Tips for Rare Book Collectors

Mary Barile
Antiquarian Books

Collecting rare books has been a hobby since the 16th century, when wealthy buyers sought out unique examples of illustrated manuscripts and ancient works. Although this hobby may at first seem an expensive one and beyond your financial reach, you can actually purchase some rare books without a big investment. And like all collecting venues, there are some terms and tips you should be familiar with before you begin your rare book roundup.

Book Jargon

Many terms pertaining to rare books are used interchangeably, or mean something different from what we think they do. Knowing the difference can help you expand your collecting world.

  • Generally, antiquarian books are those published in the 19th century and earlier. "Antiquarian" doesn't always mean "expensive" -- there are many books from the 18th century that are relatively inexpensive, given their age.
  • A rare book is one that is found infrequently and is in demand. A book's rarity has nothing to do with its age: there are books from the 17th century that cost much less than a book published in 1920. Demand drives the price.
  • "First edition" is one of the most misunderstood phrases in book collecting. A first edition book may be rare and expensive, or as common as air. "First edition" means the first time the book has appeared in print in a particular form (it also means that the print run used only one set of printing plates.) You can have a first American edition of Huckleberry Finn, which was printed for the first time in 1885. You can also have a first edition of the book printed with illustrations by a famous artist in 1956. You will pay $38,000 for the first; perhaps $500 for the latter. Don't be fooled by a seller who emphasizes that a book is a first edition; "Which first edition?" is the question to ask.

What to Collect

Most rare book collections begin because of serendipity: you own a book, then you come across another, related book and perhaps a friend gives you a third. Suddenly, the bookshelf is filling up, so planning a collection can help you in the long run.

Perhaps the most important question with which to begin your rare book collection is, "What should I collect?" The answer: whatever you love about rare books, including:

  • Fine editions: These are the leather-bound and illustrated books where the making of the book might take precedence over the text. Sometimes these were issued in sets, and you may have to assemble your collection book by book.
  • Nineteenth century bindings: In centuries past, a book buyer purchased a book bound in heavy boards (cardboard), and then would have the book custom rebound to his taste. Bookbinders were often famous for their leather and gilt work, which were collectible on their own.
  • Titles: If you like one book in particular, why not collect it in all its many versions? Rare books in this area include The Sketchbook by Washington Irving and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Both books have been reprinted thousands of times since the 19th century.
  • A particular author. Pick your favorite author, and collect each of her books as close to the original edition as possible.
  • Signed copies: When you come across a rare book signed by the author, expect to pay more. But there is nothing like touching the author's signature and imaging yourself back in time. Nathaniel Hawthorne's signature is among the rarest.
  • A topic: Collecting all the rare books published about steamboats or magic may take you a lifetime of looking, but buying by topic lets you explore rare books from many periods.

Caring for Your Books

Your collection is valuable and older books take a certain amount of basic care. The paper is often fragile, the covers suffered wear and there are a few slight tears. What to do?

  1. If your books need help, seek out a book conservator, who can help you decide the best way to preserve and store your collection.
  2. Never make repairs to a book using household materials such as tape, glue or staples. Anything you do to a book needs to be completely reversible, and modern glues make this nearly impossible.
  3. Finally, store your books in an area where there is low humidity, air circulation and indirect sunlight; too much moisture or light can cause a book to rot.

Other do's and don'ts include:

  • Do not allow your books to lean - this results in a cocked spine, and distorted covers.
  • Older books may suffer from red rot, a condition in which the leather deteriorates and throws off powder. It cannot be reversed, but red rot can be slowed down with certain chemical applications, which is a job for a book conservator. If you find a rare book and it suffers from red rot, you can always have the book rebound, although expect to pay several hundred dollars to an expert bookbinder.
  • Do not treat leather covers with any kind of cleaner. Have this done by a professional.
  • Loose signatures (grouping of pages) must be sewn back in. Do not try to glue them in.
  • Don't bend the spine so you can lay the book flat. Purchase a book cradle, which supports an open book and allows you to display it without breaking the spine.
  • Keep books away from cases made of raw or unsealed wood. Opt instead for metal or sealed shelves and give books enough shelf room to breathe.

Pricing

It's pretty simple: a rare book is worth as much as someone wants to pay for it. This is the reason that the estimated price is often surpassed by thousands of dollars; two people wanted the book enough to pay more. But despite this quirk, there are some guidelines used by dealers to set book prices, and these should help you understand why the market charges what it does.

  • Dealers spend lots of time doing research. They look at auction catalogs, other book websites, news articles, all to see how much a certain book sold for, and when. No dealer will sell a book far below the standard market price, so don't expect to get many bargains when purchasing classics like Finnegans Wake or Sense and Sensibility.
  • Rare books remain rare. There were only so many printed and as the market for them increases, so do the prices. You may see a fluctuation in prices, but rarely a plunge.
  • Each dealer knows what her market can bear. She knows who buys what and how much they are willing to pay. You may go into one rare book shop and see a volume for $100; in another shop, the price is $200.
  • Dealers now have to contend with the Internet, where everyone knows what prices are out there. Website listings help keep book prices steady since you can compare dozens of copies online. The price listed for the same book can vary by $10 or $100, so shop around.
  • The better the condition, the higher the price. A pristine copy will bring much more than a dog-eared, scraped copy. Expect to pay accordingly.
  • Do your homework and spend time comparing prices, descriptions and dealers. Bauman Rare Books will introduce you to the high end of book collecting, with prices topping $250,000.
  • Regional books usually sell for more in their own region than they do somewhere else. If you collect books about a specific area, check online prices before buying.

Where to Shop

There are thousands of book dealers who sell online through auctions, organization and shop sites. Most of them are happy to answer questions about their offerings and many of them have detailed listings about the books, which is a great way to learn about collecting. Reputable online book dealers will stand by their books; if it is not what you expected, you can often return the books, but always check the dealer's policy before you buy.

Two excellent portals for book collectors are the American Book Exchange (ABE), which lets you easily search scores of dealers by author, publishing date, edition, and so on and Alibris, which carries new and rare books, and has a powerful search engine. Some other resources for book shopping include:

  • The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (better and more easily known as ABAA) is a membership group of dealers who carry an amazing assortment of rare books. A recent offering was a $65,000 poem signed by the poet, Emily Dickinson. On the other hand, contemporary Civil War reports were $100 and up.
  • The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers offers the same services as ABAA. They also provide online announcements of new offerings and catalogs from around the world.
  • Argosy Books is among the famous NYC booksellers, with 19th century books starting around $50 and up. A recently listed book about a relatively unknown Civil War battle in Missouri was $1500.
  • Swann Auction Galleries hold auctions several times a year, and books are very popular with buyers. A recent shelf sale (to clear out space in a shop) had medical books, 45 volumes from the 19th century listed at $400-600.

An Exciting Collection

Collecting rare books can be a "gentle madness," as collector and author Nicholas Basbanes calls it, and an engaging way to spend time and money. No one starts as a great collector, but it certainly is fun trying to get there.

Tips for Rare Book Collectors