First Edition Book Values: How to Determine Their Worth

Happy young woman reading in a hammock

For book collectors, book dealers, and anyone that simply loves books, determining first edition book values is often as confusing as identifying a first edition itself. However, taking the time to familiarize yourself with the process of identifying and evaluating a first edition in the wild can be the difference between losing out on a few thousand dollars or the chance of a lifetime. While the things that are considered popular collectibles are constantly changing and values rise and fall, the desire for people to own the first of something never goes out of style.

What Is a First Edition Book?

In reality, a first edition includes all of the books that were published during the first printing. However, in the world of book collecting, most people refer to a first edition as the books that were published during the first printing of the first edition at whichever location it was first released. These books are commonly referred to as first/first, or 1st/1st. Additionally, books printed for the first time in a location separate from the original printing might be referred to by their country first. For example, an American book first published in the United Kingdom might be called a UK first edition.

First Folio VA

When it comes to books of fiction, generally there aren't many changes made to the original work, so a book first published in 1900, with multiple printings throughout the following century, can all be considered first editions of that title. For instance, prints of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which were printed after its release date, can still be referred to as first editions, so long as changes weren't made to the content in some way. A revised edition of a book occurs most commonly in books that are non-fiction. However, fiction or non-fiction, once enough changes to the original book are made, a new edition is published.

Reprints

Many antique books have been reprinted by various publishers. This was very popular in the later part of the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Although these books may appear as a first edition, first printing, generally they're simply reprints of the original work.

One way to tell if a book is a reprint is to compare the publisher listed on the copyright page and the title page. If the two names are different, the book is most likely a reprint and has little value as a first edition. Several publishers that commonly reprint books by popular authors include:

  • Grosset and Dunlap
  • Triangle
  • Cupples and Goldsmith
  • A.L. Burt
  • Sallfield

How to Determine First Edition Book Values

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first edition cover

The value of a first edition book, like all book values, can be determined by a set of criteria: supply and demand, rarity, and condition.

Supply and Demand

The value of a first edition book depends greatly on the law of supply and demand. Someone must want the book for it to have value. In some instances, a large number of first edition books were published, making them very common. These books are plentiful and easy to come by. Since there is a large supply, their value will most likely remain low in value.

Scarcity or Rarity

First editions that are scarce, according to supply and demand, generally have a higher value. However, there still must be someone that wants the book or the value usually will remain low. Generally, first editions published in small quantities are often those with a higher monetary value.

Condition

The condition of a first edition book, like all collectible books, is an important factor in determining its value. Book Think clearly illustrates the importance of condition with its valuation of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Published in 1969 by Delacorte Press, there were only ten thousand first editions printed. According to the Book Think price guide, a copy that is rated:

  • Fine/fine is worth $1,500.
  • Fine/Near fine is worth $1,250
  • Near fine/Very good is worth $750
  • Very good+/Very good is worth $400
  • Very good/Very good is worth $250
  • Good/Good is worth $100

Valuable First Edition Books to Look Out For

Audubon Birds of America

When it comes to first editions, the range of their values can be massive. This makes determining estimated values by yourself rather impossible; therefore, if you have a first edition and have done a little research to see what kind of interest there is in it, your next step is to have an appraiser look over your book. This investment will give you a great starting point for either putting your text to a larger auction house or selling it yourself to private collectors/drumming up interest for it in online stores like Etsy and eBay. Ultimately, most first editions you find will be worth a few hundred dollars at most; yet, there's always the slim chance that you might stumble across the mother lode of first prints in a box in someone's attic somewhere. After all, these first prints have all brought in massive amounts of money at their respective auctions and probably got their own start in a box in someone's attic somewhere.

  • William Shakespeare's First Folio - The first compendium of Shakespeare's works is an incredibly rare book to find, with only 235 copies having known whereabouts today. Yet, this book can bring in millions of dollars, as it did in 2001 when Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, purchased a folio for over $6 million.
  • John James Audobon's Birds of America - John James Audobon is a world-renowned artist who documented the aviary life in America with incredibly detailed illustrations, In his mid-19th century, life-sized publication, Birds of America, Audobon brought 435 of these birds to life. Copies of this book can also fetch millions of dollars at auction, such as in 2000, when one of the 119 known copies was sold for almost $9 million.
  • Leonardo da Vinci's The Codex Leicester - A recent first edition purchase made headlines when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates bought the 14-page da Vinci work for a little over $30 million. Granted, there's very little chance that you'll be able to find a da Vinci text lying around, but you never know what book might come across your path.
  • J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - Although this incredibly popular book isn't nearly as old as most rare first editions, a misprinting of J.K. Rowling's name as Joanne Rowling on some initial British prints can be worth a bit of money, with many copies being listed between $40,000-50,000.
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - A first edition copy of Shelley's seminal work of science fiction and horror recently sold at a Christie's auction for a little over $1 million, with early estimates only predicting the book's value at $200,000-$300,000.
  • Ernest Hemingway's Three Stories & Ten Poems - A first print of Hemingway's first collected works, published in 1923 when he was only 24, made its way to Sotheby's catalog and sold for an impressive $50,400. Books from the famous expatriates of the interwar period, such as Hemingway, are highly valuable.
  • Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - Perhaps Austen's most popular work, Pride and Prejudice, was published in 1813 in three separate books, so finding good-condition complete sets is pretty difficult. However, one impressive set recently sold for almost $140,000 at a Sotheby's auction.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales - The Canterbury Tales is one of the best-known fictional texts to come out of the Renaissance, and a first edition with substantial provenance from 1476/1477 sold at a Christie's auction for a little over $4,500,000.

Resources for Identifying and Valuing First Edition Books

While you may not want to shell out the money to pay for an official appraisal until you're sure it's worth the investment, you can always do a little digging on your own to see what kind of value your book(s) might have. Value guides can be incredibly helpful for amateur collectors or sellers to get a feeling for what the average values of the market are, and where their books might fall in those ranges.

Where to Find First Editions Online

Given the sheer number of books that have been printed since the mass production of texts and introduction of Gutenburg's printing press in 1440, there's a ton of first editions out there for you to find. From your favorite children's book to your partner's new obsession, one of these retailers will connect you with the book you've been looking for.

  • Abe Books - Abe Books is considered one of the premier retailers for book collectors to find first editions from around the world. Although they sell other texts than just first editions, they have a designated section on their website specifically for first editions, many of which are under $50. Use their easy search bar to discover whatever first edition you've been trying to find.
  • eBay- eBay is one of the oldest and most reliable online retailers for collectibles and random items on the internet. Thanks to their open format, there's an endless number of sellers listing their books for you to find. Keep in mind, though, that these prices might not be reflective of what the current value estimates are, so you might want to do some extra research before you commit to an item.
  • Quill and Brush - This family business was established in 1976, and specializes in "first editions of literature, mystery/detective fiction and poetry, as well as collectible books in all fields." With a wide array of genres and time periods, Quill and Brush is an easy-to-navigate place for amateur collectors to start their search.
  • Biblio - Similar to Quill and Brush's interface, Biblio also offers an easy to use search function to browse through the first editions they currently have for sale. In addition, you can also check out Biblio's list of retailers that specialize in first editions to find options that might be in your area.

Value Just Leaps Off the Pages

First edition book values are generally higher than the values of most collectible books, due in large part to the fantasy that surrounds the idea of owning the first ever copy of a thing. Thankfully, the internet makes it super easy for new collectors to find and sell first editions, meaning that you can drum up your own first edition purchase in no time at all.

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First Edition Book Values: How to Determine Their Worth