Old books excite both avid collectors and people who just enjoy reading them. Whether they are antiques or merely second-hand books whose used status make them a bargain, they have intrinsic as well as sometimes collectible worth.
Is It Just an Old Book or a Genuine Antique Book?
The term old book really is relative depending on your age. To someone who is 70 years old an old book might be over a century old while to a 10 year old an old book might be anything written before he was born. Saying that a book is antique indicates that it is at least one hundred years old, but just because it is antique does not make it rare or valuable.
What Makes a Book Valuable
What makes a book valuable? Some would say that rarity would, however some books are rare and not valuable while other books are valuable and not rare.
Dr. John Bidwell, Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings, told the New York Times that the reason books become rare is that they are neglected in some way. They may have been censored or gone out of fashion. Yet, they are not valuable because there is little interest in them; they are not desirable.
Somerset Books states that the things that make a book valuable are:
- Edition, especially first editions
- Author's first published work
- Signed copies
In other words, it is the desirability to the collector that determines how valuable a book is.
Used Book Terminology
Even though there's always room for interpretation in anything subjective, these terms do provide guidelines for a book's condition.
- New: Unread and in perfect condition as if direct from the publisher. No marks or damage.
- As New: In perfect condition without marks or damages, but has been read.
- Fine: In excellent condition, just not quite as crisp-looking as a new or as new book.
- Very Good: Some signs of wear but without any stains or tears.
- Good: What you'd think of as an average old book. All the pages are intact but there may be some tiny tears.
- Fair: In worn condition but all the pages are there. There may be some stains but nothing that makes any part of the book unreadable.
- Poor or Reading Copy: The pages are there but may be loose, discolored, or stained. Booksellers typically do not sell books below this level, ones that are not readable because of missing or heavily stained pages.
Finding Old Books
Books published after 1970 almost always have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), a (virtually) unique identifying code. Most of these are ten digits long, but books published after 2007 will have 13 digit numbers. This standardization makes finding old books far easier than almost any other collectible or antique.
AbeBooks is the largest online shopping resource dedicated to used books, with 13,500 sellers and more than 100 million books. You can also set up a wish list for a book not currently in stock and get an automatic email if one of their sellers adds it to inventory.
Amazon.com and eBay both have extensive selections of old books. One of eBay's affiliates, Half.com, which is fixed-price rather than an auction site, has a vast supply and several Wish List features that allow you to buy automatically if a book at or above a certain condition and at or below your desired price should enter the system.
Of course, used bookstores are magnificent places to find books. Some are generalists, others specialize, and others are generalists with a few special collections. Many old books, especially paperbacks, never get listed for sale online because the sale price isn't worth the bother. You can often get old books very cheaply at garage or estate sales. Library and school book fairs are another way to find old books by the hundreds or even thousands. To find book sales near you, you can use search engines like Book Sale Finder. Some library book sales, particularly the larger ones, also have collector's items like autographed or rare books.
Selling Your Books
Usually the easiest way is to take your books to a used bookstore. If you have a large number of books, some make house calls. You can usually make a bit more if you sell them yourself online, though this can be time consuming, you have to keep them around, and of course you have to wait for somebody to want your book.
If you want to sell online quickly and are less concerned about making the most possible money, you can list your old books significantly below the standard asking price and hope that you can trigger some automatic buys or wish list hits.
In some cases, donating books for a tax write off can actually be the most effective thing to do when you balance both time and money. Almost all libraries will accept donations for their collection or sale and so do many hospitals and other charities with resale shops.