in the Fellowship copy above, which Housing Works’s rare book expert could identify.

If you suspect you have a valuable book, take it to an expert like that. Usually this expert will be a bookseller, who can not only estimate your book’s value, but offer to pay it.

This offer will include some room for the seller to make a profit, of course, but they’ll be up-front about that. You don’t have to be paranoid about getting defrauded. Look for booksellers who belong to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America or the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

(The Library of Congress recommends finding dealers through ABAA as well.) According to the ALA’s FAQ, these booksellers “must abide by a strict code of ethics designed to protect their customers.”

If you’re still wary, look at the seller’s ratings on Yelp and AbeBooks (ask for their username). Rare books are not a high-margin or fly-by-night business, so if you see that this seller is well-established, you can trust them to appropriately value your book. Or you can get a second opinion.

Know what matters

A book must fulfil several requirements to be valuable: It must be desirable (from a famous author, most books published in the last century will never become valuable no matter how rare they get), it must be relatively rare (at least in its specific edition), it must be in good condition, at least relative to all the other existing copies. And while not all old books are valuable, many of the most valuable books are old. All of these factors affect each other.


“The word rare is a misnomer,” says Dr. Belanger. Plenty of rare books are cheap or even worthless. (Think of a cheap, forgettable novel that only ever sold a thousand copies. Even if you have the last remaining copy, that doesn’t mean anyone wants it.)

Conversely, says Dr. Belanger, “a desirable book is a ‘rare book’ even if it’s not rare.” Certain books are valuable just for their cultural significance, just like other ephemera such as original Woodstock tickets, or the first appearance of Superman, or one of Apple’s first computer manuals. Of course, these artifacts are also relatively rare, because they were intended to be thrown away after a few years or months or days. A high demand only increases value if combined with a low supply:


Rarity still matters. There are only 400 extant copies of the 1896 Kelmscott Chaucer; one is available on AbeBooks for $US137,500 ($188,970). Even particularly special reproductions of this book are listed for thousands of dollars. If there were 10,000 copies of this book, it would necessarily be cheaper.

On the other end of the spectrum, a popular magazine usually won’t gain much value: the market is flooded. National Geographic has a print run of 12 million, so there’s always someone looking to get rid of their copies. (That’s why my local library used to sell decades-old copies for 5 cents ($0.07) a pop.) But, says Dr. Belanger, even household names can become rare: “My aunt Agnes collected an entire run of Life magazine, and everybody laughed at her. But the complete set is now worth well into five figures.”

Rarity also applies to the specific edition or even the specific printing. There are millions of copies of The Fellowship of the Ring; you can buy a used copy for five bucks on Amazon, less at many used bookstores. And that’s why the earlier editions are worth more. And one edition of a book can have multiple printings, and that each of these printings may fix small errors or make other tiny changes that set them apart. None of these details would make those early copies valuable, if Fellowship weren’t also highly regarded and widely read.

The first printings of the start of a famous series are usually more valuable than those of the last, because they’re usually rarer. By the time they released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh book in the series, the publishers knew they’d sell millions of copies. So they ordered a much bigger first printing than they had on The Philosopher’s Stone. Copies of that first printing will be easy to find for a long, long time — especially since so many readers will keep them in excellent condition.


How old is an old book? Depends on your purpose. The Fellowship copy above came out in 1954—but it’s an extreme outlier, as the first American edition of one of the most famous books in the world. If your book isn’t especially notable, then age doesn’t really become a major factor until you start getting into the 1800s or earlier.

“Certain categories of books are generally more sought after,” says the ALA’s FAQ, “including 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.” At this point we’re talking about books that are rare because at the time and place, any books were rare. “The Clerk of Oxenford in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales had thirty books,” says Dr. Belanger, “and he was mighty proud of it.”


Once you’re treating books as physical objects and not only as pieces of information, every crease, mark, scuff, and tear can affect its price. Only extremely significant and rare books can hold their value in poor condition.

There’s no formula, like “one torn page = 1.2% off the sale price.” The price is all relative, and your book will be compared with others of similar or better physical quality. Remember that the more your book has deteriorated, the more work the buyer must do to prevent further deterioration.

Take care of your books

“As a general rule, books are made with some sort of understanding of their likely use,” says Dr. Belanger. That’s why a computer manual or an almanac is published as a cheap paperback, while a novel usually comes out in hardcover first, for the serious reader who intends to keep it on their shelf for decades. (If it’s successful, the novel gets re-released in paperback. If it’s very successful, it comes out in the even cheaper “mass market” format that falls apart after one reading on an aeroplane.)

When you pass down books for generations, you’re stretching them far beyond their intended lifespan. Sunlight fades the covers in just a few years — Dr. Belanger says the reds and yellows are the first to go — and varying humidity stresses their materials. The cloth over a hardcover can shrink faster than the cardboard underneath.

If you want it to last long, says Dr. Belanger, “don’t take a book where it doesn’t want to go.” Don’t open it wider than it naturally bends; keep it out of sunlight and damp. Even moving a book from one climate to another does some damage, he says; a book that comes from England to Arizona can dry out and fall apart.

Go deeper

Rare books can be expensive, but they’re not something you get into for the money. Do it for the love of the books. Dr. Belanger always recommends that you collect books you have strong feelings for. He also recommends that you learn about the practice of collection, which is about so much more than acquiring and selling.

You can attend the Rare Books School yourself, or get ahold of its published syllabus and reading lists. You can also attend the two-week Antiquarian Book Seminar to meet experts and learn more methods from librarians, booksellers, and other experts.

There are some general handbooks to identifying and valuing books, like Bill McBride’s Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions.

Every publisher has its own way of marking first editions; Scribner, for example, always includes a small letter A on the title page. While Dr. Belanger can rattle off some of these signs, he says, “All collectors of modern firsts have a McBride, because who can remember?”

If you dig deeper, you might end up collecting books about collecting books. Many of the books on the Rare Books School reading list remain expensive themselves; used copies of one 1970 lithography guide, for example, sell for anywhere from $36 to $265.

It’s this extra interest that makes a collector, not the ability to afford a book. “If you’ve got deep pockets, you can buy first edition, dust jacket mint [copies of] every John Irving novel, and you can do it in about six hours. It’d probably cost you about 60, 70 thousand dollars,” says Dr. Belanger. “That’s not collecting. That’s shopping.”

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