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How to Start a Book Collection

Recently, a few people asked me how to start collecting books. What should they look out for? How does one know which books to choose?

The answer, to me, is simple – collect what you love.

Although there exists a “rare book market”, in which rare books are traded as valuable objects like art and antiques, collecting rare books as investments is generally frowned upon as unethical – not to mention risky, difficult and not the best investment choice for anybody looking for a good profit. To people who ask “Is there investment value in these books?” I usually answer, “Go buy stocks or property instead”. And the direct answer, for anybody interested, is a flat “no” – not in most of the books we carry, anyway.

Not that we’ve gotten that uncomfortable bit out of the way:

Collecting what you love is a rather generic answer, I know, so here are a few tips:

1. You don’t need to love reading to collect books. You just need to love books.

Some people collect books for their beautiful illustrations or maps, others because of the beautiful bindings, etc. The list goes on. I’ve often heard, “I’ll never read this book – it’s too beautiful”. And that’s perfectly reasonable, even though many books won’t be damaged if read carefully. And even though some collectors buy books with the hope of reading them, if a collection reaches a certain size, attempting to read everything becomes impossible.

2. Try to build a coherent collection by specializing.

Some people love 20th century literature, for example. But even this genre is extremely wide. One way to narrow this down is to collect first editions, which are extremely popular right now. Another way is to focus on a certain author (George Orwell, for example) or a certain type of binding (hardcover, or leather bound editions). Those who love owning a piece of history can choose to collect only antiquarian books of a specific genre, e.g., “18th century travel literature”. And then there are people who will only collect old Bibles, or Shakespeare.

3. Rare is not always beautiful.

Many people assume that the more beautiful a book is, the more valuable it is. This isn’t always true, although finely bound books can sometimes command higher prices because of the binding – especially if made by a famous bookbinder. Other books look perfectly ordinary, but are the most sought-after books around. These include signed copies, first editions, obscure titles, or books with historical value.

4. Old is not always rare.

Another assumption people make is the old adage “old is gold”. This isn’t always true, although books printed before 1700 are generally worth something and prices usually start at a few hundred dollars. Of course, at the top end of the book market, very old and very rare books are bought and sold for thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars.

5. The condition of the book is important, but bear in mind its age.

The condition of the book is one of the most important factors in determining its value. A book in great condition can cost a lot more than the same title with torn pages, foxing (spots) everywhere, etc. Having said that, one shouldn’t expect a used book, especially an antiquarian one, to look exactly like a new book. A book that has existed for 200 years or more will show its age in some form or another.

Happy collecting!