Book collecting can be addicting and whether you collect for nostalgia, the fun of the chase, or even for investment purposes, there's a lot to know about collecting classics. People have collected books since they were printed, with some folks enjoying it so much they developed a mania for the hobby.
Where to Buy
There are many book dealers with brick-and-mortar stores, or antiques shops and malls with book sections where you make that once-in-a-lifetime buy. But sometimes you are looking for a specific classic book and in that case, online dealers are the way to go.
Book dealers generally offer a guarantee of their wares, so if you find a problem with the book, you can get a refund or exchange. Feel free to email the dealers with questions before you buy, to save both of you time, problems and shipping costs.
- Biblio.com lets you search for books based on title, author, illustrator, edition and price range, and then sort the price range from low to high. The price for Washington Irving's early journal, Salmagundi, is $5,000.
- ABE Books is an easy-to-use website with links to hundreds of book dealers. The site lists the highest prices paid monthly: a recent first-edition of Moby Dick was $60,000, but later editions were less than $1000.
- Alibris is a mix of old and new, but they list many classic books on the website. A recent first-edition of Gone with the Wind signed by Margaret Mitchell listed for $25,000.
- ABAA (The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America) has dozens of dealers who sell collectible, rare and very rare classic books. Uncle Tom's Cabin in a first edition with a note from Harriet Beecher Stowe was listed at $11,000.
But don't let these sky-high prices scare you away from book hunting: these are the top prices for the best classic books. You'll find many for well under $100 on the websites, along with other bargains.
Book Collecting Basics
Decide why you are collecting classic books, since that will guide you in the type of books you purchase. Are you collecting for nostalgia, for the memories the book invokes? Then, maybe the book's condition doesn't really matter to you. It can be dinged or dented, but you just want to hold a copy of the first book you ever read by yourself. Or maybe you love a particular author like Washington Irving and his The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. which contains "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In that case, you may want an early edition of the book published during Irving's lifetime.
Perhaps you want to collect only the best, so you want a first edition in the best possible condition. All these copies vary widely in their prices - what the market is willing to bear - so you may be able to spend only a few dollars for your book or a few thousand. So, before you start buying, you should be familiar with some book collecting concepts.
A book's condition is described by booksellers in many ways.
- Mint means the book shows no use whatsoever, and in some cases, the book may have never been opened by a reader.
- Good indicates some general wear to the book, like scuffing or minor dings and dents.
- Fair shows heavy use and the spine of the book (the backing, where the pages are gathered) could be "cocked" or angled.
- Poor could mean the pages are lose or torn.
- Reading copy means the book is good only for that - reading (the book's value has been compromised.)
Become familiar with these descriptions by reading dealer's listings (more below) and examining as many books as you can in libraries, museums and book stores or online.
A first edition of a classic book can present a conundrum; sometimes, it's very valuable, other times it's worth nothing. A first edition is generally held to be the first appearance of a book, with all the copies printed with the same type (meaning, no one stopped the printing press, made a correction and then continued printing.) But here is the catch: a first U.S. edition printed in 1819, a first edition of The Sketchbook printed in England in 1820, and a first edition printed sixty years later are all first editions.
The prices vary widely, as do the bindings and the text (some have introductions or illustrations.) If you are going to collect only first editions of your book, you will need to determine which first editions you want and work with a book dealer who specializes in firsts.
Author signed books are often sought after by collectors, but this can be a tricky area when collecting classics. Some signatures - like Mark Twain's - add to the book's value. Other signatures, like science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury's, bring less since Bradbury signed thousands of books during his lifetime.
Another potential problem with signed books is that perhaps they weren't signed to begin with. In the early 20th century, printing methods were so good that a printed signature might pass for an original, and this happened a lot with Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twain and Irving.
Illustrated editions of classics are another area of collecting. Sometimes classics were republished with art by Picasso, or Calder, making the art as valuable as the text it was based on. There are many illustrated classic books, and you can see some samples of them online to get an idea of prices.
When you purchase antique books, you need to be careful of hidden problems. Check carefully before you buy!
- If a book is moldy or mildewed, you're best off leaving it in the shop. Damp pages and covers warp and repairs are costly.
- You should not pay a high price for a book with dog-eared pages (turned-down corners), folds or tears. If a tear has been repaired with tape, the page is probably stained, and this is considered a flaw.
- Go through the book and look for missing pages, or pages marked with pen or markers. Pencil markings can be removed, but they also reduce a book's value.
- Look for insect damage (tiny holes,) rodent nibbles and other animal damage.
- Sometimes illustrations or maps were included separately with a book (usually in a hard-to-find pocket). Look carefully to make sure everything original to the book is still there.
- Dust jackets add great value to the book (F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a famous example.) If your book had a dust jacket and is missing one, you may be able to purchase it separately.
Values and Prices
Once you are familiar with the basics of collecting classic books, you can think about the value and the price of books, which are often confused. A classic book's value is not a cut-and-dried number; it is based on many things, including:
- What it means to you personally
You might be willing to pay $100 for a book you love because that's its value to you and that's what you would be willing to give up for the book. The price of a book, however, is fixed by the seller based on what she thinks the market will pay, say $500. When you are looking to purchase a classic book, you will be considering its price (even though it may, confusingly, be called its value.)
A Fun and Rewarding Collection
Collecting classic books is a great way to enjoy literature, antiques and art in one great package. It's likely you'll soon need new bookcases!