Books, Value and Desire

Sam Weller started passing me used book buying advice when I was a working kid so I learned some before the slightly more deliberate, but more focused, tutorials that would begin in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, I was buying and pricing used and rare books for the bookstore.

In May, I presented "17 Reasons a Book Might Increase in Value" to our Collectors’ Book Salon. I use these principles daily when evaluating books. For nearly 30 years, they have served me well. Since there is a lot of curiosity about old, rare and valuable books, I explain them daily as I assist clients with their books. There are no shortcuts here, and specific knowledge will always eclipse general theory.

Before listing the specific principles, I must cover a few overriding factors that affect them. Like other markets, the collectible book market comes down to supply and demand. The internet has given us the best view of supply we have ever had, but it doesn’t describe demand. Understanding demand is a difficult inquiry into the nature of human desire.

All books start with a first printing, or first edition, but this is not very important. No one cares about first editions of boring or non-influential books. First editions of worthy books that were printed in large numbers may gain value some year or century but probably not soon enough for the living.

A common error made by the inexperienced who try to assess their own books is not making harsh enough judgments about condition. Most persons use books casually, but book collectors handle books like delicate glass. What good condition means to a dealer or collector is always nicer than the casual opinion. Books last much longer than human beings. As the respective age of a cat to a human, so the age of a human is to a book: six to one. On the phone, I ask, “Is it in beautiful condition?” knowing that a two second pause equals a “no.” Adjacent to condition is the trait of completeness or integrity. All original parts of a book (dust jackets!) should be intact and present.

We have a firm-ish grip on supply but the facets of desire are probably not much easier to understand than they ever were. Even if desire were easy to map, we’d still not have clear valuations. Should we ask what causes persons to want books of which there are too few? Or, why are there too few of certain books many persons want?

Keep these concerns in mind as we examine my 17 reasons. Remember, unless otherwise stated, I am writing about first editions with all original parts in very good condition. The first two factors I will cover account for a majority of collected books, but you will learn how other traits combine and augment, keeping the nuances of book collecting confusing, complex, mysterious and seductive.

The first and only consistently trustworthy factor of value is importance or influence of the work. These are books that changed the course of history. Here we find science, medicine, exploration, philosophy, politics, and theology. This is where the opinions of the living have the least influence. What we think about Marx, Wollstonecraft or Darwin has no bearing on the impact their thinking had on history.

The second influential trait and the most unstable is popularity or affection. Notice any dead persons shopping recently? Only the taste of the living affects markets. Taste is as unpredictable and changeable as the weather. Love drives the prices of great novels, poetry and juvenile books, but one must note that the tastes of parents and children do not often coincide. I use three generations of affection to project tenuous confidence about durable value. Post World War II books are too recent for three generations.

That covers most of what people collect. But here are 15 other traits that affect value.

Unusually rapid increase of interest. In our era, information travels fast. Unless you're at the front of the curve, watch out. As with Wall Street bubbles, too many speculators will tweak the market to unsustainable heights. If a book just became a bestseller, a movie was announced or the author just died, it brings much attention but it is probably already too late and the interest is often brief. The internet has reduced the effort it takes for individuals to participate but when speculators dominate, one can’t perceive demand, and risk increases. Don’t overspend on what is called, “hyper-moderns.”

Autographs of famous or beloved persons will increase the value of books unless the supply is large. Most persons are not as impressed with great writers as they are with athletes and movie stars. Autographs have a fairly small effect on books unless the signatory is very famous and the signature is hard to find. Simply writing a book does not establish fame or respect. Autographs on books of minor worth sell slowly even at low prices.

Right: The Machineres of Joy isn't Ray Bradbury's most famous work, but his autograph on this copy significantly increases its value.

Beauty affects book value. Excellent paper, artful typography, great illustrations, beautiful binding of leather or decorated cloth. Content is the normal basis for book collecting but a gorgeous book of insignificant content is worth more than an ugly copy. It starts with careful craftsmanship but is only preserved by careful handling. However, a gorgeous copy of an esteemed book beats unimportant content in a pretty package every time.

Age is less significant than you think. We measure age not from our point in time, but from the time of the author or pertinence of the subject. Barring disasters, most books are likely to survive for hundreds of years. They are a nearly perfect technology. Age is a flimsy determinant of value, but the belief that age creates value is the most common wrong belief about books. We don’t use the term 'old' unless a book is over a century old, 'very old' must mean 1700s or 1600s, but an unimportant book from the 1500s can usually be bought for less than books that have influenced humanity. Count age in centuries and if you don’t count up to three, reorient the inquiry.

Delayed increase of interest can cause once neglected books to shoot up in value. This trait describes books that are ignored or disparaged by contemporary persons but somehow resonate for later generations. Initial apathy or circum-stance curtails production and distribution, limiting quantities, but late arising demand does not increase yesterday’s printings. Such factors make all original editions of Zora Neale Hurston, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau valuable. The same also affects initially rejected and subsequently embraced scientific or philosophical matters like accurate astronomy and evolution.

Historic proximity describes individual books that are physically present at a significant juncture of history or a dramatic moment. The content and physicality of such books has little bearing, although such can augment. Examples might be a book carried from Nauvoo by Brigham Young, or a book rescued from the Titanic.

Fame of printers or publishers can occur for reasons of excellence, primacy, or innovation. Anything printed by Benjamin Franklin will be valuable. The Kelmscott Press raised British standards of printing dramatically. Virginia Woolf printed her own. Red Butte Press has made gorgeous books. What about military printings executed in the field?

Provenance is about former ownership. As with historic proximity, the value of provenance sits aside content and physicality. It can even be apathetic about supply. Of course a book valued for other reasons that was also owned by someone prominent will have extra value. Even boring books owned by the famous will increase in value. If Noam Chomsky and I owned identical 1st editions of 1984, mine would be worth less.

Association copies are among the most esteemed of collected books. The term describes books with marks that establish an intimate connection between them and an important person. Types of associations vary widely – they can be author to spouse, publisher to subject, printer to illustrator, you get the idea. We currently offer a copy of The Daring Twins, a juvenile detective novel by L. Frank Baum of Oz fame that he inscribed to his sister with the phrase, “First copy off the press.”

Suppressed or illegitimate books. Whatever societal or legal pressures affect the suppression of books, doing so works tricky magic on values. Few of us are comfortable accepting that someone else is qualified to make judgments about our reading. The enticement of a taboo combines with reduced supply to create high demand, and prices rise. But note: desire stoked by the unknown will be largely speculative. Distribution of most influential books was curtailed by stubborn societies clinging to cultural dogma. That does not mean a restricted or banned book is necessarily important.

First Books or early works by subsequently famous authors. Unknown writers don’t receive large printings. Popular writers do. When an author gains a large readership, demand for his or her books increases and there just aren’t enough of the early printings to go around. Jonathan Troy will cost you a lot, but Ed Abbey hated his first book.

Illustrations. Although I am sad to observe collectors’ sensibilities move from content toward physical beauty, I am fond of a well-illustrated book. Lots of books have pictures but only the top tier of illustrators reach scale-tipping popularity. Books are no longer hard to make and the most beloved illustrators are often reproduced. High quality editions of the best illustrators’ titles are cherished collectible books.

Unique does not mean scarce or unusual, it means one-of-a-kind. Most books are mass produced. To make a copy unique requires some special alteration. Collectors and dealers are mostly and correctly loath to alter books in any way. Unless you are Chip Kidd, or Salvador Dali, or Kurt Vonnegut, your alterations will not likely be admired. We will soon offer two unique handmade books by Maria Howard Weeden, empathetic post-civil war Alabaman, poet and painter. Medieval monks would have esteemed her beautiful work.

Above: An array of Maria Howard Weeden's published works, and two of her unique, hand-illuminated books.

Left: A page from Weeden's hand-illuminated book, Pilgrim Song.

Ephemerality describes items of temporary nature, either because of type of use or fragility of construction. For the former reason, we include juvenile books and cookbooks because their uses lead to faster deterioration. In the fragile category we place pamphlets, paper things and less happily, important but badly made books. Ephemerality affects supply.

Depth or specificity. No matter in what field, even the nascent, there are best sources of knowledge that aren’t eclipsed by others. They may be disputed or someday superseded but books that contain the most information tend to shape opinions for generations. The supply of such works is generally small because only a few of us care to dig to the deepest depths. Books that become definitive and thorough sources are bases for expert knowledge.

Any of these traits could cause a book to become valuable. Combinations guarantee it. We’ve covered a lot in a brief space and we did so with a few assumptions. Forgive the redundancy that follows but none of the foregoing is useful without tempering by these ideas. Condition is where the hopeful and hasty err. In general, I refer to original editions. All concepts are affected by supply and demand. There are exceptions to all these principles, and that’s why I never get tired of bookselling.