Collecting Rare Books
August 2, 2010 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in rare books. What can you tell me about collecting them?

I'm an avid reader and I enjoy going to the library, bookstores, etc. I typically like to check out books rather than purchasing them - however, if I feel like a book is well-made, groundbreaking, and potentially timeless, I usually buy it.

The thought of owning rare editions of classic titles appeals to me, but I'm completely unfamiliar with rare books, and I have a lot of questions. For instance: can you read these books, or are they too valuable to be opened? How do you ensure that something is authentic and not a forgery? What measures do you have to take to protect them? If you've collected several volumes, do you feel that it's been worth it? Do you buy online, at conventions, or locally? Finally, if somebody quotes you a price, how do you determine if it's fair? What else do I need to know?

I'm really interested to learn what everybody thinks about collecting rare books. Thanks!
posted by Despondent_Monkey to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
...can you read these books, or are they too valuable to be opened?

I know essentially nothing of the dos and don'ts of rare book collecting but I will say that this would depend entirely on your reason for buying them. As an investment? An object? A piece of history? Or as a beautiful experience?
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:11 PM on August 2, 2010

Most "rare books" are about as rare as the things turned out by one of those "collectible plate" companies. They're created by publishers in order to sell them to collectors who have fantasies of great value, which hardly ever gets realized.

Really old books are surprisingly unvaluable. I once owned a book which was published in 1615, and had hopes that it was worth something. Turns out it was worth about what I paid for it (about $25).

Most people don't know just how widespread the technology of printing and book-binding had become by the middle of the 16th century. At that point millions of books were being created per year. And because they used rag paper, a surprisingly large percentage of them survive to this day.

What I can tell you about collecting rare books is: buy them because they give you pleasure. Read them after you buy them, because otherwise they won't give you pleasure. But don't expect to make any money doing this. Like most collectibles, it's a sucker's game.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:15 PM on August 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

"Rare books" is a big designation. You might try and figure out an area that would really interest you first. Do you want first-editions of American classic literature? Incunables? Awesome nature guides with brilliant color plates?

Many rare books can be carefully opened and enjoyed.

The RBMS section of the American Library Association has a pretty decent guide online.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:54 PM on August 2, 2010

I don't collect rare books, but I read them and I know people who sell them.

The above poster is right: most rare books aren't worth a lot as an investment -- though they may have special scholarly value (if they are indeed rate).

But your interest is as book lover -- and it can be very rewarding to collect first editions or pretty editions of your favorite books. Depending on the publishing history, some may be very reasonable -- first Canadian editions of a favorite author of mine are about $20, and much prettier than the mass marketpaperbacks that sell for $12.

I would talk to antiquarian booksellers, either in person (if you have nearby) or check out their offerings online. ILAB is the goto place my antiquarian bookseller friend recommended (they were with ABE Books, but then it changed policies and).

As for the care of your books: yes, you can read them. There are ways to be careful: clean hands, no food or drink while reading them, and NEVER open the spine out flat -- always keep the book sides angled by holding the book carefully or using a support (as this book is -- though that's a bit flat for my taste -- maybe the binding is modern).
posted by jb at 6:56 PM on August 2, 2010

Oh -- I lied. I realize I do collect some kind-of rare books: out-of-print science fiction and kid's books, specifically ones I love and worry that I won't be able to find again. Some I've found in used bookstores; one I recent found on Amazon.

I don't pay much attention to edition or condition (beyond "mostly good"). But do be careful buying online. Really good booksellers will give extremely detailed descriptions -- how much scuffing on the dustjacket, listing every mark (if any) on the book. If your interest is in collecting very good condition books, you should watch for this.

If you are collecting modern (19-20th) century books, the edition and publisher info should be in the book -- I can't imagine how one woul forge this. More likely you'd need to be wary of upselling -- someone claiming a given edition of a book is worth more than it is. You should be able to check any quotes against other sellers on ILAB.

Having checked the price and determine that it is not dissimilar from other sellers -- whether it is a good price is really a question of what the value is to you. There is one 1940 Cambridge University Press book I've seen advertised for $150 in several places. It's not pretty, and definitely not famous -- but it is rare and in sufficient enough demand to be worth that, or at least for the sellers to believe that someone would pay that for it (I didn't -- I got out the library copy instead).
posted by jb at 7:09 PM on August 2, 2010

Sorry: on re-reading, I see that your interest is in rare editions of classics.

And then the answer depends really on how you define "classic" and how rare you are interested in. A 19th century copy of Dickens? that shouldn't be too bad. A first Folio of Shakespeare? I don't think those even go on book markets anymore.

Many people collect relatively new things -- maybe first editions of 19th or early 20th century writer they love. The collection will likely grow more valuable over time, but time as measured in decades or centuries and very possibly not as fast as inflation -- books are not really a good investment choice. But, like art, they have a special enjoyment value. Pre-1800 books are especially nice, because of the high quality rag paper.

As for the provenance of very old printed books & pamphlets -- sometimes we aren't even sure when something was published, let alone its edition. Very old books may not have have all that helpful info on the title page and back of the title page.
posted by jb at 7:19 PM on August 2, 2010

Most "rare books" are about as rare as the things turned out by one of those "collectible plate" companies. [...] What I can tell you about collecting rare books is: buy them because they give you pleasure. Read them after you buy them, because otherwise they won't give you pleasure. But don't expect to make any money doing this. Like most collectibles, it's a sucker's game.

I'm sorry that I don't have time to do a more in-depth reply at this particular second, I will try to return to this thread later. But I do have time to say that Chocolate Pickle is quite wrong and you shouldn't take his advice. Ok, that's not true, he's right that you should buy books because they give you pleasure and not as an investment, but virtually everything else he said is wrong.
posted by Justinian at 7:20 PM on August 2, 2010

One caveat; all of this hinges on exactly what you mean by "rare books".
posted by Justinian at 7:22 PM on August 2, 2010

I want to thank everyone who has responded so far - I really appreciate the advice.

I would only be collecting these books for their literary and cultural merits - I have absolutely no desire to speculate on their prices, but to read, enjoy and share with others. If I bought one, it would be for life. My goal is to create a beautiful library full of brilliant works from many different time periods. I have so many interests that I would be happy with a wide variety of titles.
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 7:34 PM on August 2, 2010

There was a fantastic bit on This American Life awhile back on a rare book collector. Check out Act 3 of this episode for something of an insider's look at the madness hobby of collecting rare books.
posted by jquinby at 7:35 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll third or fourth the observation that rare does not necessarily equal valuable. On the one hand, for my work, I buy lots of nineteenth-century religious fiction, periodicals, and ephemera (e.g., tracts), and even the genuinely hard-to-find stuff is almost never worth very much. (Which is why I can buy such things on a regular basis!) On the other, a Victorian triple-decker published by Richard Bentley, bound in calf with raised bands and gilt, can easily bring several hundred to well over a thousand dollars on the market.

So, yeah, buying rare books as an investment is a gamble. Buy what you like.

Regarding forgeries: if my screen name is on it, then you may have a forgery on your hands :) (Actually, I imagine that there's a collector's market out there for his productions.) More seriously, you need to watch out for improperly identified editions, or (if dealing with more recent lit) book club editions passed off as first editions. There are a number of useful guide books out there that will help you identify true firsts (for example). For nineteenth-century books, it really helps to know something about points of issue, because a number of publishers were remarkably non-forthcoming about minor details like dates. This book by Nicholas Brasbanes also looks like it might be helpful for you.

Speaking of dates, learn to read Roman numerals, if you can't already. I'm serious: I acquired one first edition relatively cheaply because the seller trusted the incorrect Arabic numerals penciled in above the Roman, and sold the book to me as a second edition. (I bought the book online, and so didn't catch this until I glanced down the page and said, "Um, hang on.")

Seconding the point that when buying online, look for the seller who itemizes everything. eBay sellers are especially given to saying things like "Great shape for its age!" Er, no: I own a book published in the early 1790s with paper that's in much better shape than anything I've got from a century later (thanks to the aforementioned rag paper).
posted by thomas j wise at 7:39 PM on August 2, 2010

I work for a used bookshop, and really anymore the books that tend to be worth more are modern firsts.

If you want to read some really fun books that will teach you about collecting in an entertaining way, check out Laurence and Nancy Goldstone's books. They're good fun.

And nth-ing everyone else - collect what you love.

(also, Basbanes is another great read, re: what thomas j wise said)
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:53 PM on August 2, 2010

While I don't consider myself a "Rare book collector" per se, I do collect editions of 1984 and Animal Farm. I found a book that I really love and made the decision to collect lots of different editions. It makes it really fun to go into dusty independent booksellers. I always have something to look for, and the most I've spent on a book so far is about 40 bucks (haven't had the money for a 1st edition). Most of the copies I have are paperbacks, but I have a few hardbacks, which are beautiful.

The way I look at it, if I'm looking for an older book (something like a classic), I would MUCH rather have a beautiful or interesting edition than some cheap mass-market paper back from B&N. Case in point- I needed a copy of Asimov's "I Robot" for a class, so I checked with my local independent bookstore and found that for $7 I could be the proud owner of a 1st edition paperback. Compare that to the $7 I could have spent at B&N on the edition with Will Smith on the, will smith is an attractive man, don't get me wrong, but the haunting red android on the cover of my copy is WAY better.

My advice, buy what you love, collect books you enjoy and you find beautiful. You're life will be richer for you will have something to look for whenever you pass an indie bookstore.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 8:24 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since you'd like to do this out of love of books rather than a financial endeavor, I think that you're just the right person for it. I try to collect books with lovely etchings, generally collected fairy tales, herbals, and other things that are certainly not rare, but bring me great pleasure. It's something that you can start collecting at any time, with a single purchase.

As for how to store and take care of them, it depends on the quality of the book, but is usually fairly straightforward. Unless you're collecting extremely special and fragile items, you just need a room with a regular temperature that doesn't fluctuate very much, a bookshelf with doors so as to keep out dust and too much sunlight (you can get ones with UV coated glass), and a good surface/seating combination for keeping the spine of the book supported while you're comfortably reading. If you have some particularly fragile books in your collection, or you're just quite intent on keeping everything pristine, you should keep a box of those disposable cotton gloves around. You can get ideas for any of this by visiting the rare book rooms of your closest city library, normally. The Boston Public Library has an especially lovely rare book collection and extremely friendly librarians, if you're interested in talking maintenance and things.

As for where to buy things, it totally depends on what you're interested in. I've tried to cultivate relationships with local stores, so they know if they've found an edition of the Violet Fairy Book with particularly gorgeous illustrations or something they likely have a buyer in me, but since you're interested in "classic titles" that's a very wide net, and you ought to be able to find things online and all over the place. I'd suggest that you just start with a single volume that you're particularly interested in, and go from there. People who run rare and antique bookstores are some of the most loquacious people I've met, and are usually more than happy to convey mountains of knowledge upon someone who shows up with questions about their trade.
posted by Mizu at 8:33 PM on August 2, 2010

I've collected modern first editions here and there, when I find something by an author who I really enjoy. I also used to buy modern firsts at Goodwill (when I found them) when I was an undergraduate and sell them to the local used bookstore for credit. So while I'm not an expert, at various points in my life I've been an enthusiastic amateur. I can't answer all of your questions, but a few thoughts:

As to whether or not you can read them: I spend a fair amount of time looking at rare books in my university's library - sometimes for my grad school work, often just because I like to look at old books, and they have no problem letting people handle almost 100% of the collection. If you're careful, you won't do any damage, but make sure your hands are clean, and that you're not doing damage to the binding by laying it out on a table, which from my experience, is the best way to look at rare/valuable/old books. Sometimes the librarians will use a cradle to hold the book open at less than horizontal. Another thought - think of the rare books in terms of their value. I have a particularly expensive book that I would feel shitty about ruining, so I bought a paperback version to read, while I only occasionally refer back to the expensive edition (which is printed quite differently than the mass market edition, signed, numbered, etc.) So if you're uncomfortable with the potential for damaging say, a 1000 dollar book, then don't read it. Just figure out where your threshold is. But, that's all to say that if you want to read them, just be careful - they're your books to enjoy! While I tend to coddle my book collection, I regularly play LPs that I know are worth a couple hundred dollars (although I didn't pay anywhere near that for any of them), knowing fully that each time I play one I'm gradually diminishing the quality of the record, but I love the records, so I play them.

As to where to buy stuff: if you're lucky enough to have some rare book stores in your area, then you're in luck! I would just start hunting around these places asking questions, etc. Many used bookstores will have their rarer stuff in a special section, so you can start there. I've also bought some books from ebay and never been bummed, but these have been books in the 20-100 dollar range, where the risk was relatively low - I'm fairly certain nobody's out there forging 100 dollar books. You never know, though. is a good place to search for titles you might be interested in, too.

Also, RE Chocolate Pickle - it may be true that his/her book from 1615 isn't worth anything, there are many valuable books out there. I'm not sure how good they are as an investment in terms of appreciation, although I've made money here and there buying things for much less than their so-called value by selling them on ebay, but like you said, do it because you love it. If you've got the money to spend, it's a cool hobby.
posted by drobot at 8:48 PM on August 2, 2010

It's hard to pin down what you want exactly.

On one hand, you could go about snapping up any reasonably priced Easton Press Editions. They have a lot of good titles and tend to hold their value, I think.

On the other hand, go for what you love. The only rare books that I really excel in spotting are vintage signpainting/showcard titles. Sure, not all of them are worth a bajillion dollars, but one is worth almost $300, and the collection as a whole has some great names and some really specialized info in it. And I love sign painting, and the idea of holding these books from these guys who went out and hand painted all this awesome advertising, some of which is probably faded but still out there somewhere.
posted by redsparkler at 11:52 PM on August 2, 2010

I once worked for a book shop specialising in a particular genre, and learnt a bit about scouting and pricing. It was just before the internet took off, so things may be a little different now, but I suspect the same valuation principles apply. Here's what I remember:

- valuable books are mostly first (or early) editions of books that turned out to be more successful than initially expected. That is, if the print run was small relative to the book's eventual popularity, those early editions will tend to be considered rare/valuable.

- ex-library books are worth less

- inscriptions, name plates etc do not diminish a book's value and may actually increase it

- get some non-sticky clear plastic with which to cover your books. I can't easily describe how to use it but there are probably websites or videos that show you how to do it without sticking to the book itself.

As others have said, it's probably better as a hobby than a financial pursuit. Have fun!
posted by 8k at 5:15 AM on August 3, 2010

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