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Tips on Determining the Value of Your Books

The following is a reprint from the Bookscout’s Corner on with permission from John Dunning.

  1. Desirability: Judging value of a book starts with the subject matter. If the book does not have anything of value to say, then no one will want it. For example many people still have in their attics old novels from the late 19th and early 20th century that may have been popular fiction at the time, but no one cares about anymore. Age alone does not make a book valuable.
  2. Rarity. Books are subject to the same laws of supply and demand as any other goods. If there is only one copy of a book but no one is interested in purchasing it, then it will have no value. However if two or more people want that book, then the price will increase to whatever the market will bear.
  3. Edition. Usually only the first or limited editions are collectible. However, a later edition that contains important new information may be preferred in some cases. You need to be able to properly determine which edition you have by learning to read the title and copyright pages. It is also important to have the dust jacket, with its original price intact, to properly identify the edition. Books listed below can help.
  4. Condition. A most important determinant of value. Both book and dust jacket are considered and need to be in the best possible condition. This includes no ink or crayon marks, previous owner’s names, bookplates, or embossers. A book worth $500 in fine condition may be worth next to nothing if it is frayed, soiled, or broken. Also the book must be complete in all its parts including dust jacket if there was one, pictures, endpapers and title page, etc.
  5. Signatures. An inscription or signature by the author can increase the value of a book, especially in cases where the author is known to have signed very few books. Some author’s signatures are plentiful or inconsquential and will do little to raise the price of a book.
  6. Association copies. The term “association” is applied to any book which is verifiably associated with another famous person. For example, William Faulkner might have inscribed a book to F. Scott Fitgerald, or a book might contain the bookplate of a famous collector.
  7. Binding. The original binding is preferable to any rebinding unless the original binding was so worn as to defy restoration. A rebound book may be valuable as a work of art, and on some early books the bindings were done after the book was sold in parts, so there may be different bindings of a first edition by different bookbinders.

Here are examples of some good reference books for collectors and book dealers.

  •  “A Collectors’ Guide to First Editions” by Allan and Patricia Ahearn has been replaced by “Collected Books 2002: The Guide to Values“. It has a wealth of information for collectors as well as the approximate prices for thousands of collectible books.
  • A great magazine for collectors is Firsts Magazine which is published nine times a year. It has very informative articles on collectible books and authors, information on collecting, binding, condition standards, and links to many major book dealers. Click here for their website Firsts.

For books you can’t find here, other sites include,,, and We don’t recommend ebay unless you have researched the details of what you want before bidding. Many people sell on ebay (as well as other sites) that don’t know how to properly identify edition, condition, etc.

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Booked to Die – My First Collectible Book Purchase

I didn’t read books unless I had to for school assignments, until I met Steve.  Not long after we started dating, Steve encouraged me to read a few books that he enjoyed and opened me up to a whole new world.

Then not long after we married, he took book appreciation to a new level.  He started learning all about first editions and what makes a book collectible. His collection grew slowly for a number of years.  Every now and then Steve would take me to a book fair where he would wade through stacks and rows of books, looking for a gem.  This was before the Internet which has made book scouting so much easier and sadly, has taken away some of the thrill of the hunt. I will never know as much as Steve when it comes to book collecting, but I remember one book fair where I made my first of only a few collectible book purchases.

I was always overwhelmed at the book fairs. There were so many books I didn’t know where to start.  Often when I did focus on one of interest, I didn’t have enough confidence in my knowledge to commit.  But shortly before “my first purchase” book fair, Steve had recommended a book for me to read.

It was “Booked to Die” written by John Dunning in 1992.  I loved the book!  It’s the first book of 5 following Cliff Janeway, a Denver cop who retires and becomes the owner of a rare book store. It is a murder mystery deeply entrenched in the world of book scouting. Not only is it a good page-turner, but it is also great for learning about book collecting and has some really nice quotable lines about the value of books, rare or otherwise.  I learned a lot from “Booked to Die” which I’m sure contributed to my wanting to try out my new-found courage in scouting for a collectible book.

2 weeks after reading the book, I spotted a first edition of “Booked to Die” at a book fair in Atlanta. Since it was my first “first” find, I was nervous haggling with the bookseller, but we finally agreed on a price.  Proud of my purchase, I decided to write the author to tell him how much his book inspired me and to ask his opinion of my transaction.  To my amazement, John Dunning wrote back! His response was thoughtfully worded and typed on an old manual typewriter, what he calls “an honest machine”.

He also included a book mark from his now-closed The Old Algonquin Bookstore. On the back of it, he handwrote Cliff Janeway references, crude drawings of a face and boll weevil, and his signature.   I cherish these mementos which I keep with my copy of “Booked to Die”.

I’m very grateful that Mr. Dunning took time out from his busy writing schedule to share some of his knowledge with me.  The last I heard, he still maintains his on-line bookstore (

John Dunning has written other noteworthy books, one of which is another favorite of mine.  I still highly recommend the Cliff Janeway books, but if you get a chance, take a look at “Two O’Clock, Eastern Wartime”. It’s a thriller intertwined with a wonderful history of radio in the 1940’s.