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Striking gold is a combination of desirability, rarity...and luck
My brother wrote a book back in the 70's called "Give it a Dry." It was about drying fruit. He typed it all up, ran off some copies, and attempted to sell it through ads in health food magazines. He never reprinted it, so the few existing copies are all first printings. It is truly a scarce book by anyone's standards. Is it valuable? Not unless you're out of kindling on a cold night and happen to have a copy.
A few years ago a guy was browsing in a New England antique shop when he stumbled onto some old pamphlets. One was called "Tamerlane," and the author was simply "a Bostonian." It had been published in 1827. Lots of people had probably seen it and not paid any attention to it. Perhaps they were put off by its $10 price (no doubt the shop owner had priced it that high because it was "old"). As it turns out, of course, the Bostonian was none other than Edgar Allan Poe, and "Tamerlane" his first book. That copy sold at auction for about $250,000.
There's a glimpse at the two ends of the book value spectrum. What makes the difference? Some things are obvious-my bro' ain't Poe. Other things aren't so obvious-the age of Poe's book is irrelevant. It's a common misconception that "old" books necessarily have value. (If you believe it I have a whole shelf of 100 year-old books I'll trade for a first printing of Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses," published in 1992.) So let's take a closer look at what determines a book's value.
The factors that drive used book values are: 1) Desirability, 2) Condition, and 3) Scarcity. These are listed in order of importance. Notice that age alone is not a factor. The interrelationships of these qualities are best illustrated by example.
You may someday find a copy of the scarce "Give it a Dry." It will no doubt be in pristine condition. It will also be worthless. Even though it's scarce and in beautiful condition it lacks desirability.
On the other hand, there are herds of rabid collectors for all things Poe. A cool quarter million goes to a lucky browser in an antique shop, and there are people who would gladly pay more. The reason is that Poe's material has a high level of desirability and the first printing of "Tamerlane" is unbelievably rare in any condition. A book can be so rare that condition seems to become less of a factor. "Ha!," you say, "I thought you said those three factors were listed in order of importance!" They are, and poor condition reduces the value of any book. But if you start with a book that's worth $250,000 and you take away 90% of its value due to poor condition, you still have a $25,000 book.
But there are also herds of rabid collectors for the works of Stephen King. I have fine first printings of some of his books, but they have little value. What's the problem? Well, you probably have first printings of the same books on your shelves-and neither of us even collects King! The first printings of a blockbuster author like King are huge-often 800,000 copies or more. With such huge first runs most of them never even go into a second printing. These are not valuable because they're not scarce. If you have patience you can usually pick up the first (and only) printings of such books at remainder tables at a fraction of their original price.
It's probably worth clarifying that when I use the word "valuable" I mean it in the monetary sense. Obviously many books which are worthless as physical objects contain tremendously valuable ideas and information-like how to dry your own fruit. I've found that most book lovers don't think of themselves as book collectors. There are even anti-collectors who rant about the objectification of books, though I doubt many of them are so pure and chaste that they wouldn't rather have a copy of their favorite book as it first appeared in print rather than a cheap paperback reprint. I think almost everyone who loves books has a bit of the bug in them.
I hope you have found this column interesting. I would welcome your letters and questions about the world of books, and will address the most interesting of them in future columns. The column won't be limited to collectable books, but rather will discuss any aspect of books, publishing, bookselling, etc. that seems interesting. Upcoming columns will cover such things as books on the Internet, first printings vs. first editions, whether CD-ROMs spell the end of the physical book, and what to do with books you no longer need.