This short guide gives basic tips for starting your book collection. These book collecting tips are simple techniques to improve your collection and your experience of collecting.
Book Collecting Tips:
Start With What You Love
- Start with the books that you love. If you love them, you’ll enjoy collecting them.
- Narrow your focus. If you collect illustrated children’s books, focus on a particular author/illustrator. Beyond that look for award winners. The more narrow your focus the more likely there are fewer collectors out there who are bidding for the same books. This is a way to create a niche collection and also an easy way to simply begin collecting.
Know the Book Condition
- Know the book condition. If possible, buy only Fine or Near Fine conditioned books. The better the condition, the better the value.
- Don’t always rely on the book seller to report the condition accurately.
- Be in the presence of the physical book. Handle it. It is always better to view the book in person. Online sales are prevalent, but can work against you when looking for signs of wear or authenticity in signatures.
- For the above reason, be careful when purchasing online. Not everyone selling books is familiar with the grading language or what makes a book truly collectible. Some simply see an opportunity to make some extra cash.
- If buying from an online seller—ask questions. Contact the seller to get more information. Especially if they’re offering a collectible or signed edition without displaying images. Ask for high-quality images. And don’t buy from a seller who doesn’t have a return policy.
- Watch for remainder marks & price-clipped dust jackets.
Know the Provenance
- If buying a signed book, know the provenance. Was the book signed at a particular event? Is there proof that the author hand-signed the book? Is the book inscribed or does it just feature the author’s simple (flat) signature?
Read About Books & Book Collecting
- Read about collecting books. There are several good titles about book collecting, including ABC for Book Collectors (Free PDF), which is sort of the book-collector’s bible
- Sign up for publisher and bookseller newsletters. These often advertise author signing events and special collector’s editions.
- Know the lingo. Know the difference between a “true first” and a “first thus” or a “dedication copy” and an “autopen signed” or “tipped-in” signature.
Get to Know Smaller Presses
- Get to know the smaller presses. Smaller presses usually publish smaller first print runs or collectible, limited editions and can be much more valuable in the long-term.
Know How to Identify First Printings
Frequently Asked Questions:
Just how much money can I make collecting books?
It's a fair question and, honestly, the answer is as varied as the number of people out there. Some people are able to snatch up signed first editions and turn around and sell them at a slight profit either through online retailers or at their local used bookstore; others hang on to their books, hoping the value will increase with time. Even others, like author John Dunning, parlay their collections into bookstores.
Most people collect as an investment, the same way they might collect wine. (although most of the collectors I know actually sample the books they collect, whereas wine collectors generally don't uncork their finds). It's a long game that involves proper conditions for the books and insurance. (But it can be fun).
There have been a few instances when the collection has become so well renowned that the whole set was auctioned off at incredible prices. While this may be something to which we can aspire, it is rare. If money is your end game, then treat it as a business.
In the end, if you want to start a collection, do it because you enjoy it.
Where do I start?
Start with what you love.
- Collect specific authors, illustrators. In college, I fell in love with Maya Angelou's writing and began collecting her works, and once I was introduced to Neil Gaiman's work, I began collecting anything and everything that he wrote.
- Collect book designers. We never really think about it, but books are designed, from their covers (both inside and out), to the type of paper and fonts used. More and more we're seeing people collect books designed in a series, like Jessica Hisch's Penguin's Drop Caps series, or Coralie Bickford-Smith's designs.
- Collect award winners: go for titles that won specific awards (Newbery, Caldecott, National Book Award, Hugo & Nebula Awards, Man-Booker, Pulitzer, etc.) *see my page on book awards under the Resource tab.
- Collect a specific genre (children's books, art books, mysteries, etc.)
- Collect small or specialty press publications. In general the smaller the print run, the more likely a title will be valuable in the long run. Small presses, by definition, print smaller print runs. They also tend to print limited editions. Some examples of smaller presses include Subterranean Press, Centipede Press, McSweeney's (although arguably the latter is more a mid-sized publishing house now), Tartarus Press (very limited editions).
- Collect Limited Editions. A number of independent bookstores now have some version of a limited editions club (i.e.: Powell's Indiespensable) in which you sign up to receive a signed, limited edition of their chosen title on a monthly basis. Or look for signed, limited editions from specialty presses like Subterranean Press, Centipede, Eaton Press, The Folio Society, etc.
What makes a book collectible?
Scarcity, desirability, emotional attachments, any number of things.
- Look for first editions / first printings of a title.
- Books signed by the author are considered collectible, as are rare books. In all cases, you want to find the earliest printing of a book that you can find & you want to find it in the best condition possible.
- The better the condition, the higher the value. Therefor you want a book that has clean, crisp pages with no folds, tears, or markings. You want the book boards to be clean and not scuffed or bumped. If there was a dust jacket issued with the book, you want that to be present and in good condition.
How can I tell if it's a first edition?
You can usually tell if it's a first edition by the presence of the phrase "First Edition" on the copyright page. HOWEVER, most book collectors are looking for a first printing, which is a slightly different concept than a "First Edition."
First printings are the absolute first issue of a book and are indicated by a number line, found at the bottom of the copyright page.
Number lines usually look something like this:
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
In each instance, you want the number line to include the number "1" in the series. This indicates a first printing.
There may be a second set of numbers following the number line that looks something like this:
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 8 9/9 0/0 01
The second set of numbers indicates the year in which your particular book was printed. (In this instance, the first number in the string, "8," indicates that the book was printed in 1998.)
In some older books and some books printed in the U.K., instead of a number line, there will be a letter line. In these cases, you're looking for the letter "A" in the string.
What things should I look for that would reduce the value of a book?
The biggest thing to watch for is the condition of the book. The poorer the condition, the less valuable.
- Watch for Book Club editions. These are almost always worth very little, but can be confused with the first trade editions because they usually have an identical copyright page.
- Watch for remainder marks on the bottom of the book.
- Watch for price-clipped books. This is when someone clips the price from the corner of the dust jacket flap.
- Watch for overall condition. Things like water damage, worn covers, torn or leaning spines, and odors can reduce the value of a book. It's natural for older books to have that musty, sweet vanilla-like smell, but they shouldn't smell sour, moldy, or like cigarette smoke.
Where should I search for collectible books?
The short answer is "Wherever books are sold."
- Some people shop used bookstores and antique stores, others find books online, still others find them through yard sales and estate sales. Many libraries (and churches) have annual book sales.
- There are also a number of publishers that print limited, signed editions, and there's a growing number of independent bookstores that have a signed edition book club.
- When possible, shop the physical bookstores because you can physically inspect the book before buying. If you're shopping online, make sure you read the descriptions carefully and ask for good quality images if none are provided.
How should I care for & store collectible books?
It's best to store books upright on a bookshelf that is not too tightly packed.
- Avoid stacking books on their sides or leaning books against other books / objects.
- If the book has a dust jacket, you should cover it with an archival, clear mylar cover to keep the dust jacket protected. Do not remove or discard the dust jacket.
- Keep your books out of direct sunlight
- Dust them regularly
How can I tell what my books are worth?
The easiest way is to take your books to a book appraiser and have them give you an estimate. You can also do your own research and compare listings from auction houses and online rare book sellers. Abebooks.com is a good starting point to gauge value, but read the descriptions carefully to understand if your copy matches the issue and condition points for the various listings. (Just because someone is listing their book for a high price doesn't mean that your book of the same title is worth that much.)