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Figuring out book values

Why do I see a wide range of prices on-line for the same book?
First, make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Are the two books really the same edition? Perhaps the expensive one is listed by the seller as a "first edition" and the second one is listed by some other seller as "first edition, fifteenth printing." The second one is completely worthless, so of course the first one should cost more. Second, look at the condition. In general, the nicer the condition (meaning the closer the book looks to the way it looked when originally offered for sale as a new book years ago), the more you should expect to pay for a book (or the more your copy is likely to be worth). Unfortunately unlike coin collecting, where condition grading is very standardized, there are few standards for grading book condition. It's a very subjective business. One dealer may consider a copy "good," while another dealer with different experience may consider the same copy "very good." Knowing how a copy compares to a large sampling of other copies is an important component in grading and valuing a book. Third, many factors beyond condition go into pricing a book. Dealers have different levels of experience and types of knowledge, different hopes for particular books, or paid different amounts for comparable copies. One dealer may know something about the scarcity of that book in a particular condition that another dealer does not. One dealer may hope to sell the book quickly while the other dealer wants to get the highest possible price. One dealer may have lucked out and found the book in a thrift store, while the other dealer may have purchased the book from a collector who would only let it go for a significant price.

How much does a dustjacket add to the value of a book?
For modern first editions after 1920, the presence of a dustwrapper usually accounts for a great deal of the value of the book. While it is impossible to quantify it with certainty, and every title is different, the presence of a jacket might constitute as much as 80-90% of the total value of a particular book, and even more for rare jackets on books published before 1920.

How much does a facsimile dustjacket add to the value of a book?
Absolutely nothing. Putting a facsimile dustjacket on a book may make it look prettier, but it adds no additional value in the eyes of any professional dealer. In fact, the presence of a facsimile jacket in a collection calls the authenticity of all the jackets in that collection into question. Collectors may make the personal choice to adorn their books with facsimile jackets (after all, we can't all be rich and afford the real thing), but dealers who offer books in facsimile jackets should be approached with caution.

How much does the author's signature or inscription add to the value of a book?
The amount that an author's signature or inscription might add to your book can vary wildly, depending on the availability of that particular author's signature, the particular book in question, whether it is an association inscription, and other factors. If an author routinely makes the rounds of bookstores to sign books, signed copies may be common, and add very little to the value to the book. However, if the author is particularly private, or unwilling to sign copies of his or her books, the book in question is highly desirable, or if an inscription has significant association value, etc., the presence of a signature might not only dramatically increase the value of your book, but might also warrant some caution, as the added value might make forging that signature or inscription a more attractive proposition to the evildoers.

Is it better for books to be signed by the author or inscribed by the author?
Surprisingly, only a few years ago this wasn't even a question among book collectors or dealers. Our colleague Ken Lopez has written an excellent essay on the subject. The short answer is, the more handwritten material by an author in a book the better. Dealers who push signatures in favor inscriptions should be approached with caution as they sometimes have ulterior motives - it may be easier for them to forge just the signature! (Yes, this really happens.)

Is it okay for old books to look nice for their age?
It might be okay for you, but it might not be okay as a commercial proposition. When a dealer grades a book for condition he or she will usually take the age of the book into account to a reasonable extent. However, collectors want their books to be as close to the original condition as possible, no matter how old they may be. Think of it like figure skating - any significant flaws will probably incur a mandatory deduction - even if it's an antiquarian figure skater.

I have the same book as you except my copy was in a fire and then my dog used it a little as a chew toy when he was a puppy but he's bigger now and like, he almost never chews stuff, and anyway, it looks pretty good inside. Except for the first chapter, you can read it all. So, is my copy worth the price you list?
No, probably not, unless your dog got to our copy, too. However, we like dogs, and wish your pup the best. You will hear book dealers say again and again: Condition, Condition, Condition. Condition is the single most important factor in determining the value (and/or price) of a particular copy in the rare book trade. Copies in inferior condition, except perhaps in the cases of extraordinarily rare books, are generally of little or no value.

Are books a good investment?
Aiy-yi-yi. This is a question that most dealers hear several times a day, and the fact that it's a legitimate question for you to ask doesn't make it any less frustrating for a dealer to have to answer it. Collectors want to be assured that they are not foolishly spending their money, and rightly so. However, it is a difficult question for a dealer to answer, because of a number of legitimate ethical concerns - conflict of interest springs instantly to mind (why would a dealer tell you his book is a BAD investment?). Some national rare bookselling organizations even go so far as to actively discourage their member dealers from encouraging or participating in "investment schemes." Any dealer that leads off his sales pitch by telling you what a good investment his book is going to be, should be approached with some caution, even in the event that he might just be correct.

The best collecting strategy, in our opinion, is to buy the best possible copies that you can afford, of the books that you love, and that are relevant or necessary for your collection. Usually, if you are careful, patient, get good advice from reputable dealers (which most dealers will be happy to provide if you have exhibited the least amount of seriousness about collecting) - in another words, if you do everything right - you will not only be very happy with your collection while you own it, but will probably stand a reasonable chance of being very happy with your investment when the time comes to sell it.

However, despite its occasionally esoteric atmosphere, the rare book market does not exist independently from the rest of the economy. If the economy booms, so does the book market - if it tanks, you might see long faces on dealers and collectors as well. Of course, occasionally when traditional investments such as stocks do poorly, investors will buy books and other collectibles in order to hedge their bets, but that's another story altogether, and it makes our head hurt just to think about it.

Historically, we are told, books have appreciated in value at a rate that is commensurate with the stock market, but they are also considerably less liquid, unless you plan the disbursement of your collection pretty carefully. Between our decades of experience in the book trade and our large reference library, we can usually tell roughly how much a particular book has appreciated in value over time (or, to put it another way, how much a copy might have cost you twenty years ago versus the same copy today). Often these numbers compare favorably to the stock market and the rate of inflation. But as with any asset, collectible or otherwise, past market conditions are no guarantee of future performance.

Here is our final, if very simplistic word on the subject - don't buy your rare books from your financial adviser, and don't have your bookdealer plan your investment or retirement portfolio, even though each might have something of value to say about the other's field of expertise.

Do rare books ever go down in value?
Yes, they sometimes do. If a particular author falls out of favor, fails to fulfill some early promise, or the supply of his books suddenly dramatically exceeds the demand, the prices of his or her books might fall. Some authors who were particularly popular, and heavily collected in the early part of the last century (John Galsworthy, James Branch Cabell, Joseph Hergesheimer, and Louis Bromfield all come easily to mind) saw the prices of their first editions drop dramatically during the Great Depression, and the prices did not recover for half a century or more. More recently, the advent of the Internet has had the effect of lowering the prices of some lower value modern first editions. This has come about because the regional disparities that formerly existed for certain books are no longer relevant. Think of it this way: if there was only one first edition of a particular book in each of the United States, it might seem like we were talking about a pretty scarce book, wouldn't it? However, if each of those copies were offered for sale on the Internet at the same time, the collector would have fifty copies to choose from, with the result that the dealer who was the most desperate to sell his own copy would lower his price to the level at which it would sell - in effect, it would be a race to the bottom. This one-time phenomenon seems to have run its course, and prices have pretty much stabilized, but the books of some authors that weren't really objectively scarce have lost some of the value they once enjoyed. It should probably be noted here, although it isn't directly related to your question, that the opposite effect has probably happened to books that are both genuinely scarce, and very desirable - the prices of those books seem to have risen steadily as the demand outstrips the supply.