Are your books worth keeping under lock and key?
A short guide to determining book values
Oscar Wilde once said, "A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." He might feel comfortably at home when it comes to books, because one of the most routine things we do at Printed Page is to determine the value of a book. It's not as simple as it sounds.
That's because we consider a slew of factors to determine the value of a book: desirability, subject matter, author, edition, illustrator, provenance (who owned the book previously), binding, rarity, whether it's signed by the author or written in by a former owner, our experience in pricing and selling earlier copies and, of course, condition, condition and condition.
But what about the books you just inherited from Uncle Ernie? How do you figure out if they're valuable? For starters, realize that most books are worth very little -- at least in a commercial sense. Most old books are worth little. Most first editions are worth little. The booksellers at Printed Page probably reject 10 books for every one they purchase for resale.
If Uncle Ernie was a fan, say, of Pulitzer Prize winners and collected signed copies of their work, you have a very nice problem. You'd certainly want to hire a qualified appraiser or bookseller to do an appraisal. (We can recommend some.) Depending on the time and research involved, appraisals can get fairly expensive. They're also indispensible if, for example, you're going to donate the books and want a tax benefit. But if Uncle Ernie was more of a reader than a collector, you can probably figure out the retail value of his collection yourself. (The wholesale value of his collection will be between maybe 15 and 30% of the retail value, depending on the quality of the books.)
For a quick, easy and rough estimate of a book's value, go to abebooks.com
, and enter your book's characteristics (e.g. softbound, hardbound, first edition, publisher, date of publication) in the fields shown. You'll then see comparable copies of your book that are for sale. Most likely, the book prices will be all over the place. You may see what seem to be two identical books, one priced at $10, the other at $100.
So what is your book worth, $10 or $100, assuming they are identical?
Well, let's turn that around. If you were a customer looking for your book, would you rather pay $10 or $100? Ten dollars it is. But there's a caveat that goes with that: Every book online has not yet sold for what the seller is asking.
To take your quest a step further, you can find out what your book has realized at auction using subscriber databases such as American Book Prices Current.
When you get right down to it, anything is only worth what someone will pay for it. Like anything else, the value of a book is dependent on supply and demand. Because of that, pricing books -- determining their value -- is as much of an art as a science.
One other thing: If a bookseller does an appraisal for you, he or she can't also make you an offer to buy the books. Most professional bookseller organizations consider it unethical to be on both sides of a transaction.
A second other thing: Books used to be so scarce and so valuable that they were chained to the shelves in libraries. That's what you see in the photo above.