How Much Is That Book Worth?

When it becomes known that I have often dabbled in the used/rare book business, I get what I have some to call the Antiques Road Show question: “Hey, I have an old book; what do you think it is worth?”

Usually, there is a very short, not to mention, impolite answer: “not near as much as you think.” Now I never actually say this to a person’s face; my mother taught me a few manners. Instead, I have a long answer that says almost the same thing. I am going to share that answer here in this blog.

First, a disclaimer. These are general guidelines, not set-in-stone rules. As such, they have no real weight in any legal sense. If you need, say, a value of a rare book for an insurance policy, then a professional appraiser is the proper tool, not random observations on a blog.

Having said that, I think you will find these random observations a useful introduction concerning the real value of your old books.

The first rule is one you already know. It is the same rule that applies to all problems of valuation: supply and demand. Low supply plus high demand equals a higher value. Therefore, your old family Bible (more on this later) has almost no cash value. The Bible is the most commonly printed book in the world; the supply is as large as humanly possible. For the same reason, a rare volume of poems –even a real old one – by a completely unknown (and quite likely untalented) writer has no demand at all. If there is little or no demand, there is little or no reason for the price to go up.

I will state the second rule three times: condition, condition, condition. Your book MUST be in good shape. Anything at all that detracts from mint condition lessens a book’s value, literally anything. A single ink smudge, a folded page, a missing dust jacket, an underlined word, even a bad smell: your book is worth considerably less with even minor damage. This is the reason ex-library books have essentially no cash value; as soon as a library touches a book, there are stamps and stickers all over it.

The third rule: certain types of books have more value than others. These include autographed copies, first editions, editions with unique errors in them, or editions that were limited in number for whatever reason. This is just a corollary to rule number one. All these unique conditions mean that the supply is low, and they therefore make the value higher.

The fourth and final rule is the most complex and the one that separates amateurs from experts. The fourth rule is this: for every rule in determining a book’s value, there are many exceptions. Bibles are not worth much money. However, a Bible that was once owned and signed by Abe Lincoln, well, let’s go with “priceless” on that. A first edition, normally an indication of higher value, is not worth much if that edition numbered several hundred thousand copies – too much supply in that case.

One easy way to get a quick check on your book’s value is to see what others are asking for similar items. You can do this on ebay or Amazon. But take note: when you do this, you are seeing the asking price, not the selling price. There is a huge difference and that difference needs to be emphasized as we head to the final part of this lesson.

You can ask whatever price you want. You can ask. If the answer is “no thank you”, then you need to rethink the price. Even if you are lucky enough to find a 1000 dollar book up in the attic, the book is still just another book until you find a person with 1000 dollars who wants that book. Until and unless you do that, the book’s cash value remains at zero.

And may I ask, did great grandma put that 1000 book in the attic? I ask for the very good that money is not the only way to judge a book’s value. If great grandma put the old family Bible up in the attic way back in 1920, please consider all the other types of value contained in that lovely old book. There is family history; there is sentimental and emotional value; there is the simple value of looking at a beautiful well-crafted object; as a Bible, there is spiritual value. My heart felt advice: do not try to price those sorts of things. Please think about all the non-cash ways that a book makes life better before placing a price tag on it.