Several years ago, I began book collecting.

Casually at first, guided by my brother-in-law. For years, I collected many inexpensive first editions that are not worth much today.

In 2007, I wondered how I might predict which books would be the most valuable. Would I be able to zero in on books that would “skyrocket” in value shortly after their publication?

Rarity

I started studying books by collectors such as Nicholas Basbanes and Rick Gekoski. Mr. Basbanes devotes a whole chapter to “Three Little Words”- rarity, scarcity and value – in his book, Among the Gently Mad. He says that rarity is achieved by a combination of significance, desirability and availability.

An example Mr. Basbanes gives is that of bibles. The first book printed was the Gutenberg or 42-line Bible. 47 copies are known to exist. There are four times as many Gutenberg Bibles as Bay Psalm Books (the first book printed in the American colonies in 1639). However, the Gutenberg Bible would be the more desirable and significant of the two.

He also points out that there are over 500 existing copies of Copernicus’s 16th century book De Revolutionibus Orbium Colelestium (On The Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres). Even with a relatively large number of copies for a 450 year old book, it is one of the most coveted, expensive and stolen books.

For the books I collect I want a low first printing. How low? A few years ago, 50,000 was a large printing for an author’s first book. Now some first printings are 100,000 or more. I would really like to see less than 15,000 copies printed. However, information on low first printings can be very hard to find. Some authors do not know the number of copies in the first printing of their books.

First Books

A key statement Mr. Basbanes makes is that the first books of important authors of any century are typically the most difficult to acquire. The authors are unknown when they write their first books and their publishers only print a small number of copies due to expected limited demand.

Some well-known 20th century first books whose first editions are now very expensive are

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

The Catcher In The Rye by J. D. Salinger

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Movie-Goer by Walker Percy

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest by Ken Kesey

Fiction Books

I now knew to look for new authors’ first books. But which new authors? The most collectible books are works of fiction. The genres most important to collectors are literary fiction, mystery, fantasy, science fiction and horror. Young adult “chapter” books have become more collectible since the Harry Potter books appeared 10+ years ago. Many authors have switched from adult fiction to young adult fiction as both teens and adults like to read these books. I have some history books and biographies in my collection but I do not usually look in these areas of a bookstore.

Why is fiction so collectible? The characters created and developed by authors are unique and cannot be copied by other authors. It is the creativity that makes the difference.

“Breakthrough” Books

A “Breakthrough” book can be an author’s second, third or later book that the critics love and the public lines up to buy. Often the book will be an award winner. I watch the award nominations carefully and try to buy award winning books with low first printings. A recent example is the unknown author, Jaimy Gordon, winning the National Book Award with her third novel, The Lord of Misrule.

If an author begins a new series, the first book will sometimes become valuable. Examples of this are Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Rick Riodan’s The Lightning Thief and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Each author had written several books before writing these career-launching books.

Rating System

I have told you about a few of the factors that are important in determining whether a book will be valuable in the future. There are other variables I cannot reveal. Considerable research goes into finding all the necessary information.

Not all of our fiction predictions work out but some books we found early have been among the most collectible books of the past three years:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I believe that the system has greatly helped me pinpoint many very desirable, valuable books for my collection.

4 Comments on Predicting The Value of Collectible Books

  1. Robin Walsh says:

    I had a good look at ARCs with a view to collecting some time ago.
    This is only my opinion: leave well alone.
    ARCs can be worth more than first editions, though this tends to apply more to older ARCs where the first edition had a large print run. They can also have value if they are very scarce (of course!) or if the first edition is impossible to come by.
    However, ARCs are distributed for free – you are buying something that somebody got for nothing. Interest in collecting hyper modern ARCs seems to have waned – book collectors and indeed sellers would rather deal in first/first (and particularly signed) hard cover editions.
    So, fragile paperback edition with typos or a hard cover first edition of the finished product? I know which one I’d rather have…….

  2. Michel says:

    I have 3 of 4 set of The Thompson Publishing Co. 1909 Bible available for sale. I would like to know it’s value. Thank you.

    Michel

    778-378-0516

  3. Pavel says:

    Could you somehow address the ARC market. For the longest time I’m trying to find the ARC for Paolini’s Brisingr. It appears it simply does not exist.

    ARC market is fairly interesting. For example Clive Cussler’s ARC are worth much more then the 1st printings. How weird is that?

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