Determining the True Value of Collectible Books
Collectible book prices are a finicky thing. So how to determine a rare book's value?
The best way may, in fact, be to sell it.

Whenever the topic of collectible books comes up in discussion, one of the first questions asked is, “How do you determine a book’s value?” The answer is simpler than you might think: the value of a book is exactly what people are willing to buy it for. Collectible book prices are dependant on far too many things to be pinned down as firmly as, say, a barrel of oil or a company’s stock.

As with all collectibles, demand influences the price of a rare book more than anything else. Since the market is unregulated, you’re free to slap any price tag you want on your collectible books. That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will be willing to pay that price, though—you won’t know that until you actually make the sale.

What do we mean by this? Take, for example, a collectible bookseller cruising his annual neighborhood garage sale. He finds a box of books at one of his neighbor’s tables and, after a quick review, decides that the books, on average, are worth $3 apiece. Since there are 25 books in the box, he offers his neighbor $75. The neighbor had no price tags on the books but would have been willing to sell them for $.50 apiece, had the buyer bothered to ask, so the neighbor is quite happy. The buyer is happier than he’d expected to be, too; upon closer review of the books, he realizes that one is a rare first edition autobiography. He’s not sure what the book’s value really is, but a quick check online reveals that a similar copy sold for about $300. He prices his accordingly and brings it to a book show.

As he’s setting up his table at the show, the dealer next to him sees the book and purchases it without hesitation at tag price. A third collectible bookseller, who knows much more about autobiographies than either of the first two, sees it five minutes later and buys it from the second dealer for $1,000; it’s the first copy of this particular book that he has ever seen, and though he isn’t sure of the book’s price, he does know that it’s worth far more than he’s paying. Later, he sells it to yet another dealer for $2,500, who sells it to a fifth dealer for $4,000, who eventually sells it to a collector for $6,000.

So as you can see, book values are never written in stone, and any given book is worth precisely what someone will buy it for. In this particular example, the book’s price kept shooting up and up because it was rare enough that nobody had recent sales examples upon which to base its worth, and no other avenues through which to purchase another copy.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t determine the approximate value of most collectible books. You can, for example, see how much a given book has sold for in the past. Also, many book values, or ranges of values, are listed in price guides or magazines such as Firsts. Keep in mind, however, that not all price guides are created equal, and no one guide should be considered “definitive.” Plus, book values are fluid, and sometimes rise and fall as if with the tides because the market is fairly small; it only takes a single person on the hunt for a rare first edition to spike that book’s price, sometimes quite dramatically. On the other hand, if a handful of owners simultaneously put a specific collectible book up for sale, the price may plummet because there simply won’t be enough people interested in buying it.

Overall, however, the price of collectible books does rise over the years, sometimes significantly so. Comparing old price guides to new ones makes that maxim quite apparent.

Of course, you can’t really know just how much a book’s price has risen until you sell it. Professional sellers and long-time collectors do develop an “eye” for collectible book values and are often capable of appraising collections, but not until the money is paid and a book changes hands can someone ever know a value for certain. Don’t think of this as a bad thing, though—in our opinion, this mystique just makes book collecting that much more interesting.


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