In the rare, collectible, out of print, and antiquarian book industry, there is no single set of standards for classifying any one item. Many variables – such as condition, provenance, edition, etc. – all contribute to a book’s status.
Millions of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, and broadsides have been published since the invention of printing more than 500 years ago. Only a small portion of these pieces, however, would be considered “rare” by specialists. In simple terms, books achieve a degree of rarity only when demand exceeds supply. Unfortunately, there are no easy formulas for determining rarity.
In the market-driven society in which we live, rare often equates with a high dollar value. But, as any book lover will tell you, books may appeal to us on an intellectual or sentimental level and have a true personal value for which no amount of money has any meaning. These books may be scarce but might not command a high price. Then there are those considered rare, and thus both scarce and valuable, by an objective collector.
The books in our Rare Book Room are not necessarily old or expensive, but they are all, to one degree or another, considered rare. Taken literally, the term rare is misleading. To be considered rare, a book must be more than just scarce; it must be scarce relative to the demand for it.
Beginning collectors often assume that because a book is very old it must be worth a great deal of money. But there are many, many books printed in the 1700s that have no real value; they are scarce, but not rare in the book collector’s sense of the word. Though just what does make a book desirable to collectors is much more difficult to answer, there are some common variables that often factor into the equation.
Sometimes only a particular edition of a book is rare, such as the first printing of a work, known as a first edition, a true first, a first issue or, sometimes, just a first. In some cases, it is the signature of the author, the artwork contained in the book, or the typesetting, layout, or binding of an edition that makes it desirable to the collector. The signature of the author might be the key to a book’s value, or, in the case of an association copy, the previous owner might be someone interesting or famous. Or, the information contained in the book may simply not be available anywhere else.
A book known to exist in only a few copies may have significant monetary value if collectors prize it. However, a book without important text or distinguishing physical characteristics is likely to have little economic value, no matter how few copies survive.
Age is not enough to make a book valuable. No amount of time will make your grandmother’s collection of Reader’s Digest or National Geographic magazines pay your way through life. It is the importance of the text, the condition of the book, and demand for it that will make for a high dollar valuation.
Learn more from our book value guide and start your research!
Amber is the marketing coordinator at Biblio. A lifelong love of the written word brought her to Biblio and she happily spends her days talking about books and delving into the wide world of antiquarian books.