Rare Books 101, Part I: FAQ

I spend a lot of my day initiating bibliophiles into the fundamentals of rare books. For those of you who don’t have the chance to visit in person, I realized it may be difficult for you to have the opportunity to get the basics. So here’s Part I of a Rare Books 101.

 

What is a rare book?

 

In a nutshell, it is a book that is collected. “Rare” in this case does not mean “scarce”—though that is generally part of it.

 

What books are most likely to be collected?

 

First editions.

 

Why?

 

Basic supply and demand.

 

Supply: In most cases, the first edition of a book is the version that is printed in (and survives in) the fewest amount of copies. This is because the first time a book is printed, the publishers won’t have a certain idea of how well it will sell, so they tend towards conservative in the number of copies they print. That way there’s no harm: if the print run sells out, they can always print more. On the other hand, if they print too many and copies of the print run are left over, the publisher loses money. Therefore it’s safer to make your first print a relatively small number.

 

A first edition of the first ever James Bond book. Less than 5000 copies were produced, and scholars believe less than half of those were sold to the public.
A first edition of the first ever James Bond book. Less than 5000 copies were produced, and scholars believe less than half of those were sold to the public.

 

Demand: The first edition of a book is generally the edition that has the biggest impact on the world. In addition, there’s a romanticism to the idea that it’s the first time those ideas were ever read by the general public. Collecting is very concept-driven, and collectors often seek items with the greatest historical or personal impact.

A first edition (1776) of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and the beginning of modern economics.
A first edition (1776) of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and the beginning of modern economics.

 

Note that supply and demand work together. You might own a book that survives in only three copies, but if no one is interested in the content, it won’t be a terribly valuable book. On the other hand, if a book in high demand is printed in an enormous amount of copies, its collectible value will be relatively lower than expected, given its impact.

 

A first edition of Old Man and the Sea goes for just a few thousand dollars because so many copies were printed of this late work. Earlier Hemingway works, with significantly smaller print runs, go into the tens of thousands.
A first edition of Old Man and the Sea goes for just a few thousand dollars because so many copies were printed of this late work. Earlier Hemingway works, with significantly smaller print runs, go into the tens of thousands.

 

Signed books are another example of the supply and demand concept. If there are already few copies of a first edition, then there are even fewer first edition copies that are also signed. In addition, a book that is signed will be in higher demand because of the concept that the author actually touched the book.

 

A Modern Firsts Holy Grail: an inscribed first edition of Catcher in the Rye. Salinger was so notoriously reclusive that only a handful of signed copies exist. It's worth about 10x an unsigned first edition.
A Modern Firsts Holy Grail: an inscribed first edition of Catcher in the Rye. Salinger was so notoriously reclusive that only a handful of signed copies exist. It’s worth about 10x an unsigned first edition.

 

How can I tell if my book is a first edition?

 

There is no uniform way to tell, as printing conventions vary widely from era to era and place to place. The ideal is obviously when the book says “first edition,” generally on the copyright page. However, this trait is seen most often only with books printed after WWII, so for the vast majority of books it will not appear.

 

The first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird actually says "First Edition" on the copyright page. (The dust jacket is a bit more complicated, however.)
The first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird blessedly says “First Edition” on the copyright page. (The dust jacket is a bit more complicated, however.)

 

Collectors search for what are called bibliographic points. Think of a point as a point of change. That is: in earlier copies of a book, a physical trait shows itself one way. Then a change occurs, and that physical trait shows itself differently.

 

An easy example of this is a typo. On page 57 of Huckleberry Finn, 11 lines up from the bottom, the text reads: “with the was.” It should read: “with the saw.” This was caught after the first printing and corrected, so bibliographers know that any copies with the error are part of the first printing.

 

Page 57, 11 lines from the bottom, of Huck Finn: "with the was" instead of "with the saw."
Page 57, 11 lines from the bottom, of Huck Finn: “with the was” instead of “with the saw.”

 

Points can be more than simply errors, however. Maybe the book was bound in a different color in later editions. Maybe the publisher increased the price of the book where it was printed on the dust jacket. There are practically limitless possibilities, and each book is different. In other words: you need to ask an expert or consult the proper bibliography to know for sure.

 

First edition Leaves of Grass with a state A binding: gilt borders and spine.
First edition Leaves of Grass with a state A binding: a point is the gilt borders and spine.
First edition Leave of Grass, state B binding: significantly less gilt. The gold proved too costly halfway through, so they decided to cut back.
First edition Leave of Grass, state B binding: a point is the significantly less gilt. The gold proved too costly halfway through, so they decided to cut back.

 

But my book looks just like the one on your website. Doesn’t that mean it’s a first?

 

This is a leading question, but we get it all the time. The answer is no. Many books—particularly 20th century and children’s books—are published with the same artwork and in the same format over and over again. Think about it this way. You loved Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel when you were little. Now you have a child. You want to buy him a copy that looks just like the one you had. See, it’s quite smart for publishers to keep the same art in some cases.

 

A 1939 first edition of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Most of us have a copy that looks very similar to this one.
A 1939 first edition of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Most of us have a copy that looks very similar to this one.

 

Instead, you have to search out those bibliographic points. Is the rectangle in the corner reading “50 Word Vocabulary” on Green Eggs and Ham a sticker, or printed on the book? That’s one point for this iconic Seuss title: the rectangle is a sticker.

 

A first edition of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. Note the "50 Word Vocabulary" sticker.
A first edition of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. Note the “50 Word Vocabulary” sticker.

 

Now, it’s true you can conduct an initial inspection of your books to weed out the most obviously wrong candidates. Go to the title page of your book. Note the date. (Remember: the title page, NOT the copyright page.) Then go online and type in “first edition” plus the title of your book. Does the publication date match the date on the title page?

 

If the dates match, don’t get too excited. It doesn’t mean the book is a first edition: many popular books went through multiple editions in the first year they were published. However, the vast majority of books can be ruled out this way because the vast majority of books were not published in the same year as the first. So if the dates do match, it means that this book deserves a little more research.

 

How do I figure out the bibliographic points of a first edition?

 

In the end, it’s always about the authoritative bibliography. A bibliography is an in-depth description of the physical aspects of a book, usually emphasizing the differences (the points) so as to make identifying the proper edition as simple as referencing the information in the book.

 

The last page for Green Eggs and Ham in the Seuss bibliography.
The last page for Green Eggs and Ham in the Seuss bibliography.

 

Besides entire books of dedicated bibliographies, there are a lot of books whose bibliographies are summarized in individual articles. In addition, there are some handy one-stop guides available, such as Ahearn’s Collected Books—though these are more useful for a quick list of points (they do NOT always cover every important point of a book, beware), and not so much for pricing (which is simply more nuanced than a single number).

 

Online, there are many dealers who will state the points of a book, but as a general principle I would avoid taking them at their gospel word unless they directly cite the authoritative bibliography. (I have on many occasions seen false information about points on the internet.) In addition, you can ask an expert like me or one of my colleagues at Bauman. We will either help you find the bibliography, or we will look it up ourselves in the bibliography and let you know.

 

This is the end of Part 1, which covers the basics. In Part II, I’ll go over some nuances and exceptions that play major roles in collecting. Below are the questions I’m planning to answer in the next part. Please comment and let me know what other Rare Book 101 questions you’d like me to tackle.

 

Besides edition, what other qualities are important to a rare book?

 

What is the difference between edition, printing, issue, and state?

 

How much does restoration matter?

 

Can later editions of books be considered rare?

 

Can a book be rare simply because of its age?

 

You can find Part II (editions) here, and Part III (storage) here.

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25 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Lindquist says:

    Great blog! Viewed as an investment – is there a bear market or bull market in rare book!

    1. Good question. I will eventually do an entire post on this, as it’s hard to call it bear or bull in any sort of black and white way. For example as with say, stocks, some do better than others at different times.

  2. Jeyna Grace says:

    First editions are the most priceless ones.. especially to the author.

  3. Michael says:

    Always like a refresher course 🙂 In your next article when discussing restoration can you comment on when it is worth doing. For example is an original binding more desired on certain books?

    1. Michael, I will certainly comment on restoration. Stay tuned.

  4. benjaminxjackson says:

    This is the post I was planning to write and ask you for. I am looking forward to part two. It was good to hear you talk about the difference between old, rare, and collectible. I am sure that they are not the same things. I know I have some books that are a little bit rare and couple of old ones, but I doubt they have much value because I don’t suspect there is much demand for them.
    Could you also maybe do a post on how to start collecting books beyond just buying random books in used book stores that look nice?
    (Also, I love Mike Mulligan. Though my copy is a Weekly Reader Book Club edition that I had to have repaired, so I doubt it has any value beyond sentimenal value. Oh, there is a question — how do repairs and rebinding affect the value of a book?)

    1. Good call: maybe Part III can be how to start collecting. As for repairs/rebinding, that will be in Part II.

  5. Reblogged for quality…and for making sure that me doing anything similar would be an exercise is humiliation…phew!

  6. or even “in” humiliation…geez

    1. What a perfect phrase to include a typo. My affection for you knows no bounds, Mr. Kearns.

  7. privatepop says:

    In conjunction to collecting, is there a more better way to keep books?

  8. tom fowler says:

    Rebecca, Enjoy your expertise on Pawn Stars. Very interesting post, I look forward to learning more. One question I have is how the age of a book relates to its value? Often I have seen books from the 17th century or older valued at only a few hundred dollars on shows such as Antiques Roadshow when I was thinking they would be worth much more. Maybe books this old just aren’t that rare?

  9. This may not be a good question – but is there any interest in pictures? – i.e.; I have 2 pics of the first edition of the FIRST English N.T. ever translated into English. I was shown the book by Dr Zwink in Stuttgart, Germany library of antique books museum. There are only 2 of this edition/New Testament in existence. This is original and actual. This one was preserved because it belonged to the Duke of Heidelberg – it was hidden among monasteries for centuries. It’s date is 1526.. Much of this version was used to translate the King James Version in 1611.

    William Tyndale, the translator of this 1526 English edition was burned at the stake for this act of translation.

    You may view what I am talking about here: (please pardon my interest in Old Tractors) .
    http://www.garysoldtractors.com/1526Bible.html

    Thanks much
    Gary

  10. jb says:

    i love this. so fascinating.

  11. Monica says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    I am completely inspired by what you do. What kind of training do you have? How does one become a book historian? I am an avid book lover, English teacher and yearbook sponsor, former book editor, and now doctoral student in composition and technical writing. I even took a privately taught book production/repair class at someone’s home, but I’d love to find out even more about books and its changing world. I used to live in Las Vegas (my hometown) but now live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Any suggestions?

    Monica

    1. Monica, it sounds like you don’t need any suggestions! You’re clearly quite experienced already. If you want to get more into rare books, consider taking a class at UVA’s Rare Book School (RBS) in the summer. Or at the very least, the RBS website lists the reading used for their courses, so you can purchase and read those to get a start on your own.

      If you’re interested in becoming a rare bookseller you can always send us a resume with a cover letter. (You can drop it off at the gallery or send it in to the website.) We aren’t always actively hiring but we’re always looking for good people.

      1. Monica says:

        Thank you! I will gladly look into UVA’s RBS summer program. As far as a career as a rare bookseller, well, I think that’s a wonderful idea. I’ll certainly keep that path in mind, but for now, I’m locked into finishing my Ph.D. program here in Texas for a couple more years. But you never know what the future holds!

  12. Diane Egan says:

    Thanks much Rebecca for this information. It helped a lot and I look forward to learning more in your upcoming discussions.

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