Get Started Collecting Rare Books


If you love to read and write, collecting rare books can be one of the most enjoyable hobbies to spend time on. Not only that, but rare books have the ability to maintain value, and if you’re lucky appreciate in value, if you’re able to acquire the right books and hold them for the long term.

There are many things to consider when beginning your rare book collecting journey. Let’s start from scratch. You want to purchase your very first rare book and don’t know where to begin. The first thing to define for yourself is your budget. For just a few hundred dollars you can buy world-famous first edition books. My recommendation would be to focus on a few of your very favorite authors and find a first edition that fits your budget.

When you focus on authors you really love along with a book title perhaps you read when you were younger and really loved, a few things happen. Suddenly you now own something that has sentimental value to you. It’s not just an old book sitting on a shelf but a real treasure with a personal connection.

Let’s Get Serious

Google released a study a few years ago where they determined the exact number of books written in world history. Their conclusion; there are 129,864,880 books and counting. Of course, every day that goes by more books are written. It’s your job to separate the really great books from the crowd. Great books will live forever. By collecting rare books you can become a steward for these tiny packages of history and culture.

Beyond personal preference and sentimental memories, there are other factors to consider when building a rare book collection. These factors will help you determine how to build and value your collection.

Scarcity

Books printed in large quantities will have difficulty holding any value over the years. These types of books include encyclopedias, bibles, and textbooks. Many factors contribute to making a book scarce. It could be a limited edition where the printed volume was extremely low. An author’s autograph would make the book scarce. Fire or a flood could have struck a large quantity of the books in a warehouse, this would diminish the supply and make a book scarce.

I stumbled on an article in The Guardian detailing the recent discovery of an important manuscript. Five hundred years ago Hernando Colon, who was the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus, created one of the largest libraries in the world up until the 16th century. His collection featured over 15,000 books collected while he traveled and explored the world.

The recent discovery of The Libro de los Epitomes manuscript gives an important reminder to the idea of scarcity. Hernando Colon created a book of over 2,000 pages with summaries of all the books contained in his library. The summaries show that only about one-quarter of the books survived the passage of the last 400 years. Therefore, the Libro de los Epitomes provides a list of books that no longer exist. Not only that, but the manuscript also provides a summary of each of the books that no longer exist. The manuscript is a glimpse of what people were reading 400 years ago. Some of these popular works of the time are no longer in existence, so it seems. If one of these books presumed to be lost forever should turn up and be discovered somewhere, it would be of immense value. Scarcity is a key component of perceived value.

Libro de los Epitomes
Libro de los Epitomes – Image credit University of Copenhagen

Authors

Rare books written by the most famous authors have incredible value. Owning the only copy of an old book nobody’s ever heard of and nobody wants to read is not going to get you very far. The book must be recognizable as having something of importance inside its cover. Searching for rare books by well-known authors throughout history is one of the best ways to start a collection.

One approach that might be worth considering is searching for obscure titles written by very famous authors. For example, perhaps you enjoy Charles Dickens but don’t have $35,000 to buy a first edition copy of “A Tale of Two Cities.” There are many other Charles Dickens titles that are less known and relatively unpopular. Dickens published, “Our Mutual Friend,” in 1865 which was his last novel and many consider it to be one of his most sophisticated works. A first edition copy of this book can be found for under $3,000.

Condition

One factor that can shoot a rare book value to the moon is if it’s in abnormally excellent condition. The most well-preserved copies of famous titled rare books have demand that far outweighs supply. Not only is the actual book condition important but the dust jacket is also a critical part of assessing the overall value. Here are a few of the basic terms you should know when considering any purchase of rare books.

  • As New – Books found in the same condition as the day they were published. In some cases not even opened yet.
  • Fine – Very close to the condition as published but opened and read. No defects to any part of the book.
  • Very Good – Small signs of wear. Minor defects but no tears to pages or binding.
  • Good – All pages and leaves present but shows average usage. All defects should be listed by the seller.
  • Fair – All text pages are in tact but may be missing endpapers. Binding and dust jacket may be worn.
  • Poor – A clearly worn book with aspects that may be missing. Stained or spotted pages with loose joints or bindings.
  • Binding Copy – Very poor binding that is loose or falling apart. Pages or leaves still intact.
  • Reading Copy – Poor or fair condition will all pages legible.