Chipped, Foxed & Shaken: How to Evaluate Rare & Collectible Books (Beginners Guide)

Do you have stacks of old books, some by famous authors, or simply piles of your favorites? Have you ever wondered if some of them might be valuable? There are some basic things to look at to determine whether to keep or take to your closest thrift store.

Pro tip: Most old books are just that…old books. But treasures can be found in the strangest places.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Probably one of the most misunderstood rules for valuing is that if it’s by a famous author, it must be valuable. There are several things you need to consider before you sign up for that trip to Europe you plan on taking with your profits.

  1. Condition: What does the book LOOK & SMELL LIKE. Is it clean and in good condition? Yes? Good. Go step 2
  2. Was it originally published with a dust jacket? Do you have it? If not. Stop and go get a cup of coffee. No dust jacket, no big bucks. There are exceptions. The first dust jackets appeared in 1820, so you’ll have to do some internet research to see whether your treasure was issued with one. Great place to start: If it does have a dust jacket, go to step 3.
  3. Again, what does the dust jacket look & smell like. Is it in one piece. Even if a DJ is torn, in bad shape and in pieces, if it is to an important book by an important author, it can mean a much higher value. The better condition, the higher the value. Go to step 4.
  4. Open the book to the copyright page. Contemporary books with ISBNs have a very clear method of signifying a first edition. This is pretty easy to figure out with contemporary title, but can get complicated with books published prior to the assigning of ISBNs.

Aren’t Sure? Get Advice from an Expert:

Contemporary books can be fairly easy to determine with some on-line research. Is a first edition of Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat valuable? You bet. A third edition, not so much. Once you’ve determined its condition, simply look and see what a similar book in that condition is selling for.

Older books, (especially those published prior to ISBNs) are going to be more difficult to evaluate. It takes time and experience to understand how to determine condition, whether it is a true first edition and if it’s even something that is desired by collectors.

If you have an older book that is in good condition by a famous author (Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Muir, etc.) the best route is to find your closest antiquarian bookseller and see if they do appraisals. Many will be happy to take a look at your book and tell you if they’re interested for free. Be forewarned: if it’s not in Fine to Near Fine condition, they probably won’t be. In the collector’s world, condition is everything (See condition notes in link above).

Just a Beginning…

If you’d like to know more about how to research and evaluate your treasures, I will be doing a much more extensive set of guidelines in my December issue of The Dragon’s Scribe (my quarterly newsletter). Sign up on my home page, so that it will conveniently appear in you mailbox this December.

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