Seven Tips From a Rare Bookseller

Antique books

Most people buy books to appreciate their contents, not to watch them appreciate—but had you been one of the lucky few to snag a first edition of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published in 1997, you could cash it in today for as much as $45,000. Is it possible to predict what kind of books might be valuable someday? And if you do manage to acquire one of these literary truffles, how best to maximize its value? I spoke to rare book expert Heather O’Donnell, founder of Honey and Wax, about prowling bookstores with an eye for tomorrow’s antiques. Here’s how to up your odds that the book you buy now will pay for your kid’s college tuition down the road:

Think ahead. “If you’re looking to speculate, focus on first editions by authors who are not yet celebrated, but who may be one day. It’s nice to pick up a first edition of Philip Roth’s latest, but at this point, you and 100,000 others have the same idea, and the publisher’s print run reflects that. Go for someone lesser known who shows real promise.”

Hardcover vs. Paperback? “Whichever appears first, first, first. Priority matters. Some great books first appeared in paperback—Lolita is a famous example—and in those cases, collectors follow. If a book is released simultaneously in both formats, most collectors prefer the hardcover.”

Break your bad book-reading habits—no more spine cracking, page folding, or reading in the tub. “Condition means a lot in collecting. You can get away with dog-eared pages in a Shakespeare folio, but in a modern first? Not so much.”

Looks aren’t everything. Are lavish photo books more likely to appreciate than your average paperback? And what about books with unusual design, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes? Not necessarily: “A beautifully produced book will always have appeal as a decorative object, but in the end, content beats production values. Moby-Dick is a cheaply constructed, drab little volume, but it commands far more attention (and money) than the most ornate and ‘collectable’ Victorian gift book. The Safran Foer book falls more into the category of artists’ books: it’s an attempt to do something creative and strategic to the form of the codex itself. Collections of that kind of work straddle the line between traditional book collecting and art collecting.”

Where to begin? It’s personal. “Collectors often begin by pursuing the transformative books in their lives, with children’s classics among the first of their purchases. The high end of that market is very high, but there’s a wide range of possible material, and collecting children’s books is a fun family pursuit. In terms of sinking dough: if you have serious dough to sink, start by buying the absolute best copies you can afford of the books in your chosen area of collecting. High spots appreciate faster than more common titles, so get in there and lock them down now. If you’re on a budget, focus on a forgotten or emerging subject that’s not yet heavily collected. You can build a coherent, compelling collection for not much money if you choose the right angle of approach.”

Subject matter matters. But that’s not to say that you should suddenly become an avid reader of economic theory. “What’s most important is to find a subject you enjoy that you can afford to explore in a collection. In terms of market value, subject matter does make a difference. Works that have had a measurable impact on other thinkers or historical events tend to hold their value; works that no one has ever read languish, unless some visionary scholar or editor (or collector!) makes them important to modern readers. Visually stunning books—medical, botanical, cartographic—have an enduring appeal. The first example of anything (translation of Homer into English, map of California, use of the word “robot”) is valuable; the twentieth example is less exciting.

An autograph is only as valuable as it is rare. “The degree of the added value depends on the author. Thomas Pynchon? Huge. Marathon book-tour regular who signs stacks of bookplates before bed each night? Minimal.”

Have you ever considered buying books to sell?

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