Over the years, I've noticed that there are certain myths or misconceptions that people have when they are selling their books to a bookseller. After conferring with my partner, Lisa Morton, we've come up with five of the most common ones. In fact, just yesterday someone on the phone used one of them. In the interests of the mental health of booksellers, please read this list and the next time you are selling books ask yourself if your comment is on the list.
1. It's a really old book, so it must be worth a lot of money, right?
-We probably hear this one more than any other, which is why it is number one. It's not the age of a book that determines it's value, but it's rarity. A book can be published 100 years ago and not be as valuable as a book published a year ago. Why? Because one is more rare than the other. If you publish tens of thousands of copies of the 100 year old book and only 100 of the year old book, the former will be more rare. Old is usually defined as "antique" or around 100 years old. Rare means "scarce" or "few copies in existence". One of the rarist of books is the first printing of "The Good Earth" in paperback in the U.S. Out of a print run of about 100,000 there are only 5 known copies in existence with the original dust jacked (yes, some early paperbacks had dust jackets). So, just because the book is old doesn't mean it is valuable.
2. But, I'm positive this book is a first edition.
-this misunderstanding is more foregivable because sometimes the book will actually say it's a "first edition". Of course, the same book can also say "book club edition' as well. And when we point this out, the person will invariably say, "It's a first edition of the book club edition". Nope. Sorry. Book clubs are reprint edition. It says first edition because the book club publisher used the same plates to print the book. Determining whether a book is a first edition is not always easy. Especially for books printed before WWII. In the last several decades book publishers have started to use a relatively uniform system to identify the edition of a book they have published, however, before WWII each publisher determined their own method of identifying editions. Some stated first edition, some did not, but identified reprints. Some had no information at all. There is a large book devoted to all of these publishers criteria. It is called "First Editions, a Guide to Identification" by Edward Zempel and Linda Verkler. We use it frequently at the bookstore. But even then, some books are notorious for lack of information. I think there is a Faulkner first where you have to turn to a certain page and if a sentence has a word misspelled its a first.
3. Why can't you tell me what it's worth over the phone?
- this one is just stupid. How many times have I ventured a guess at a price over the phone only to find that when the customer brings the book in it's a) not a first edition and b) not the condition they described (see number 5 below). And when I tell them that the book is not worth anything, or only a fraction of the price I quoted, they say, "But you told me it was worth $. I've learned never to quote over the phone because people always tell you what they imagine the book is and not what it really is. Plus, it's just not good business.
4. I looked the book up on the internet and it's worth a lot of money
- the book you found on the internet is not the book you have in your hand. Or, if it is the condition is not the same. Your book is falling apart, missing a dust-jacket and is not a first edition. The book listed is in fine condition, has a dust jacket and is a first. Books are unique. You have to know something about them and how to identify them in order to be sure that the book being quoted at a book site on the net is the same as the one in your hand. Interestingly, you can learn most of this in about an hour of study at the library. Look for "Book Collecting: a Comprehensive Guide" by Allen Ahear (referred to as the "Ahearn" in the book business). Aside from being just a well-researched, well-written book, there is a complete introduction on how to identify firsts, grading condition of books and a general introduction to book buying. Plus, there is a list of famous books and their relative values. This book is updated every year, so be sure to look for the current version (2005). You can also go to our website for a basic intro. Knowing this kind of information will save you plenty of time when you try to sell your books at a used bookstore. Plus, it's just interesting stuff.
5. Oh, yes, the book is in perfect condition.
-the second most common phrase we hear. Of course, the book is not in that condition when they bring it in. It's covered with silverfish, cobwebs, the pages are loose, no dust jacket, the corners are bumped and the color plates are missing, but otherwise it's in pefect condition. There three grades of book condition. 1-Fine - the book is in perfect condition. no flaws. 2. Very Good - slight problems, minor scuffing, etc., 3- Good - major flaws, but still readable. 4-Fair - book is in very bad shape, but still readable. There are sites on the net where you can get good descriptions of each condition. heres one: Link
A general rule about selling books expect to get about a quarter to a half of what the bookseller is going to sell the book for, not what the price is on the dust jacket of the book. Some books are more valuable to differnet booksellers. If you have a valuable book, it pays to shop the book around (not by phone, see number 4 above). There are certain books that we put on our 2 dollar table even though they are more valuable at other stores. It all depends upon each stores buying practicies and store theme.
Lastly, books are unique, but some books are more unique than others. It's these books that demand a high price because you can't find them easily and because the information they have is unique and unusual. Common books (usually best sellers) are not worth much to re-sell because there are so many of them out there.
Selling your books to a used bookstore doesn't have to be a mystifying experience. Most problems are due to ignorance and high-expectations. If you do some homework on your books before you sell them, you will have a better idea of what they are worth. And you can always call the bookstore you are going to sell to and ask them what kind of books they are buying. Better yet, go there and take a look at the books on their shelves. Fifteen minutes of browsing will give you a good idea of what kind of books the store is going to buy.
Iliad Bookshop Book Grading
Guide to Identifying First Editions