Collectable Books - How to find them
Collectable books can be hard to find. This article gives some ideas for the budding book-seller on where to go to buy items for re-sale, and how to sort out which items are likely to be of value to collectors. As one book dealer once remarked to me, selling good stock is easy, it's finding it in the first place that is the difficult part.
A good place to start if you have never bought and sold before is at a local jumble sale. Most sales have a book stall, and items are invariably cheap although they may be in poor condition. However, any mistakes you make are not going to be costly ones, and occasionally you may come across a real bargain. I found a copy of "The Sleeping Beauty", illustrated in silhouette by Arthur Rackham, for ten pence at a jumble sale. I recently saw a similar copy in a book-shop for £50.
A sturdy constitution is needed for these events, and you may find that you are in competition with other book dealers whom you will get to recognise. The underlying principle here is that if you think a book might be valuable - buy it! At ten pence each, you can afford a lot of mistakes.
Car boot sales can also be good hunting grounds. Here the prices are likely to be a bit higher, but in general, items are in better condition. When these sales started up a few years ago, most people were selling for the first time, and valuable items turned up quite frequently. However, nowadays about ninety percent of sellers at these events are regular dealers and so the bargains are fewer, but still available if you look hard. Incidentally, jumble sales and car boot sales are about the only places where you will find ephemera at reasonable prices. So if you are looking for anything from Cunard menus to bubble gum cards, these are the places to look.
Another place where you can find reasonably priced items is in charity shops, but do remember that they are for charity, and so if you do find a bargain, a donation is always gratefully received. Charity shops are always very happy to receive good quality items, so if you find that those you have bought are in good condition but not of interest to collectors, donate them to a local charity shop. Cheap reading matter is also popular with people who just want to read them!
Bargains may also be found at book fairs. Although good items here will usually not be cheap, they will generally not be as expensive as in a secondhand bookshop because the stallholders have lower overheads, The range available is also usually very wide.
Auctions can be a great source for books too. Prices vary considerably. I have seen brand new items sell for more than their retail price, and I have seen a box for first edition fiction sell for a pound, so it is the luck of the draw to some extent. Please feel free to call us on 01329 517724 if you find anything that is not in your field, but which might help fund your own collection.
When bidding at auction, I have found it best to set an absolute maximum in my mind before bidding starts, and to bid quickly and confidently up to this limit, letting someone else open the bidding if possible. Easier said than done sometimes. Bear in mind that some items will sell for much more than your maximum, and some for much less. That is part of the enjoyment of auctions, and they are well worth a visit if you find one locally.
It is much more difficult to find items for re-sale in a secondhand bookshop. However, it is possible if you have a specialised knowledge in a particular area as you may well find that you have a better knowledge of values in that field than the dealer himself. His knowledge is necessarily spread over a wide area.
Take a look at our "Something to sell?" page for our contact details, and for some idea of the items which we buy.
Having found places to buy, you have to know what to buy. Most collectors have specialist knowledge in the areas that interest them personally. This is of limited use when it comes to book dealing, as your area of interest may be too narrow to enable you to buy and sell enough items.
The following few paragraphs give some ideas on what items are likely to be valuable. An easy place to start is by listing some of those that are not.
Starting with fiction, it is true to say that almost without exception, book club editions are of little value. They may be published on the same day as the publishers first edition, but collectors will not buy them, so there is no point in your stocking them.
Book Club editions sometimes have different dust-wrappers to publishers' copies, though this may be only in the name on the spine. Beware of spine labels such as 'BCA' (Book Club Associates), 'TLC' (The Leisure Circle), 'RU' (Readers Union), 'RS' (Reprint Society).
Reprints are also generally of much less value to collectors. This applies mainly to fiction, but also to some extent to non-fiction.
So how do you tell if a book is a first edition? It is not always easy. Most first editions have a 'First published' entry somewhere on the opening pages. Alternatively, there is a copyright symbol (a 'c' in a small circle) followed by a date. An easy way to spot a reprint is if there is a 'Reprinted' or '2nd (or later) impression' entry on the opening pages.
Another less common sign of a reprint is if the book contains a list of other items 'uniform with this volume'. This usually means that a publisher has re-issued a number of titles by an author or with a particular theme in a uniform set.
In some cases, if there is no date it means that it is a later edition. But this is no rule to follow, for often the opposite is true - as is the case, for example, with first editions by Edgar Wallace. If in doubt, you should consult a detailed bibliography of the author's work. Sometimes these have to go into a lot of detail to tell whether a book is a first edition or not. Often indications are given by a list of the author's previous titles at the front of the book or on the dust-wrapper. In other cases, there is an odd mis-print present in the first editon but not in later ones. However, this is not likely to be of much use to a buyer at a charity sale, so if in doubt - buy it.
Having established that it is the first editions that most collectors are interested in, how do you know which authors are popular? Not so long ago, it was the first editions by 'serious' authors such as Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence which commanded high prices, while more 'popular' authors were largely ignored. That has changed now, and first editions by mystery and thriller writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ian Fleming now sell for hundreds of pounds.
There are collectors of first editions by most popular authors, and many more obscure writers as well. However, the fact that an author's work is collected does not necessarily mean that all their works will be valuable. Typically, the most valuable titles of a well-known author will be his early ones, when he was virtually unknown and the first printing of the book was small. As authors increase in popularity, publishers print more copies in a first edition and so they are not as rare.
A typical example of this is Ian Fleming, whose first James Bond title, "Casino Royale" (1953), now changes hands for thousands of pounds. His later works however, are still quite common, and most of the 1960s titles can still be purchased for £50 or less.
It is also not uncommon, oddly enough, for an author's last few titles to be surprisingly scarce. An example occurs in the field of children's fiction with Richmal Crompton's 'William' stories. The last of the series, "William the Lawless" (1970), seems to be as elusive as the first book, "Just William", published in 1922. This sometimes occurs because an author is waning in popularity towards the end of his career, and his print runs become smaller again.
Children's stories are very popular with collectors, and they are often collected for their illustrations as well as their authors. If you have an eye for art, you may be able to spot the best illustrators who are also generally the most popular. Artists such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Anne Anderson are particularly popular for their illustrations of fairy stories. More recently, Ernest Shepard (chiefly associated with 'Winnie the Pooh') is an example of an illustrator whose work is much sought-after by collectors.
As regards children's authors, the most well-known are usually the most collected. Richmal Crompton's 'William' stories already mentioned, W.E. Johns' 'Biggies' stories and Frank Richards' 'Billy Bunter' yarns always sell well. Enid Blyton's stories are also gaining ground with collectors. Another pop-ular type of story is the 'schoolgirl yarn' as told in various ways by Angela Brazil, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, along with many others. Again, the first editions generally command much higher prices.
With children's titles however, the condition of a book can often be a deciding factor. Because many have been read to death, collectors will sometimes settle for a nice reprint in a dust-wrapper rather than a tatty first edition. Of course, the condition of a book is always important to collectors. See the page on descriptions of collectable books for details.
Childrens' Annuals are also popular. Again, the easiest way of telling which items may be of value is by knowing those that are not.
I have not yet come across a collector interested in boys' football annuals, or girls' annuals other than those printed before about 1960. Scouts, guides, cubs and brownie annuals also do not sell, but having said that, I'm sure someone, will be thinking that these are the very items which they want to buy.
The interest in annuals seems to be particularly in those involving the performing arts such as television, film and pop music. Childrens' annuals such as 'Rupert Bear' annuals are also always popular, generally with people who remember them from their own childhood. The market in annuals is one that is dominated by collectors of 'nostalgia'.
The long-running television series, 'Doctor Who' has generated enormous interest among collectors, and some of the early items from the 1960s sell for considerable prices. There is also interest in cartoon annuals, particularly those of the brilliant Carl Giles, whose 'Daily Express' annuals have been published every year since 1946. A major reason for the success of the Giles annuals is that they form a comic social history of Britain since the war.
Children's non-fiction does not seem to generate much interest among collectors. Perhaps nobody remembers learning from their juvenile texts with much enthusiasm. The same can be said for children's comics and magazines. Old copies of 'Beano' and 'Dandy' are much more in demand than 'Look and Learn'.
With magazines generally, it is nostalgia that tends to govern price. Thus old copies of 'Picture Show' or even 'Radio Times', which bring back memories of shows and stars seen in the past, will sell, whereas 'Practical Woodworker', which may only remind you of bruised thumbs, may not. For this reason, magazines which have pictures or articles of historical interest are always popular, while magazines devoted to hobbies or of narrow specialised interest tend to be less so.
With non-fiction, there seems to be someone, somewhere, who is interested in any subject that a book has ever been written about. In "Bizarre Book", the authors Russell Ash and Brian Lake quote a book title, "Searching For Railway Telegraph Insulators", which they thought a hugely funny and esoteric title, until a lecturer in electronics asked where he could get a copy. I remember seeing a book in my local library called "One Hundred Years of Road-Making Materials", that sounded a bit dull but the label showed that it was actually quite popular.
Purchasers of secondhand non-fiction titles are generally not trying to buy all the titles in a particular field as a fiction collector might buy all the works by a single author. Usually, non-fiction titles are bought as useful references rather than collectors items. Many titles are valuable due to scarcity or simply because they were very expensive to buy from new. As the majority of titles published are non-fiction, this is an area of business that any postal bookdealer should consider.
Paperbacks, as a general rule, are not widely collected, as they are seldom the first issue of a book. This is not always true however. For example, Len Deighton's book, "Only When I Laugh", was first pub-lished in paperback by Sphere, and because it is the first edition, the book is worth a few pounds. Even so, the first hardback edition is actually worth more. Most Deighton collectors would probably want to have both in their collection. Other paperbacks that might be worth considering are those with period illustrations on the cover, such as 1950's science- fiction book or thrillers.