People frequently bring books to offer for sale to us at Old Scrolls Book Shop, or e-mail us about books they would like to sell. Some people have inherited these books, others are downsizing or cleaning out their attic, and some have scoured book sales, flea markets, book stores and antique shops searching for books they can resell at a profit. We have a few regulars who are quite good at book scouting, but this is a talent that takes time and effort to develop, and some of the instinct for it, I believe, is inborn. The best book scouts tend to be those who have been serious readers all of their lives, who then have been diligent in acquiring and applying knowledge regarding identifying books of value.
One of the most common mistakes for beginners, perhaps, is picking up common old reprints of famous books. Important titles seem to jump out at people because they are well-known titles, and therefore it is assumed by beginners that they are valuable. The problem is that famous books have been reprinted many, many times simply because of their sustained popularity; so unless the book you are looking at is a first edition, or some very special edition, it is likely to have a market value of a few dollars at best—simply because they are so common. This includes most old bibles, and many books by authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, etc. There are editions which may be of value because of exceptionally beautiful bindings or illustrations, but plain old reprints are simply that, even if by an author of renowned reputation.
Older books are not always valuable, especially if their bindings are faded or worn through, their spines cracked or detached, or have torn or missing pages. Clean solid copies are what discerning book shops, and collectors, desire.
Collectible books, especially “modern” literature, lose around 75% of their resale market value if the dust jacket is missing. (Most books from 1900 – and even earlier — were issued with dust jackets). It’s kind of like having the original box that an old toy came in; the value of the original packaging (the first thing to be thrown away) adds immensely to the value of the collectible object.
Before plunking down money for a book, it pays to take some time to inspect it carefully. Even at a few dollars per book, mistakes in purchasing can add up. It pays to take the time to examine carefully for flaws: Fan the pages to look for previous owner markings, underlining or marginal notes; chips and tears; soiled or missing pages, maps or illustrations. Most books with illustrations and maps list what should appear (and on what page) in the front pages of the book. Inspect for cracked hinges; sniff for musty odor. All of these flaws are detrimental to value. Don’t forget to look at front and rear endpapers, where you may discover a library pocket or glue marks. Inspect the page edges of the text block for stains or writing, including the bottom page edges where it’s easy to miss a remainder mark (a fat dot or marker line, or sometimes an ink-stamped image). Occasionally a front free endpaper has been excised; this is especially common at library book sales. Book owners often take out this page before donating their books because they have written their name on it, and for some inexplicable reason, don’t want anyone to see their name on a page in a book. I’ve seen otherwise fine books ruined this way. Even though it was a “blank” page, it must be there to make the book complete. If you are guilty of this yourself (cutting out the page with your name on it) – cease and desist! Just leave it there, and don’t blot it out with a big old marker. If you must write your name in your books, do it in soft pencil which can always be erased.
A tasteful bookplate in an old book is not a bad thing, in my opinion, nor is a neatly penned name and date. In fact, there are collectors of book plates, which is quite an interesting genre in and of itself. Sometimes at a book sale or in a used book shop, I find myself selecting book after book which turn out to have the same name or bookplate, and then I know I have found a kindred soul.
It’s important to be able to weed out book club editions. These books often look similar to the first edition of a book, but have little value as they were generally issued in large printings and are often printed in a different format and printed and bound with cheaper materials. (There are a few exceptions, of course, where a book club edition was actually the first hardback printing of a book, or where the collectible first edition is so out of reach in price that even a book club edition carries some value. These exceptions, however, are very unusual). Many book club editions have a very small impression, often just a dot, or a square, on the rear board of the book in the lower corner near the spine. If they have a dustjacket, generally there will be no publisher’s price printed on the jacket. The book is often lighter in weight than the publisher’s first edition, and sometimes slightly different in size.
Below are some images of Sue Grafton’s famous first alphabet mystery novel, “A” is for Alibi. In each photo, the book club edition is on the left, and the first edition on the right. The book club edition has a value of about $15 (optimistically), and the First Edition currently has a market value anywhere between $1500-$5000, depending on condition and whether or not it is signed by the author.
Although they look the same straight on, you will see the differences pointed out in the photos below:
These are just a few tips to help you in your book scouting or in working toward building a book collection of value. Mistakes are often made even by experienced scouts when they are under pressure or working against time constraints (such as at a crowded book sale). I find it really pays to be calm and methodical when scouting for quality collectible books. Develop your own pattern of recognition and inspection. Your heart might go thumpity-thumpity when you spot a jacketed copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, or Karamojo Safari by W. D. M. Bell; but if you get them home and find out the “Wrinkle” is a book club edition with a musty smell, and the Karamojo Safari is missing it’s front free endpaper and a map, your pleasure will soon dissipate.
If you are building your own collection, you are far ahead of the game to pay fair market value for clean, collectible quality books from a bookseller who knows and stands behind what he/she is selling. That doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the thrill of the hunt – of course you should, for that is where the fun lies and you can become knowledgeable about it if you apply yourself. Just don’t start accumulating shelves full of junk for which you’ve paid good money, and when totaled, could equate to a smaller number of really excellent books you can be proud to own, and a much better investment.
I will write more on this subject in the future.