As a second hand bookstore operator I often get asked to value a book. In most cases, the book in question isn’t worth much more than $10 or $20 and I watch as a wave of disappointment creeps across the customer’s face. This disappointment generally stems from the common misconception that if a book is old it must be worth something. There are two glaring problems with this assumption. The first is the customers’ perception of what defines old. In book collecting terms, a book is not old if it was printed in the 1950s, yet most customers perceive it to be old and therefore valuable. In collecting terms a book must have been around more than 100 years to even begin to be considered old and preferably more like 200 years. The second problem with this perception is that people equate age with value. This is a complete falsehood. Whilst age can contribute to the value of a book, the most important indicator of a book’s value is its rarity. And even this statement needs further elaboration because the truth is that second hand book selling is just like every other global marketplace. It’s controlled by the forces of supply and demand. So whilst a book might be scarce and the only one of its kind in the world, if nobody wants to read it then scarcity means nothing. The book is worth nothing. For a book to be considered rare it must be more than scarce. It must be scarce relative to the demand for it.
All that considered, let’s look at what different characteristics can make a book rare and thus influence its value. I have listed what I consider to be the top ten influences on value below, in no particular order.
Book/Dust Jacket Condition
In real estate its location, location, location. In the second hand book trade its condition, condition, condition. The closer a book is to its original state the more value it will carry. This refers just as much to the dust jacket as it does to the book itself. A book in very good condition is worth little if its’ dust jacket is missing. It’s also important to understand that a very, very old book is worth little if it’s falling apart. The second hand book industry has developed its’ own grading terminology to help describe the condition of a book. This information is usually presented in the form of VG/VG, Fine/Good, VG/–, etc. The first part refers to the condition of the book, whilst the second refers to the dust jacket condition. If a “/–” is present, it usually means that the dust jacket is not present. The terminology used is as follows.
New – Unread, in print, perfect condition with no missing or damaged pages.
As New – The book is in the same condition it was published.
Fine – Close to the condition of ‘As New’, but without being crisp and has no defects.
Very Good – The book shows some signs of wear, but has no tears or defects noted.
Good – The average used worn book that has all pages intact and defects are noted.
Fair – A worn book that has all pages intact but may lack endpapers, half-title etc. Binding or jacket may also be worn and defects are noted.
Poor – Describes a book that is sufficiently worn to the point that its only merit is as a reading copy. This copy may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc. Defects should still be noted.
NB: Despite this industry standard terminology there will always be discrepancies between people and their perception of the condition of a book. Where possible you should see the book for yourself and when buying over the internet we suggest you ask to see photos.