An Introduction to Book Collecting

Book collecting long predates the printing press.  Egyptian papyri and ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts were prized by medieval collectors.  Thomas Jefferson amassed a large library in the formative years of this country.

If you find yourself being drawn to collecting books for the first time, here are some basic facts that can serve as a useful starting point.

Many people collect in the hopes of making money.  While there are no guarantees and collecting categories can run hot and cold for no apparent reason, gathering information can mean having a better chance of your collection increasing in value.  And unlike many contemporary collecting categories, if the books you select do not appreciate in value, you can still get much satisfaction from reading.

What makes a book collectible?  One reason would be because the author becomes famous.  Early editions of this author’s work could then increase in value tremendously.  Another reason is a book category enjoys a popular following.  Such categories include art, science fiction, and fantasy.  Categories can get very specialized.  Certain books about Disney (“Disneyana”) and the works of L. Frank Baum (“Baumiana” or “Oziana”), who also used several pen names, are very collectible in their respective circles.  And don’t overlook the Hollywood, sports, and music categories. Does your favorite team publish a yearbook?  It’s probably of interest to someone.

As in any business, publishing has its own unique terminology.  An astute collector will know the basic terms, beginning with these:

– “First edition” means the first time an original manuscript appears in book form.  This means only the initial print run, or “first printing,” is considered the first edition, since many books have multiple print runs.  By the way, the terms edition, printing, and impression can be used interchangeably.

– “Limited edition” means the print run is a specific number of copies.

– “Dust jacket” is a detachable cover to protect a hardbound binding.  Usually made of paper, plain dust jackets first appeared in the mid-1800s.  By the late 1800s, pictorial dust jackets were introduced to help with promotion.  Today retaining the dust jacket is essential for realizing a book’s full collectible value.

– “Copyright page” is on the reverse side of the title page, and usually includes the copyright year, publisher’s name and address, and information about the print run.

The most collectible book is the first edition.  Limited editions are also collected, although a limited edition may not be a first edition.  Limited editions have been so popular with collectors that some publishers, or presses, market books specifically aimed at collectors.  Plus some presses specialize in reprints.  These can appear identical to a true first edition, and it takes an educated eye to spot differences.  The best defense is to gather information about which presses specialize in which types of books.  It can be very embarrassing, not to mention expensive, to find the vintage “first edition” you just bought in an online auction is actually a recent reprint.

Collectible books are normally graded as mint, fine, very good, good, fair, or poor.  It is important to learn what these grades mean.  For example, mint means unused, probably never opened, right off the store shelf.  Fine has been opened and shows slight shelf wear.  Good shows obvious handling and some light soiling.  Poor means hardly readable, let alone collectible.

There are many sources for collectible books, from auction houses to rummage sales.  Probably the best strategy for the beginning collector is to befriend a reputable dealer.  Once you feel comfortable buying and maybe selling, go out on your own and see what you can find.

So learn as much as you can about your collecting category, then have fun with your hunt… and don’t forget to read!
A timeless book-collecting reference is Tomart’s Price Guide to 20th Century Books by John Wade (Tomart Publications, 1994)

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