The most common question we hear is "what is my book worth?"Valuable books are rare; after all, if they weren't rare, then they wouldn't be valuable.When someone contacts us with a collection of books, the first question we ask is this: "How much did you pay for them, or how much did the previous owner pay for them?"Sure, garage-sale gold-strikes happen, but not very often -- that's TV fiction moreso than reality. If you paid $5 for a book, then that's probably what it's worth.If you did not pay at least several hundred dollars for the book, then it probably isn't going to be the type of book our buyers will want.
Of course, most cases involve estate situations. When a family member dies, they often leave books behind. In that case, use your knowledge of the deceased: Were they the type of person who would routinely spend $1,000 on a book from an auction house or a high-end dealer? Did that person have the means to buy such material even if they did have the desire to do so? If not, then once again the collection of books is probably not going to be of much interest to our buyer or bidders.
Another question we ask when trying to learn more about someone's collection is "where were the books purchased?" If the books were purchased at high-end rare book dealers or auction houses in a rare book auction, then this would make it highly likely that the books are of interest to collectors and probably have value. On the other hand, if the books came from the local bookstore that sells new books or general used books, then the odds are low that any of them would be rare or valuable.
The above can act as a very good guide for people just trying to learn whether or not there book collection warrants much time and attention.
Old Books Vs. Valuable Books
The most common misconception about books is that a book must be valuable if it is old. Old books are everywhere and can be bought cheaply. To start, "old" is a relative term. To us, "old" means that the book was printed prior to 1800. To others, "old" means something different. We refer to any book printed after 1900 as "modern."
However, it should be noted that age is not what makes a book valuable. There are plenty of 400 year old books out there worth $50, and there are books printed in the 1900s worth thousands. For a book to be valuable, it typically has to be important for some reason. The book may be important for any number of reasons. For example, a first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species is an important work; it transformed biological science and guides it to this day. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is important because it won a Pulitzer. Some books may be important because they were illustrated by a famous artist such as Rackham, Picasso, or others. In short, there must be something about the book that is important in some way. A book may be important because it was printed by a revered printer such Aldus. In short, there are many reasons why a particular book may be of some importance. But if there is not some aspect of a book that is special, then it won't be of monetary value.
If a book is important, then it also needs to be rare for there to be value. The supply must be small and the demand must be high. Age does play a factor in that the older the book is, the more likely it is that the supply is limited. In this same sense, a truly rare book isn't of value unless it is important and there is demand. The saying goes, "Nothing is more common than a rare book." There are plenty of books out there that are rare or hard to find, but that doesn't mean anyone wants them.
Understanding Retail Values vs. Intrinsic Values
Dealers and auction houses typically base their valuation of books using intrinsic values. Intrinsic value is determined using auction and sales records which reflect actual sales prices, or "market certified" prices. Retail prices one finds online only reflect a seller's hopes and wishes; they are asking prices and not necessarily getting prices. Obviously, auction records are the best way to determine a book's intrinsic value if the goal is to sell the book in less than 6 months. Most dealers have access to auction records that the average person may not have (typically by subscription).
Also, books fluctuate in value. So, knowledge of current market conditions is also needed to attach intrinsic value to any book. Intrinsic value is the value we use in determining the amount we pay for your book(s).
Retail values are the prices the average consumer will find by searching dealer listings online or elsewhere. Retail values for books are much higher than intrinsic value and never reflect what an individual seller will generally get for their books. Many books you find for sale online today are not even being listed by reputable dealers, and many of the prices are picked out of thin-air rather than being based upon market realities.
But listing prices from legitimate dealers (such as ABAA members or other known dealers) reflect the dealer's costs, patience, and risk. A dealer's expenses range from insurance, taxes, employees, and advertising, to operating stores and websites such as this one. Retail prices also reflect a dealer's patience and how much they paid for the book. Dealers often wait many years for the right buyer to come along who requires that one particular book they are selling.
Retail prices are often 2 to 3 times actual market-certified value. On average, we find that most dealers sell around 10% of their inventory in a given year. So, only a fraction of the inventory actually sells, and this means that they must make healthy margins on the books they do sell if they want to stay in business. Most rare books will sit in the dealer's inventory for many years before the right buyer comes along. Even then, the price is more often than not negotiated and is less than the asking price you see listed.
If a collector wants a particular book and wants it right then, retail is often the only way to obtain it quickly. Auction houses are the better deal, but the particular book that the collector wants may not show up at an auction very often.
If you are not a dealer and you want to sell valuable books within a reasonable time-frame (less than a year) with no expense or trouble, then retail prices will never reflect the amount of money you can expect to receive for your books.
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