In the world of book collecting, one trend seems to recur: each generation’s literary favorites will someday become the collectibles adorning our bookshelves. Building up a collection of treasured tomes doesn’t need to centre around having a sizable budget. Anyone can become a collector – whether you’re seeking out first editions, work by a particular author or simply feel drawn to a book’s aesthetics.
The thrill of the hunt, increasing your knowledge and watching your shelves fill with books that matter to you are all reasons to start collecting, as well as acquiring a title that could accumulate value in years to come. The rare books market is booming, with multi-million dollar sales becoming more frequent and a rise in sales at major auction houses, rather than predominantly between dealers and clients.
There has been a renewed, nostalgic interest in children’s authors, and recent book auctions have focused on children’s, illustrated, and picture books. Top sales have featured editions by beloved authors Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter, among other acclaimed authors and illustrators of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Take the first edition of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” – titled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S. – that fetched $69,000 at a U.K. auction house in December 2023. The original was unearthed by the seller inside a bargain bin in a bookshop cafe in the Scottish Highlands, bought for the paltry sum of £10.
Seasoned bibliophiles around the world have flocked to win these rare editions of children’s and modern adult classics, but those who are new to collecting 19th- and 20th-century rare books may question where exactly to start. To help provide some guidance, we turned to Deborah Macke, manager of the London branch of Potterton Books, a bookseller of over 30 years which specializes in “books for inspiration”; Max Hasler, specialist in modern first editions at the recently established London-based Forum Auctions; and Cathy Marsden, specialist in Rare Books and Works on Paper at Lyon & Turnbull.
Tips for Starting Your Own Book Collection
Buy What You Love
The first piece of advice from each of our specialists was to make sure everything you buy speaks to you personally. Popular purchases that you think might make you a quick buck have their own karma and, as Hasler says, “They may stay on your bookshelf a lot longer than you expect!” If you purchase something you enjoy, you’ll offset any pressure to sell right away.
Decide on a Focus
Figure out where you want your pages to take you. Are you going all in with your favorite sci-fi book series, complete with captivating illustrations? Or are you on a mission to collect every book ever written by a specific author? Hone in on a collecting area and decide whether to categorize by genre, era, author, or topic.
Go Niche and do Your Research
Once you’ve found a field you love, get to know it intimately. The best way to research your niche, says Marsden, is to find a bibliography you can trust and use that as a guide. You can normally find reference to one of these in an auction catalog – a brilliant way to get your head around the collectibles market and start recognizing trends.
According to Hasler, there are some basic questions you should ask yourself when considering a new addition to your collection, especially if your goal is ultimately to offer it for resale:
- Why would another person want to buy it?
- Is it visually appealing?
- Is it unique?
- Was it illustrated by an artist/illustrator of note?
- Is it informative, or would it appeal to a niche area of interest?
- How old is it?
- Of what quality is the printing?
5. Set a Budget
Decide how much you can afford to spend on your new hobby across the year, and try to stick to that figure. It’s easy to get carried away at the sight of a much coveted, pristine collectible, but be patient and allocate your resources wisely. As with any investment, you might be in it for the long haul.
6. Know Where to Look
Online and offline, the options for would-be book collectors are huge. Look up all your local, rare book shops and become a regular visitor. It’s also worth delving into the stock at thrift and used book stores, as you could get lucky. Note down upcoming book fairs, auctions and estate sales, and subscribe to dealer newsletters that match your interests. And remember, most of the world’s leading auction houses now sell digitally, so bidding comfortably at home has never been easier.
7. Condition is Paramount
If you’re looking to resell, the importance of condition cannot be overstated. Up to 80 percent of the sale value of a book can depend upon the presence and condition of a dust jacket. So if you’re starting to collect, look for books with their original dust jackets, and try to find them in the best condition possible.
8. Keep an Eye Out for the Unique
Rarity is crucial to increasing value. Start by learning the basics behind identifying first editions, number lines, original dust jackets, advanced review copies, and more. A good place to begin learning is by exploring auction house sales results. You can also check out the latest edition of “Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values” by Allen and Patricia Ahearn.
While fully understanding what makes a particular 19th- or 20th-century book rare will come with years of experience as a book collector, it’s never too early to start learning the ropes.
9. Talk to Specialists at Bookstores and Auction Houses for Guidance
In the past, people often came to Potterton Books with questions, ready to take advice. But according to Macke, today’s customers come with fewer queries, perhaps because they believe they have discovered all they need to know online or are distrustful of advice in an era of free information. But, she adds, many specialists still come to Claire Jameson (the founder of Potterton Books) for help with rare and unusual finds.
Online platforms such as Invaluable offer advanced search functions that enable people to find exactly what it is they want. But, advises Hasler, if you don’t yet quite know what it is you’re looking for, then talking to the specialists at auction houses or bookstores directly can still inform and guide you toward unexpected gems.
Attending book fairs is also great way to familiarize yourself with the industry and help you to learn who operates in your niche. “Don’t be afraid to say hi! Everybody’s very friendly. They just want to talk about books!” says Marsden. “You don’t have to go to buy, but it’s good to get a feel for a range of books and a range of dealers from across the world,” says Hasler.
Traps for New Collectors
An Age-Old Question
One of the fallacies that often stumps new collectors is the “age = value” assumption. Hasler points out that since the advent of the Gutenberg Press, books have been printed in relative abundance. This means that a book up to 500 years old may not be as scarce, or as valuable, as you might hope. That being said, books dating back to 1450-1500 often prove to be of surprisingly great value.
Limit Your Limited Editions
As with old books, 20th-century limited editions may not prove as rare or sought after as one might assume. For example, notes Marsden, Harry Potter‘s first print run consisted of 500 hardback books. Although these were not officially marked or considered limited editions, Harry Potter aficionados are all too aware of their existence and rarity. Subsequent print runs of Harry Potter, marked “limited edition,” are still of lower value than the unmarked first editions.
Don’t Spend it All at Once
While buying the best quality you can afford is sage advice for the new collector, so is the slightly contradictory warning: “Don’t spend it all at once.” Buying too ambitiously can stilt your progress if you’re looking to build out a collection. Besides, it’s not exclusively about the biggest and best, as “there’s also something in the thrill of the chase,” suggests Hasler. In other words, you can also find joy in a niche discovery, regardless of its resale value, if it adds depth to your collection.
Predicting Future Collectible Authors
With a newly sparked interest in Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter following landmark anniversaries, Hasler predicts collector interest will surge for Harry Potter editions in 30-40 years (keep hold of your books, Potterheads!).
For the nostalgic folk looking to build out a collection of children’s books beyond Roald Dahl or Beatrix Potter, our specialists suggest tracking down the following authors and books:
- Edmund Dulac
- Arthur Rackham
- Ronald Searle’s ”Molesworth” and ”St. Trinians”
- A. Milne’s ”Winnie the Pooh” (Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for a full set of first editions with dust jackets)
How Much Does it Cost to Get Started in Book Collecting?
It all comes down to how much you’re prepared to set aside for collecting, and what you’ve decided to specialize in. You can start buying classic books from $10-$50 per purchase. If you’re dedicated to finding rare, first editions of classic novels for example, you will have to consider upping your budget. Otherwise, research the market value of some of your favorites and get started with your first purchase.
What is the Most Expensive Book Ever Sold?
“The Codex Leicester” – a leather-bound notebook dating back to the 16th century featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific notes and sketches – went under the hammer for $30.8 million in 1994, equivalent to $64.68 million today. The successful bidder was Bill Gates.
How to Care for Your Collection
To keep your books in optimal condition and prevent premature aging, make sure you dust them regularly with a soft paint brush or cloth. Minimize their exposure to direct sunlight, and consider investing in modern dust jackets with UV protection. Preserve your vintage editions by keeping an eye on temperature and humidity – the less exposure to the natural elements, the better.
Find copies of Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, and other influential authors’ works now on Invaluable.
Alexis holds a PhD in art history and has enjoyed professional roles across gallery, museum, and academic settings. Thanks to these myriad experiences, Alexis holds a wealth of knowledge across the fields of fine and decorative arts and enjoys every opportunity to share these insights along with the stories of these makers and objects with Invaluable collectors.