Oct 24

Start Collecting!

by Carrie Kolar

How to Start Collecting and What to Look For

Collecting antique books combines the thrill of treasure hunting with the magic of holding a piece of history. The world of book collecting is a rich and complex one, but it can be intimidating at the outset. The sheer number of options can be overwhelming – how do you know what to purchase? How do you know what things are worth? Where do you start? Here, we provide some tips to on how to start and what to look for to help beginners launch their collections.

Step 1: Have a Plan

If you wander around indiscriminately snatching up books, you’ll end up with an empty wallet and a collection that isn’t particularly meaningful. Instead, formulate a plan of action that includes what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to spend. One of the best ways you can begin your collecting journey is to decide on a theme to build your collection around. Your theme can be anything that interests you, though some common themes include specific authors, subjects, time periods, and prize winners. The more specific your theme, the easier it will be to build a meaningful collection that you enjoy.

Once you’ve decided on a collection theme, set a budget and do some research. Be sure to check several sources so you can compare prices on the items you’re interested in and see what’s available. Being prepared allows you to enjoy the search without being overwhelmed.

Step 2: Know What to Look For

Once you know the kind of book you’re looking for, you need to know which books are worth your money. While there are many resources that give in-depth explanations of book valuation, a good place to start is with these four concepts: edition, condition, inscription, and demand.

  • The edition of the book includes all of the books printed from the same setting of type. While first editions get a lot of press, this is an area where you should do your research. If there are only fifteen copies of a second edition, for example, the second edition could be more valuable than a first edition of the same text.

  • Condition in itself if pretty self-explanatory – how well has the book held up? Most book sellers use a variation on the following terms to describe condition, from best to worst: Fine, Near Fine, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor. A good rule of thumb is to get a book in the best condition that you can afford.

  • The value of inscriptions and signatures depends entirely on who wrote them. Inscriptions from the author or a noteworthy former owner will increase the book value; a happy birthday note to little Timmy will decrease the value.

  • Finally, demand tells you how many people want a particular book. This can fluctuate, particularly if an author or subject is enjoying a period of popularity. If a book in high demand is also rare, you’ll have to put up a significant amount of money if you want that specific text.

Regardless of what you’re looking for in your collection, it’s worth the time you spend to know what’s valuable. Hunting for treasure is a lot more rewarding if you know exactly how much of a treasure you’ve found.

Step 3: Find Out Where to Look

Once you know what you’re looking for and have a budget, it’s time to go forth and find books. Book sellers, antique bookstores, and antique book fairs are the best places to go to start your collection. The website of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America has a list of over 400 book sellers from all over the country, as well as their own online store and list of up upcoming book fairs, including the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair in March. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association in Britain and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers have similar offerings, and you can also find antique books from online auction sites that range from Sotheby’s to eBay. Buying from book sellers and book fairs is safer for new collectors than buying from Amazon or eBay, since you know exactly who is selling to you and the seller has a reputation to protect.

Preparation and knowledge give you an edge when you join the ranks of book collectors, helping you determine what you want and how to get it. You’ll have more questions as you learn more (What Is a Dust Jacket and Why Does It Matter?) but you’ll soon find that there is an entire community of people who share your passion and are happy to share their knowledge.

Happy hunting!



We read frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own. - Harold Bloom