Book Collecting

Can someone recommend a good book about collecting books? Not just a price guide, but a “how to”, and “what to look for”, etc. I’m interested in learning about collecting 1st editions and rare books. Thanks.

More than 24 hours and still no reply. I’m disappointed in you guys. :frowning: I know there are hundreds of voracious readers and booklovers out there. C’mon how about a little help please?

Well, I’ll take a stab at it:

Figure out what kind of books you want to collect. Certain authors? genre? publisher?

Check with a local museum. I see that you are in Chicago, so I’m quite sure there’s someone there who’s an expert. If not, they may be able to direct you to some local collectors.

Try the internet.

I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking to find out either, but alongside Mr. Blue Sky’s excellent advice, might I recommend and to a lesser extent certain areas of to learn about (and possibly buy) rare and antiquarian books.

You’re unlikely to find a standardized price list anywhere; such editions vary in their appraisal from seller to seller and book to book. As I’m sure you know, many small factors can hugely influence the value of any given volume.

One more thing: is a surprisingly comprehensive resource of rare and antiquarian books, and you can often find a fantastic bargain if you know what you’re looking for. My 1st edition of Lolita, the Olympia Press publication, came from eBay at a snippet of the price it was available for anywhere else.

Still looking for a high quality first edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and an affordable inscribed Nabokov book. :wink:

Glad to have interest Peanuthead, I am a dealer and collector. The single best book I have ever read on the subject is “Book Collecting” by Allen and Patricia Ahearn. They are the definitive reference on most matters book related. ‘Firsts’ magazine also is a good reference for most modern authors.

If you want an excellent read about book collecting and its attractions you should look at Nicholas Basbanes great “A Gentle Madness”.

The other thing I would look at is finding a comprehensive bibliography that represents an author or subject area you are interested in. I would start by trying to become an expert in a very small area and expanding outwards. Start with what you are most interested in. If you have other questions please feel free to ask.

Good luck getting started.

I worked for a rare-book dealer for a few years.

This is probably the best place to start.

Thanks fruitbat and twickster for the references. Just the info I needed! I’m looking forward to a new exciting adventure.

Be very careful before you start on that adventure. One of the great ironies of book collecting is that you can’t learn anything useful about it from books.

You can get some of the vocabulary and some of the very basics of history, but that’s not collecting.

First, you need to pick a subject. That will automatically narrow your focus and your research. The subject can be anything - a person, a publishing house, a field, a time period, a type or style of book.

Then try to find out as much as the books that fall into that definition as possible. Talk to dealers. Talk to other collectors. Browse the net. Definitely look at all the catalogs you can find.

See what’s already been written about the person, place, or thing. Many times there is surprisingly little information, especially when dealing with ephemeral popular culture.

When you do start buying, buy the best you can afford. Books are not necessarily the best of investments, but they do tend to go up in price. The net has given people easy access to books they might never have found in a lifetime of searching used book stores, but it also means that every bad, old, ex-library copy of a book that was ever in anyone’s basement is now up for sale.

Those books are not collectibles, although if cheap enough they may be of some value just so that you can see what an actual example looks like.

But there are just so many fine condition, signed, first editions in dust wrapper in the world. Every time you buy one the supply has diminished by a bit. And some things you will never see again, even on the net.

Don’t worry too much about buying the perfect collector right off the bat. You’ll learn only by doing.

And if you really want to read about book collecting, do it at your local library. Libraries love to buy books about books.

Oh, and is a metasearch site that searches dozens of other sites, including abebooks. Although abebooks can be better for certain keyword searches, I seldom start there. BookFinder is my default site.

Sorry Peanuthead - I was busy all weekend.

Nice to see the regular book-types like Exapno and Fruitbat here, too. I am a long-time collector - mostly 20th century U.S. and U.K. lit, but with some nice sci-fi, crime and children’s, too (full set of Winnie-the-Pooh firsts! woo-hoo!)

Fruitbat is right - the Ahearns book is great - they are very nice people, too. They have patiently answered every question I have ever asked them…

Some additional books worth knowing about:

First Editions - A Guide to Identification; edited by Zempel. Publishers identify a first edition in wildly varying ways, even from book to book. This is a pricy book, but depending on how much you are thinking about spending on firsts, a smart investment. Thieves on eBay boast constantly about selling a “first edition, Xth printing” - when in fact “edition” and “printing” have very blurred meanings now, and the only truly collectable books are first editions, first printings - and even then, there might be a “first state” of the first edition, where a flaw was in the book, or a different color binding was used that changed for the remainder of the first edition (the later books become the “first edition/second state” etc…). Get used to asking people “Is this the true first? Is this the most desirable/collectible edition of this book ever printed?” so they would have to out-and-out lie to you if there is a limited edition, or an edition from another country that is more collectible…

ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter. Long the industry standard before the Ahearns book came out. Still educational…

Used & Rare by the Goldstones - a fun book about a couple’s initiation to book collecting.

Exapno had a bunch of good tips - let me add a few:

  1. Collect what you love - if you have a collecting bug, then you will get caught up quickly and the line will blur between what you love as a book and what you have learned is desirable as a collectible. Focus on what you love. After a couple of years, it may make sense every now and then to buy a book that is clearly a great deal that you can use for trading purposes, but only after you have learned about the field a lot more (see below).

  2. Start small - find a budget per book and overall that you are comfortable with and stick with it. For me, I started with a max of $35 a book and a few hundred bucks a year and it served me very well to restrain my addiction, and minimized the pain of learning (see below).

  3. Expect to make mistakes - these constitute your tuition in learning how to collect the books you are concentrating on. I was so excited - I found a first edition of Richard Wright’s Native Son for $40!! Everything about it screamed “true first” so I bought it - only to learn that the Book Club Edition (BCE) looks very different from the true first, and is not marked as a BCE, is marked as a first edition, but is not nearly as collectible. Oh, and the true first has “Book of the Month Club Selection” on the dust jacket and the BCE doesn’t! I bought the true first later and gave the BCE to a friend starting to collect to remind her about learning the field. Which Harry Potter books are genuinely collectible? Is The Lovely Bones going to appreciate? Did you know that the UK edition of the English Patient was printed first to qualify it for the Booker (which it won) but that the author is Canadian, so some folks prefer the Canadian edition in order to “follow the flag” (i.e., books from the author’s native land are usually considered the most desirable - but not always). The nuances of collecting are infinite, which is partly what makes the detective work fun, but you have to pay to learn with time and sometimes money…

  • Don’t buy anything off the internet unless you can afford to kiss the money goodbye. The Internet means easier access to crap, for the most part. You need to really learn who are the reputable dealers - access and a high eBay rating does not mean integrity. There are a number of dealers - the one called Flatsigned on eBay - who are generally considered to be fraudulant by most dealers of repute - and I myself have seen much weird stuff, such as forged signatures, claims of a book being signed, when in fact the signature is on a separate piece of paper (not the same thing; worth much less), first edition books married to later edition / facsimile jackets, but priced like they had the true dj (because condition is everything and dj’s show the most wear, dj’s are critical to a books value); a book by the American writer Winston Churchill being consciously passed off as by the hero of WWII; the list goes on…

  • Did I already say collect what you love? I mean it. If you have the collecting bug, then when you hold the physical object, you get, oh, I don’t know, a “hit” from it. You think about the story and when you first read it, you think about the hunt that went into finding the first and buying it; you think about sharing the book with friends. If you don’t get that hit, don’t buy the book. Trust your gut. I walked away from a few books that were well over my limit but clearly desirable - most I can’t even remember; one was Catch-22 and the fact that it stuck with me made me realize how much I really wanted it so I found one and bought it a couple of months later. And I distinctly remember the first time a book practically jumped into my hands: To Kill a Mockingbird. A dealer friend told me he found one and was selling it to a premium dealer. I held it and said “Omigod, I have to have this book” and he said “well, I’d rather it be in the hands of a collector than just another dealer” so he sold it to me even though it was many times more than I had ever spent on a book…

Best of luck!!

A word of caution about ebay sellers: many of them have no idea what it is they are selling, nor how to properly describe a book. I once purchased a first edition, only to find out when it arrived that it was “ex-library”, which drops the price considerably. On the other hand, I’ve scored some very nice volumes.

bump Peanuthead - you there?

WordMan: Yes, I’m still here. I do keep strange hours though.
Thank you all so much for the outstanding references and cautionary advice.
I will probably be looking for Science Fiction books at first and expand my pursuits as I become more knowledgeable about the subject.

The leading dealer in science fiction (for hardcover first editions) is Lloyd W. Currey. His books are in the finest condition, although you also pay top dollar for that.

You also need to acquire his Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First Printings of Their Fiction and Selected Non-Fiction. There’s an updated edition out on CD-ROM. That way, when someone refers to Currey “A” state, you’ll know what they are talking about.

This is another reason why I downplayed books on collecting. Virtually none of them have any information on science fiction books.

Of course, science fiction is a gigantically huge field and you still haven’t given out any information about exactly what it is you want to collect. People who collect Heinlein first editions need different info than people who collect 1930s pulp magazines who need different info from people who collect Stephen King limited editions who need different info from people who collect Jules Verne who need different info from people who collect paperbacks with Richard Powers cover art, etc. etc. etc.

Exapno makes a great recommendation - Currey is generally considered to be the man. However (and with book collecting, there is always a however) a couple of points:

  1. To my knowledge (note: I don’t have the CD ROM myself so may be wrong about this!!), Currey doesn’t comment on dj’s. I ran into this when researching a first edition of Dune, where a first edition/first state dj can bring the value of the book up to $10,000, so it really matters! I was talking with a dealer trying to get to the bottom of what really identifies a 1st/1st state Dune dj (if you actually care about this trivia, feel free to email me or ask) and the dealer checked the Currey book (I think; not the CD) and said “that’s the trouble with Currey; he doesn’t list dj states.” Since dj’s can hold up to 80%+ of the value of a book, that really matters, even when the book isn’t some over-the-top heavy hitter.

  2. Currey is irascible. Doesn’t really matter when you are just looking at his book or CD Rom, but when I tried to call him to get clarity during the Great Dune Hunt, he was like that professor from the Paper Chase - intimidating, condescending and offered monosyllabic answers - and in this case, he was wrong. I don’t wish to imply that his research is normally flawed - by all accounts it is usually THE last word, and Dune was notoriously under-researched until recently - but one can normally call dealers and they are extremely helpful (like the Ahearns) but he is a curmudgeon of the highest order…

I don’t really have alternatives to Currey for sci-fi, other than my usual practice, which I do for all books:

  1. Go to, per Exapno and look up the book you are researching

  2. Read the listings and see how different dealers describe their copy and the relative desirability of different editions of the book. This is a good way to build a set of questions that you can ask specifically about the collectibility/value of the book. Do NOT trust what you read - it is never enough, and is often wrong, intentionally or no.

  3. Check out the dealers listing the book, and see if any are ABAA members.

  4. If yes, call and ask them about the title, most specifically about what the most desirable edition is to collectors and any info they have on points of issue. Make it clear you are new and trying to learn - in my experience most are very helpful. If you might actually be interested in their copy, you can choose whether or not to mention that up front; not doing so means you may not get a response, but doing so may mean that they bias their response to make their copy that much more attractive-sounding. YMMV. Whenever possible, ask if they can back up their knowledge with bibliographical references (“is there bibliography that is considered standard for the author and is that what it says, too?”)

  5. If no dealers are ABAA, call as many of the dealers you can and ask your questions. You can get a sense of the “common knowledge” regarding the book - although there is always a chance that their common knowledge is simply wrong. Ask them for bibliographic cites, too.

  6. You can do the same thing for eBay listings, but I really only do that if the dealer on eBay is also an ABAA dealer - I really don’t trust eBay dealers…

Hope this helps,


This is the problem of trying to answer a question that hasn’t yet been asked.

Currey is a necessity - if you are interested in first edition hardbacks from major authors. There are lots of authors not in Currey’s book - I don’t have the CD-ROM myself - and the information is basic rather than definitive. But how else would you know that for Asimov’s Foundation and Empire, in state A) the publisher’s imprint on spine measures 2.2 cm across and in state B) the publisher’s imprint on spine measures 2.8 cm across?

He does list two states of the dust jacket for this title, one with 26 titles printed on the back, one with 32 titles.

My copy has 36 titles. But it has red boards so it’s a state B) even though it’s later because state C) is the reprint edition with green boards. Assuming that someone didn’t switch dust jackets at some point in its history. So it goes.

He does not mention dj’s for Dune, however.

There are lots of situations in the field for which Currey is not the main source. For collecting the early, but extremely important, small press publishers you absolutely need The science-fantasy publishers : a critical and bibliographic history, by Jack L. Chalker. The third and latest edition, only. And Mark Owens is the co-writer, unmentioned by Amazon.

For other purposes other reference guides would be far superior.

But I just don’t know what to recommend other than the absolute basics. Hearing that Peanuthead wants to collect “science fiction” makes me extremely nervous. The field is a swamp that will suck you under until you have enormous knowledge and do serious research - that is, if you want to do serious collecting and not just amass a whole bunch of books. I’ve got maybe 2000 sf books and again that number of magazines. But I know very little about the field’s collectibles outside my tiny areas of specialty, even after 40 years in the field.

So, Peanuthead, have we made you nervous yet? :slight_smile:

That is the thing about collecting. You have to quickly give up the idea that you will become an expert on many areas. You would have to work years to become expert in Sci-Fi for example. I started buying everything that interested me and quickly learned that I was in over my head.

I narrowed my collecting, and later my dealing, to small and obscure areas where I could leverage my knowledge. Not to sound mercenary, but spotting the underpriced gem allows you to fund later collecting.

At this point in my collecting I am only highly knowledgable in two areas where I face little competition. The key is that I can look at a listing and know instantly what the fair market value of the book is. I can then pick up a cheap addition to my collection or sell it to fund later additions.

My last piece of advice is to consider the traditional auctions for acquisitions. I have consistently had my best luck with British auction houses. They list the items up for auction on their web sites in advance and you can place an absentee bid. I look for books outside the collecting area of the rest of the items. For instance, a Flannery O’Connor first stuck in an auction of mostly Travel and Exploration. If you get lucky you have very little competition for the item.

All really well said, Exapno - and I have a full Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot, too!! I love Asimov. My Foundations are 1st/1st state for the first two, and a 1st/2nd (green boards, IIRC) for Second Foundation…what was really great was that I traded a copy of Grisham’s A Time to Kill (with no dj) to a dealer, along with a little cash, to get the first two! Grisham was superhot at the time and sci-fi wasn’t moving. Since I detest Grisham and had just picked up the book for trade, I was ecstatic…

Well, yes and no. Yes because of all the cautionary advice given. And no because I don’t plan on getting as seriously involved as you guys. Wow! I certainly am impressed with all your knowledge, expertise, and dedication to the field. And very appreciative of the tips and advice.

I expect to make some mistakes in this endeavor but I’m not worried because I won’t be “selling the farm” in order to obtain a particular book. There are several books which I’m eager to get my hands on, but I’m not obessessed and I’m patient about it. As indicated in the OP I want to learn about book collecting. So when I go to a garage sale or second hand store I can experience the thrill of discovery. (Not to mention the satisfaction of getting a bargain) How does the saying go: Half the fun is in gettig there. Where is the joy in walking into a bookstore, picking a book off the shelf and paying for it? To me, that’s the difference between going fishing and going to the fish market. I want it to be more like a treasure hunt. Like driving around a crowded neighborhood and finding a parking spot close to your destination. Please don’t get me wrong. I think what you guys do is fantastic, and like I said above I really do admire you. But we’re just playing different levels of the game. Who knows, maybe once I get a taste of the blood of the beast I’ll be hooked. And it sure is nice to have a couple of mentors.

Now, let me tell you what’s going on with your apprentice. I went to the library and checked out A Gentile Madness. A hefty tome indeed! I’ll get started on it this weekend. There was also an older price guide in the reference section which I couldn’t check out but it’s nice to know it’s there if I want to see it.
As far as my dabbeling in the Science Fiction genre Asimov is the man!!! (RIP Isaac, you’ll never be forgotten) And with such a prolific writer I could spend all my energy on just him. But of course there are so may others. Pohl, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Silverberg, Ellison, et. al.

Finally, for you serious collectors, something to chuckle over. (And for the novice/greenhorns like myself, a brag.) I just bought a First Editon copy of Dangerous Visions (Harlan Ellison ed.) on Ebay. Hard cover, in good shape w/o dust jacket. Only paid a few bucks for it and I’m extremely happy with the purchase. Probably not worth much to a collector but it’s one of my personal favorites and it gives me great pleasure to be able to say I own a first edition. Whoo-hoo!

Again, thank you all for your sage advice.


Go Peanuthead!! Got a book you love - very cool.

One of my favorites is a first edition of Christopher Hinz’ “Liege Killer” - it’s worth $25, maybe, but I love that book…

Yes, yes, yes, stumbling across something you never suspected existed is the very reason for keeping small used book stores open all over the country.

It’s just not as much fun doing a search on the net.

There’s a weird book thread somewhere in the archives that’s loads of fun. I pretty much guarantee that people wouldn’t haven’t purchased those books unless they stumbled upon them. I think one of the ones I mentioned was the self-published memoirs of Kirk Alyn, the Superman of the serials - inscribed yet.

Speaking of which, I don’t have a first edition Dangerous Visions in any condition. I still have the SF Book Club edition I bought when it first appeared. However, since it’s [sarcastically] inscribed “To [Exapno], Always! Harlan Ellison” I’m not planning on a substitution any time soon. :slight_smile: