If you've ever found yourself standing in a bookstore or flea market, wondering if the rare book in your hands is worthwhile, this post is for you. Below are a handful of tips from experts in the rare book world, explaining what makes a book worth buying. So the next time you're faced with the decision or "to buy or not to buy?" try turning to these tips:
Tip #1: Buy What You Like
According to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, the most important tip in book-buying is that choosing which books to buy is less about monetary value and more about your own taste. When looking to build a collection, the ABA advises that you "collect what is of interest to you, what your heart tells you, what you like, what you love, what gives you pleasure and satisfaction, what is meaningful or significant to you." Buying books you like will never steer you wrong, whereas buying books as investments could. The ABA adds, "We can tell what the price of a book was in the past, how that price has developed, we can tell what it will cost now to own a copy, but we cannot predict what its future price will be." Instead of buying books because you think they'll be valuable, buy books because you want them.
Tip #2: Don't Buy Books Just Because They're Old
What makes a book financially valuable is not its age; it's its rarity and condition. Rare books are books with higher demand than availability — so just because a book is old doesn't mean it's rare. In the words of the National Library of Scotland, "Old does not mean valuable. Many people have 18th- or 19th-century Bibles; these are rarely of any significant value, as so many were produced." When you come across a centuries-old book, stop yourself from spending a bundle just because it's old. It may or may not be valuable.
Tip #3: Consult the Bookman's Price Index
The published values of many books are available in what's called the Bookman's Price Index (BPI), which you can usually find at an academic or public library. According to public service organization ipl2, "Published twice a year, BPI is a guide to 'prices and availability of antiquarian books in the United States, Canada, and the British Isles.' BPI defines 'antiquarian books' as being both important and scarce. Each issue of BPI contains price and location listings for 30,000-35,000 such books."
Tip #4: Consult an Expert
By consulting a book appraiser, you gain expert insight into what your book is worth. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries advises that "many booksellers perform appraisals as part of their business." Likewise, the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America has a membership directory on its website that allows you to search for qualified booksellers by geographical region or by their fields of specialty." An appraiser will be able to look not only at general book values, but also the specific condition of your copy, to estimate its value.
Tip #5: Consult Online Databases
It's worth mentioning that one additional way to research a book's value is by consulting online databases for similar copies. When you want to compare prices, check Alibris and search for the book you're examining. When you see similar books' prices, you gain an idea of what your book could be worth.
Tip #6: Remember That Book Values Change
The value of a book is not a static number. Rather, as the Smithsonian Institution Libraries point out, "The demand for any particular author or title may fluctuate up and down over time." In addition to demand, a wide range of variables affect a particular book's value, from condition to completeness to what edition it is. That's why, according to the Smithsonian, "Any valuation or appraisal is an educated guess, applicable only to a specific copy at a specific moment in time." While it's good to research a book's value and have an expert look at it, keep in mind that all valuations are estimates and, not only that, they are variable, subject to changing over time.
Ultimately, deciding whether or not to purchase a specific book is a personal decision, one influenced by your own preferences as much as by valuation and scarcity. Nonetheless, in the article "Book Collecting," written by Allen and Patricia Ahearn, the authors say this about book collecting: "If you are looking for a good investment for the short term, don't buy books, but if you want to spend a certain amount of money for books, or already spend a certain amount for books every year, we believe that a collection of good books will not only give you pleasure over the years but will also not disappoint you or your heirs when the time comes to sell them."