Book Collecting: How to Get Started in the World’s Greatest Hobby

A brief beginner’s guide

Paul Combs

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago, my son-in-law informed me that Pokémon cards have become the hottest collectible on the market, with rare early editions selling for astronomical amounts. Unlike him, I have been alive long enough to have seen countless “collectibles” come and go, from the baseball card hysteria of the mid-1990s to the Beanie Baby craze shortly after. Anything can become collectible for a while, but few of these things stand the test of time.

There is one area of collecting, however, that has lasted for over 500 years, surpassed in longevity and devotion only by collecting art. That time-tested hobby is book collecting. And while starting out collecting in many fields requires a huge initial investment, collecting books is something everyone can do. For those starting out, I offer a quick guide.

One of the most important things to know when collecting books is that “old” and “rare” are not the same thing. Many people assume that the age of a book is what determines both its scarcity and its value, but this is seldom the case. Antiques dealers are especially fond of putting ridiculously high prices on books based solely on their age, but most antiques dealers are not book experts.

Rarity, and thus value, is determined by a number of factors. While a book that’s been in your family for generations may have great sentimental value to you, unless that book is a Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare’s First Folio it’s probably neither rare nor valuable. There are several variables to consider regarding a book’s value, and each is important:

1. Condition, condition, condition. Always buy a book in the best condition you can possibly afford. A book is not valuable simply because it’s old, and a very old book in poor condition is worth little or nothing. For modern editions, the condition of the dust jacket is easily as important as the condition of the book itself when determining value. In fact, the dust jacket can account for up to 90 percent of the value of the book. For example, a “clipped” dust jacket (one where the original price on the inside cover has been clipped off) can cut the value of a book by 75 percent or more.

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Paul Combs

Writer, bookseller, would-be roadie for the E Street Band. My ultimate goal is to make books as popular in Texas as high school football...it may take a while.