Knowing Good Books When You See “Em! Part 1

Featured Guest Blog by Ed Augusts

Ed AugustsBased on a life-long interest in used and rare books, I would like to suggest what kinds of books to avoid. If you are buying?  Don’t buy ’em! If you are Selling? Good Luck!

First, EX-LIBRARY books are a real drag! If they were NEVER RETURNED to the library where they were checked-out, they should be returned, even if years have gone by.  Such books were stolen!  They should never be bought and sold. If they are legitimate “DISCARDS”, however, such as can be had at a Library Sale, and are often STAMPED as such,  they have to be about 80 years old to be worth more than a buck. That’s especially if they are all marked-up.  Books that were available for check-out at a public library are generally numbered on the spine, with accession info on the title page, and/or the edges, stamped, and/or with a ‘packet’ in the front or back inside covers, and so on.    (But you KNEW all that, right?)

Some libraries treat books more gently than others, however.  You may find some that are not disgusting to a collector.  Private library holdings — the odd collector who has numbered his books — are not so bad, especially if the collector is of interest, himself.  Often such books will have curious bookplates that tell us something about the former owner.  I have had books with bookplates by the likes of William Randolph Hearst and several Hollywood celebrities. Bookplates are often works of art, and the fact they were lovingly selected by a bibliophile makes them quite revealing about the person. One handsome bookplate identified an old medical book as having belonged to a man whose name sounded familiar, but I didn’t recognize it.  I “Google Searched” and discovered a big medical center had been named for him… Langley Porter! Needless to say the book was worth at least $20.00.

Books that have been in college or ecclesiastical libraries 100+ years ago actually have a certain ‘flavor’ from a few bookplates and a few light stampings,  and need not be tossed-out, they may be quite valuable.  I had a book in Latin, on vellum with calf covers, by Erasmus of Rotterdam that had been printed in Paris in 1531.  The book had been in several monastic and scholarly libraries over the centuries, and the markings inside the covers did not detract from the value in the slightest — in fact, they added interest!

But a big inscription when you open the covers that reads something like:  “To Randy on his Fifteenth Birthday from Mom and Dad, with Love,” detracts from value… unless you are a member of that family! 

Second, discard Book Club editions from serious consideration.  Often, if a person has one book club edition, they will have 500 book club editions, and if you are a buyer — DO NOT load-up on book club editions!  The front inside ‘flap’ of a book club dustjacket will clearly say ‘Book Club Edition’.  For books of the past 20 years or so, the back of the book and/or the dustjacket will have a series of numbers.  If a book is 40 or 50 years old, or older, but does not have a dustjacket, look for a little ‘dimple’ on the lower part of the back cover. The dimple is sometimes round, sometimes square. That is a dead-give-away that it is a Book Club edition.  Book club editions are worth only a few bucks, if in dust jackets, and practically worthless without dust jackets. (The presence of the dust jacker in ANY book, even a Club edition, raises its value to collectors by 200 to 500%.)

Thirdly, discard from consideration those books which have come out in HUGE editions, such as National Geographic books, TIME & LIFE series. unless you have the complete set.  SUNSET Travel books, common dictionaries and encyclopedias. There is nothing worse than having the “A–B” volume of a common encyclopedia that was once sold in supermarkets. The one EVERYBODY has is “A–B”. If you have any “set” of books, it may be worth something if the set is complete.  But if the books are numbered, and you are missing one or more of the numbers, then you have what is known as a “broken set”, which makes it worth maybe a buck a book or less — unless the set is at least 60 or 70 years old — or older, in which case there may be some value to the individual books in a broken set.

A Fourth Point to keep in mind:  PAPERBACK Romance Novels, Detective and Mystery stories, Thrillers & Spy Fiction,  Westerns, Horror,  etc., that have come out since the 1970’s, and were published by the big publishing houses, are so common as to hardly be worth keeping, unless you really LIKE the stories and want to read them again.   It is a different story with paperbacks made just 20 years earlier… in the 1950’s, for example. Dell, Ballantine, Ace, often had very interesting, sometimes sensational, cover art that makes them collector’s items.  The ones from the 1930’s and ’40’s are even better, and more valuable, too, of course!

on my list…   You’ve heard this about Real Estate  Location — Location — Location!  With books, its all about Condition — Condition — Condition!  You can’t force someone to buy a book with a tattered cover,  especially a paperback.  Nobody will want a book that has pages jumping out of it, or that Fido used as a chew-toy.

Some people love their books so much, they destroy them!   Don’t be like the professor who taught at a California University back in the 1980’s, who underscored and heavily annotated all his several thousand books.  He would do wacky things like circle the words “First Edition” and the year the book was printed, in INK, and make his own private Table of Contents on the front end papers or front paste-down of the book. He also loved to make cynical comments, as if he had a personal argument going on with the author of the book, and often drew big question marks on this page or that.  He even did all of this to books dating from the 1790’s!   His collection was sold, but for less than a TENTH of what it would have fetched if he hadn’t goofed-up his books!

I will continue this theme next time!  Hope you’re enjoying it!

Ed Augusts is the author of “Get Rich Buying at Yard Sales”

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