Monday, February 15, 2016

What Makes a Book Rare?

The reasons that people collect certain types of books are varied and highly personal. A buyer may collect first editions from their favorite author, or their interest in collecting books may be incidental to the larger interest; such as an avid Beatles record collector acquiring the books of John Lennon as part of his collection. Ultimately, though, the value of a book as a collectible is directly related to the book's relative scarcity. When a lot of people want a book and there are few copies available, that book's value increases.

When we talk about rare books, we speak of books that have a limited supply. First editions tend to be considered "rare" as a generality because the first printing of a book represents only a small number of the total number of copies that are printed. Publishers, ever mindful of reducing their costs, will try to print the number of copies of that they project are likely to sell. The first printing for a first time author might be fairly limited since publishers don't necessarily expect an overwhelming demand. The hardcover printing of David Foster Wallace's first book, Broom of the System, was limited to a print-run of 1300 copies. On the other side of that example is the first edition of a best-selling author. The first US printing of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ran to 15 million copies.


Some entire categories of books have a greater chance of rarity. Poetry is a tiny portion of the total number of books sold in the world each year, so publishers don't tend to print that many copies of a book of poems. The value of poetry books is still dependent on collectors wanting that poet's work, of course, so the poems of the unknown, no matter how scarce, aren't likely to ever become valuable.

Children's Books

Children's books are famously scarce simply because children aren't the best library archivists! Torn pages, broken bindings and the addition of original works of art in crayon by the book's owner are common features of kid's books. Dust jackets are usually sacrificed early. That makes copies in collectible condition rare. First editions of many of Dr. Seuss's titles commonly sell for thousands of dollars.


Similar to children's books, cook books are often a casualty of their intended use. Favorite recipes are marked with samples of the ingredients, and wet hands leave damp pages. Cookbooks can provide a unique view into history by showing our relationship with food, so antiquarian cookbooks have a devoted collectors market, but are often difficult to come by in collectible condition.