We’ve attended a number of library book sales over the past several months and were not surprised by the large numbers of people picking through the offerings. Most were simply looking for interesting reading material, but there were always a few who appeared to be searching for something more. We would observe them carefully examining various parts of books – the spines, the dust jackets (if present), the title and copyright pages. Most books were returned to the shelves and tables from which they’d been plucked, but a relative few would be carefully placed in cartons or cloth bags as their soon-to-be-owners slowly worked their way to the cashiers.
They were book dealers looking to add to their stock and make a little profit on their generally one or two dollar investment. They were collectors seeking to fill missing slots on their shelves or to replace less desirable copies. They were speculators hoping to find pots of gold in the secondary markets.
Of course, no one really expects to find an early edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (one fetched over $10 million at auction in 2010) or an original 1450-55 A.D. Gutenberg Bible (with an estimated value today of $25 to $35 million), but there are plenty of contemporary works that realize surprisingly high prices in today’s secondary markets.
The general rule is that the first edition – especially the first printing of a first edition (or a 1st/1st) – of a popular writer’s first book is valuable because such works are usually printed in lesser quantities than later titles, but there are always exceptions. For example, a 1st/1st of Stephen King’s Carrie (1974), of which 30,000 copies were printed, is reportedly valued at between $700 and $1200, BUT a 1st/1st of King’s second book, Salem’s Lot (1975) is considered the Holy Grail by collectors. Why? Because the first state of the book may number as little as four! How can you tell if you have this rarity? Check the dust jacket: if it bears the price $8.95, instead of $7.95, you’ve hit the jackpot. (It’s been reported that collectors have been offered $20,000 and more for their copies.)
Printed in the UK in 1997, the 1st/1st of J.K. Rowling’s Harry and the Philosopher’s Stone numbered just 500 copies, so it should not be a surprise to find that the average asking price for a copy is around $50,000, with pristine copies going for much more. And this does not take into account that Rowling’s signature adds significant value to any Potter book, even later editions. Don’t have the original British version of the first book? A 1st/1st of the re-titled American version, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, can fetch a tidy $5000+.
First novels by other recent popular authors that are doing well in the secondary markets include John Grisham’s A Time to Kill (1988), Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi (1982), James Patterson’s The Thomas Berryman Number (1976), Christopher Paolini’s Eregon (2002), and Ray Bradbury’s Dark Carnival (1947). Depending on condition, these are generally selling for $100 to $500, and a signature can easily double or triple the price.
Some final notes: don’t pass up the books at church rummage sales, tag sales, and estate sales. You might be surprised to discover that most people really do not know the values of the books they bought to read or inherited, and are only too willing to unload them as quickly as possible. And if you have the time, double check any paperbacks being offered for sale, as some first editions can be surprisingly valuable, like the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 1st/1st that sells for $1000+!
If you’d like to find out more about this interesting category, check out the resources listed below, and
Collecting Stephen King: 10 of his rarest and priciest books (Syfy) – Helpful intro.
The Collector info on rare Stephen King books (StephenKingCollector) – Carry a copy of this great chart with you to yard, rummage, and book sales.
Firsts Book Collector’s Magazine (FirstsMagazine.com)- By subscription, but website has lots of general info on grading books, protecting your investment, more.
A Guide to Collecting Harry Potter Books (AbeBooks) – Great site provides a guide that you should keep with you when on the hunt.
‘Harry Potter’ and ‘The Hobbit’ Top New List of Most Valuable Books (Forbes) – Wish we had just one of these.
Harry Potter first edition sells for £60,186 – How to tell if you have one (The Independent) – That’s $81,250!
How to identify first editions or a first printing of a book (BookLibris) – Very helpful introduction to the subject.
Sorry American, but “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” Is Wrong (BuzzFeed) – Why the original title was changed.