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What makes a rare book rare?

For the collector and librarian the question of the rarity of a book often determines whether a particular book will be purchased and how it will be treated. For most others the question is, "How can I know if those old books in my attic are worth anything?"

Determining the value of any book is a complex matter, particularly if it is an old or unusual one. There are, however, a few broad factors that generally affect the rarity and value of a book.

A book is "rare" only if someone wants it and is willing to pay for it. This consideration underlies all of the rest. Many books are scarce but not in demand; they are not "rare." Local publications often fall in this category.

Books are not rare simply because they are old. In fact, many books from the 17th century can be bought for modest sums. This is even truer for books from the 19th century, when large printings became the norm. Most old family Bibles fall into this category. For many people, however, the value of such a Bible is not in its rarity but in its sentimental, family, or historical associations.

Demand is often created by the popularity of a subject or author. Texana and Larry McMurtry are good examples of this phenomenon. There are many notable authors and illustrators, however, whose works have continued to be valuable over the years, especially in first or other important editions. Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Rackham are good examples of this. Other authors' popularity may have waned but readers still collect them. Their works are of value to their collectors but they are not considered "rare."

Several aspects of publishing and book selling fall into this category, but they all come down to the fact that a particular book is hard to find. Only a few copies were ever printed. Only a few copies have survived. The book is so collectible that only a few copies ever appear on the market. Most of the copies survive but are sold in one location (particularly true of local literature and history).

Because of the obvious relation to price, most booksellers will carefully note any aspect of scarcity: scarce in paper covers; scarce with map; scarce in this condition. These facts are usually verifiable through published bibliographies and other sources.

Once a book has been found to be in demand and scarce, the single greatest determining factor in its value is physical condition. The bookseller's constant refrain is "condition, condition, condition." The range here is immense, but the most important factor is how close your copy is to the book as it was originally presented to the public. This includes the textblock and binding, all inserts and additions, and dust jacket or wrapper, if appropriate. Are any of the pages torn or missing? Have any of the plates been cut out? Is the spine faded, worn, or damaged? Is the dust jacket chipped? Obviously, there is a sliding scale; missing pages or plates lessen the value more than a faded spine. Almost always, however, a book that has been rebound will be less valuable than one in its original binding, even if that binding is in only fair condition.

Special Features
Many books are published in more than one state; that is, there are differences between some copies and others. Such differences within a printing are called "points" and help determine relative scarcity and value. But probably the most wide-spread attempt at creating rarity is the "limited edition." Such an edition is produced as a collector's item, often on different paper, in a different binding, or with different plates. Many are signed by the author or the artist. Almost always they command a higher price than the common trade edition. The signature of the author or artist, however, does not in itself indicate rarity. Here it is necessary to know the habits of the author and his publisher. The signature of an author who signs everything is not as valuable as that of one who signs very little of his or her work.

Other special features may include maps, photographs, artifactual examples, additional plates, and dust jackets. Special books are sometimes rebound by famous binders, and this then becomes a consideration in evaluation.

As with limited editions, those books signed or inscribed by the author bring a higher price. Association includes books owned by the author (as evidenced by a signature or bookplate), inscribed by the author, annotated by the author, or known to be a part of the author's personal library. A knowledge of an author's family, circle of friends, or literary influences is often necessary to determine the importance of a particular association.

For general rare books, three printed evaluation sources are widely used: American Book Prices Current, Book Auction Records, and Bookman's Price Index. The first two are based on auction records and thus contain primarily books that are collectible and expensive. The third title, in contrast, is a compilation from dealers' catalogues. It thus contains thousands of books of lesser resale value but still of importance and interest to collectors. Also of general use for collectors is Ahearns' Collected Books: The Guide to Values, Mandeville's Used Book Price Guide, and Zempel and Verkler's Book Prices Used and Rare. There are also printed price guides for specific subjects (e.g., Civil War, children's books, Texana), publishing (e.g., Confederate imprints), and other specialties (e.g., maps).

Several resources available through the World Wide Web, a few of which are listed below, are invaluable for quick access to a broad range of antiquarian book-selling sources. Many dealers accessed through these resources have online ordering capabilities.

Search tool:


  • Advanced Book Exchange: Good source for rare and used books; search can be limited to membership in ABAA.
  • Alibris: Dealers are anonymous; books purchased through Alibris are guaranteed.
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