Appraising Collectible Books
I often receive email messages asking if I can give a value for a book. Unfortunately though, without seeing and researching the book, I don't have any idea. Condition and edition are so critical to an appraisal that I would never consider giving a value sight unseen. And to be quite frank, I don't provide appraisals for free.
The intrinsic value of a book, and the retail price of a book may be two completely different things. To use a very simplistic example, suppose you have a family bible that's been handed down through 8 generations - BUT, it is actually a very common and rather low quality bible. Now old bibles are remarkably common, and while there are a few that are valuable, the vast majority are pretty much unsaleable - at any price. So, your treasured family bible might be worth less than $5.00 on the open market.
Now let's use a somewhat more complex example; let's say you have a book by a well-liked, but retired professor of linguistics at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. This book is likely going to sell for a reasonably good price in a Kingston bookstore should one of his old students happen in the door. However, should you be trying to sell this same book in Tucson, Arizona, the chances of it selling at all, even for a pittance, are small.
Another example; a book on military history that is really quite rare, but has rather low demand. What sets the value? The rarity? or the demand? Well, it probably depends on how patient the seller is, and how specialized their inventory is. A military specialist with a large and educated customer base can and will ask much more than a general bookseller who carries only a few military titles.
The variable that will most strongly affect the value of your book is the condition of the book, and whether it is complete or not - and by 'complete', I mean that the book has its original dust jacket with all its original parts (ie. not price-clipped). While a jacket may seem an unimportant part of a book, in fact, it is the most fragile and thus the most likely part to be missing or severely damaged. The resultant rarity of fragile jackets makes them, in fact, more valuable than the book itself.
A book with missing pages is almost always worthless - no matter how old it is. The only exceptions might be books that have full-page colour plates that can be rescued, and a few immensely valuable early printed books such as the Gutenberg bible (good luck finding one...).
There are only three factors that matter: condition, scarcity, and demand. Age has nothing to do with value. A nice first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses from 1922 will bring vastly more (perhaps as high as $75,000 for the true first) on the open market than an ordinary family bible a hundred years older. On the subject of age... to a book dealer or serious collector, a book from the 1800's is not old. A book is old if it's dated 1650, or even 1750... but after 1850 they tend to get rather more common. Also, the terms "vintage" and "antique" have no meaning in the book world, and are not used.
Do you want to know the retail price? or the wholesale price? If you are researching for insurance purposes, or valuing an estate, then you'll want retail prices. However, if you are trying to figure out what you can sell the item for then a whole other range of factors come into play. From a bookseller's point of view, they want to know how quickly they can turn a book around and resell it. If a book is worth $500 but is not likely to sell for several years, the bookseller may actually be more interested in a $50 book for which they have a customer waiting. And don't think that it's unusual for a book to sit in inventory for a year or more. It happens all the time (mutter, mutter). Another factor is that cheap books take just as long to process as expensive books. So if you have a $5,000 book, you'll get a much higher percentage of the retail value than you will on a $15.00 book.
Here are some tips to help you hunt down prices for your books.
- Look it up on one of the booksearch tools. If there are either new or secondhand copies currently available for sale, you'll see at what prices they are being offered. Make sure that you've got exactly the same edition as the one you are comparing, and that the condition of the book is also comparable.
Check out my Book Search Tips
page. This will give you even more possible locations.
- If the book is still in print, you could look it up at Amazon.com Books. Canadian books can be found at Chapters.ca.
- Buy an appropriate price guide. Dealers buy many, many of these, which is why they are often reluctant to appraise your books for free. The guides can become quite an investment if you have to buy large quantities of them (sometimes even one can be quite an investment - some of the better titles run upwards of $150-200). I've put together a checklist of both general and specialty price guides which are currently available, as well as links to online stores in Canada, the US, and the UK which carry these guides.
For a more in depth look at pricing from a bookseller's point of view, have a look at my pricing page.
And if all else fails, find a knowledgeable bookseller, one who specializes in that type of book, and get an appraisal. Be prepared to pay for that appraisal. A dealer who specializes (and even one who doesn't...) has spent years learning his/her field, and invested a great deal in price guides, bibliographies, and periodicals related to their field.
One such dealer who offers appraisals online is Luis Porretta.
Or try Eppraisals.com, a site which offers appraisals on a wide range of collectibles.
You may also be able to get some help with your research by posting a message in Littera Scripta's new discussion forums.