Is My Book Valuable?


This question, along with "How much is my book worth?" is the most common question we receive.  The first question should be, "Is it worth my time to contact a specialist about my books?"  Most books are not worth much, and taking photos or creating lists is very time-consuming.  The information you find below will help you to at least get an idea of what types of books are of value. 


What makes a book valuable?  In a nutshell: some degree of  rarity, importance, and demand.  If any part of that triad is missing, then a book is not typically of much value, if any.  Think of it as a stool with three legs.  Keep this in mind as you read the information below. 


"I have an old book"

When it comes to books it is a good idea to recalibrate your definition of the term, "old".  In terms of books, any book printed after about 1900 would not be considered old.  In fact, most in the rare book world would not consider books from the 1800s to be very "old" either.  To most, an "old" book would be books from the 15th century up to the 18th century at the latest. 


The age of a book is only useful in the sense that it can help determine rarity.  Remember, you're looking for a combination of importance, rarity, and demand.  A book that is printed in the 1600s is not necessarily important or in demand;  however, the age indicates that the odds are higher that it is rare.  A good, if general, dividing line is to separate books printed before 1800 from those printed after 1800.  After 1800, printing and book-making became more advanced, and thus books were printed in larger numbers and often with cheaper materials.  In other words, a book printed prior to 1800 is more likely to be rare whereas books printed after that date are more likely to be relatively common. 


"Nothing is more common than a rare book"

Many books are rare.  Often, a book is rare simply because the author was an unknown and the publisher (wisely) printed only a small initial run of copies.  In other words, the book may be rare because it just wasn't a good book.  In the absence of some importance or demand, there isn't often value. 


What makes a book "rare?"  It's not enough to simply count the number of copies printed or available.  It's easy enough, if your books are printed prior to the year 1800, to say they are rare in that the quantity would be limited.  But for books printed post-1800, it isn't so easy.  This is especially true for books printed post-1900.  Let's take Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls as an example. 


When a book was produced in large numbers, rarity is found only in Condition and Edition. A copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls is extremely common.  A copy printed in 1940 (the first year of publication) is also fairly common.  A first printing is less common but still not all that rare.  A first printing in the original dust-jacket is a little less common.  A first printing, in the original dust-jacket, in nice condition (largely appearing unhandled and unread) is somewhat rare. So, you have an important work, in high demand, in a rare state and condition.  This book would likely bring around $500 at auction.  The same book lacking the jacket is worth $10, because it isn't rare in that condition. 


What else can make a book rare?  Illustrations and/or limited editions.  Some of the more valuable books printed during the 20th century were limited edition books with color illustrations, often signed and numbered by the artist.  Going back into the 1800s, some of the more valuable books contain hand-colored illustrations (such as atlases with hand-colored maps.)  Often, you can know if a book is rare just by looking at the book itself.  If the book contains hand-colored maps or illustrations, for example, you can be somewhat confident that not may were produced because producing such a work would take a large amount of time.  Or, you may pick up a book that is in an obviously expensive fine-binding.  Again, you can be confident that not too many were produced because it would be very expensive and time-consuming to do so.  It could be the quality of the paper used, or it could be the visible quality of the printing. 


Remember, none of these things mean that the book is important and/or in demand, but at least there is a good chance it is rare.




What makes a book important?  As with rarity, there are a number of factors and varying degrees of importance. 


A book can be important for scientific reasons.  Galileo's work showed that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  Darwin's work on evolution is the basis for our modern natural sciences. The list goes on.  Let's use the first example for our purposes here.  Galileo's Dialogo is an important work, but the title itself isn't rare.  You can order a copy online today.  A 16th century or even 17th century printing would be rare.  A 1532 first edition would be the most rare.  So, it is important, an early copy is rare, and there would obviously be demand among collectors for works by Galileo.


A book can be important for social reasons.  Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is often cited as a key  precursor to the abolition of slavery in 19th century America.  It's important, and it is in demand largely due to its importance.  But is it rare?  Early copies are fairly common, but the earliest issues, and especially the first issue, is quite rare.


There may be historical importance, literary importance, or the illustrations may be important.  Further, there are varying degrees of importance.  The author could be an important one, for example.  Faulkner was an important author in the history of modern literature.  Most "important" authors will have names you easily recognize.  The same is often true of the individual titles.  Which Faulkner book do you think would be the more important of these two:  The Sound and the Fury, or The Town? Which title do you recognize?  Would you say Hemingway or Shakespeare was more important in literary history? 


If you are holding in your hands a modern novel you've never heard of written by an author you've never heard of, then the odds are that it isn't important. 



Demand is the final key to making a book valuable.  If someone isn't willing to pay for the book, then it isn't worth anything.  This can be the most difficult part for you to determine unless you are intimately involved in the rare book business.  First, it should be noted that sometimes Rarity and Importance create the demand.  For the novice, perhaps the best way to guess at how in-demand a particular book may be is to simply use common sense.  Think of authors, titles, or subjects that are popular.  Do you think Mark Twain or Edwin Shrake books would be most in-demand by collectors?  Which of those authors do you recognize? 


Demand for any particular subject or author will vary somewhat with the age of the book, so more is devoted to this subject in the "My Books Are..." section (see navigation bar.)