Book collecting 101: Trends, American classics and care
The technology disrupter of the fifteenth century was Johannes Gutenberg. His invention of the printing press around the 1440s meant his fellow humanists could record and disseminate ideas and opinions on the printed page, and reach an audience beyond the pulpit, town square, or local ale house. Over six hundred years later, words and images move in nanoseconds across the globe through digital technology. Yet the tactile allure of words printed on paper retains its appeal—especially for those avid about book collecting.
Book collecting is of-the-moment—book sales reached record levels last year, when 751 million books were sold.1 During the pandemic, many bibliophiles had more time to research and consider rare acquisitions, which led to a deepened interest for collectors and new discoveries for those dabbling with their first rare and collectible book acquisitions. And some incredible texts were acquired—the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623 sold for close to $10 million at Christie’ last year.2
Book lovers at all budgets are living in an age of accessibility and information. The ceiling-high stacks of printed treasures at the antique bookstore have been supplemented by websites that make rare tomes accessible at the click of a mouse, as both brick-and-mortar antique booksellers and auction houses now publish their inventory online. In this primer, we break down some of the biggest trends and categories of book collecting—as well as simple risk management tips to help care for treasured volumes.
Trends in book collecting
Many book collectors acquire with a thematic focus, focusing on categories such as travel, cooking, science or literature from a country or time period. Yet there are trends in book buying at all price points.
Recently, books on science and technology have increased in popularity and price due to the well-financed tech gurus who “like to buy science” according to book seller Bernard Shapero of London’s Shapero Books.3 This can range from $11,000 for a signed limited edition of Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist to around a $1 million for the codebreaker Alan Turing’s notebook.4, 5
Science fiction remains popular, especially when the novel inspires a feature film, or two. Original signed copies of the 1965 science fiction book Dune by Frank Herbert can sell for around $500.6 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by the novelist Phillip K. Dick was first published in 1968. A 2015 publication of the 24 issues of the graphic novel that inspired the film Blade Runner sells for between $100 – $1,200, depending on the condition. The collector who formerly perused shelves may now also be researching condition reports, provenance and pricing options through various online book sellers instead.
Children’s books can garner strong prices as well. A 1997 first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling from a print of 12,500 copies by Bloomsbury Publishers in the UK sold for almost $1,500.7 (Fans based in the US know the first volume was released a year later to the American market by Scholastic with a tweak to the title as the “Sorcerer’s Stone.”) Collectors interested in this category can reference a guide to collecting Harry Potter books that details which factors increase rarity and value—such as armbands from special signing and release events.8
Collecting American classics
The era of “Modern Firsts,” or first editions of contemporary books in print in America, is hotly debated, but many agree it begins in the late 19th century, coinciding with the first publications by American Henry James (Washington Square, 1880) and Mark Twain (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885 in the US) and continues to the present.9,10,11 Modern Firsts are often highly coveted collectors’ items for bibliophiles, and, as Biblio.com notes, “A list of a few of the most expensive and sought-after modern firsts reads like a reading list for high school: The Old Man and the Sea; Nineteen Eighty-Four; On The Road.”11 Novels by Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald are also among the beloved (and valuable) modern works on American bookshelves.
Good condition, rarity of a book, the presence of the original dustjacket and notes or inscriptions are all factors that can significantly increase a book’s value.10, 11 For instance, an original 1920 copy of Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence (1920) is currently available for $35,000, signed by the author, with the book and dustjacket in excellent condition.12
Dustjackets are a product of the 20th century, and were created to protect the bound pages as the first line of defense. A well-read book will suffer creases, folds and potentially stains. The more worn the dustjacket, the lower the value of the collectible book. Of course, sometimes rarity and demand will drive pricing despite some signs of wear and tear on the dustjacket. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby first edition printed by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1925 sold for $162,500, and the condition could be described as having a dustjacket that reveals how well-read this edition of the classic book was.13 Early editions without the dustjacket sell for a fraction of that price.
Classic books can also get an updated look and reach new readers with the very contemporary trend of the “artistic collaboration.” Wharton x Shore would be one great example, a marketing collaboration to marry the literary talents in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence with the photographic eye of Stephen Shore, a photographer known for his images of Americana. The 2004 illustrated limited edition of The Age of Innocence includes 32 photographs of New York City taken by Shore. Edition #243/300 is currently available for $895, in mint condition, signed by Shore and still in the publisher’s original packaging.14 (As we have noted, condition is always a factor in the value, for the originals and re-issues.)
These are the kind of details Bibliophiles often share with one another on specialist websites—and many websites offer guides and advice for collectors. Bauman’s Rare Books is one of many destinations for book collectors to consult, and offers a ‘How to begin collecting rare books’ for those interested to learn more.
Care, display and preservation of collectible books
Books, unlike other collectibles such as drawings, are not usually preserved under protective glass. Unlike artwork, books are often meant to be held and read. Poor handling and inadequate display and storage can lead to issues like the deterioration of materials, mold growth and weakened bindings.
The materials themselves can also pose an issue. Most hardbound books are made of cloth, paper and glue, and the quality of these materials can vary. Paper is made of wood and other organic fibrous materials, which are fragile and vulnerable to deterioration. Sunlight, dirt, rough handling and jamming books too tightly are the most common culprits of damage and loss. In order to preserve your books’ precious pages, consider these best practices:
- Keep the home library dark. Consider dark curtains and UV-filter window treatments. Sunlight causes fading, which is irreversible
- Keep temperature cool and humidity steady in your library
- Book boxes made of archival acid-free material can be used to store delicate objects
- Shelves should be smooth, and ideally lined with archival material
- Wear PH-neutral gloves when handling fragile books
- Handle books gently and carefully
- Consult a conservator for repairs
It’s also a good idea to talk with your insurance agent to make sure your collectible items are properly insured for loss and damage. Rare books can be insured on a collectibles policy. If your books are especially valuable, you can schedule your collection on a collectibles policy. If you have many books in the two or three-digit dollar range, a blanket policy with a maximum limit per item may be a more efficient approach for protecting your collection.
Resources for book collecting
Whether you’re just beginning a newfound book collecting hobby, or a long-time bibliophile in search of your next rare classic, we’ve found the following resources to be helpful for collector clients and bibliophiles:
• Find A Conservator, from the American Institute for Conservation
• Book Care and Conservation Wiki Tips
• Best Bookshops in the World, a list from the Financial Times
Katja Zigerlig is Vice President of Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).