What is the most frequently asked question in the used and rare book field? What is my book worth?
- by Bruce E. McKinney
May I quote Zero Mostel?: Money, Money, Money
Everyone in the rare book business is asked everyday “what is my book worth?” and the question almost always gets a careful listen because once in a great while the book or books you have are very good. But that said, the process is time consuming and rarely successful for the person providing perspective.
For people who have these questions there are a few straightforward ways to find out, without spending a dime or anyone’s time. You should go to the listing sites; Biblio, Alibris, Abebooks or Rare Book Hub that provide listings of books for sale. Or, if you are diligent, go to all of them. There you will get a free appraisal simply by putting the author last name, a few words from the title, and the date published into the advanced search fields. Then BINGO you get a variety of answers. Now what should you do?
The chances are the book you are looking up will match almost identical copies offered for sale. And then low and behold you notice someone is offering a copy for $500.- “These people must be smart because they know something that the other fools, who have priced theirs at $75, don’t.” This then leads to the cracking open of a beer or sarsaparilla followed by: “Wow Daddy, we’re rich” because you have boxes of books to look up and $500.- times all the books you have is – let’s see – a New Car, in fact a German one, possibly a 7 series, a convertible at that.
If only it were that easy.
Looking up books that are listed for sale is easy and I suggest doing it before you seek free advice. Unfortunately, the expensive copy listed that you find has probably been posted by a nut who is determined not to leave a penny on the table. It is not illegal to put a crazy asking price on anything.
Now you start to study your copy and quickly confirm you’re an optimist. By reading the descriptions that others have written you start to see some differences though. The term “with original artwork” sounds good until it’s disclosed that Maria, the seller’s daughter and no relation to the author, when she was 3, colored in the pictures. Sorry! Somewhere else you noticed the term “original color.” This must be what it means. This is too easy.
I suggest you make a list of the books you have because they are going to start to blur.
Try to be honest. Try to grade them. Make notes about anything that appears to be missing such as, “it’s complete except for 1 page” which is usually the title page. Ouch! OR, you only have one page – the title page – and you heard that if a book is missing its title page it loses at least 90% of its value. That must mean the title page, by itself is worth 90% of what the whole book is worth. No! No! and No!
About 1 person in a 100 is going to find they have material of saleable value. If you are the lucky one now you can call dealers or whoever you consult. They’ll be looking for evidence of retail prices at and above $500 not including the person who listed their $75 book for $500.
For those books you conclude are valuable you’ll want to offer them in list form, with pictures of the higher value examples, to a specialist in the category of which your book or books is a part. In other words, don’t expect a specialist in opera to know much about your Life of Lincoln [unless it was made into an opera].
Many people will be willing to help but don’t abuse their trust. Do a little bit of homework and identify the things you have that are of value.
Ultimately you are going to sell the material. If you sell to a dealer you’ll get less money [because, once they buy your copy, they’ll assume its market risk]. Their distinct advantage is that they usually pay on the spot. Many, many people take that deal. Others will opt to send their material to auction and it will be roughly 6 months from submission until you receive payment [the amount of which will not be known until the book sells].
Now get started. A few beers from now you can go online to Mercedes Benz to plan your purchase.
If you need further help, after determining your material is probably of substantial value, you can contact us or a professional advisor. Here is one:
Professional Resource, LLC
Elvin Mongomery, Partner