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Investing in Literature

Updated on April 22, 2015
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Joyce Davis was born in Detroit, MI on March 27, 1959. She has a Bachelor's Degree Journalism from Cal Poly University in Pomona, CA

You love reading novels. On the night stand next to your bed are copies of not one, not two, but of three of the latest bestsellers you can't wait to devour. In your den, a tall shelf is lined with books--from classics to contemporary. Most are paperbacks, but there are few hardbacks too. Every year, you add to the stack. Reading is your pastime. Curling up with a good book is what you look forward to, especially on rainy days. In fact, not a month goes by without your imagination being stimulated by the words of a good fantasy, romance, thriller; mystery or science fiction transporting you to another world, a world you can only see in your mind. The funny thing is, although you've kept every book you have ever read, you don't consider yourself a book collector. Well, that maybe true. But only when it comes to the resell value of your novels. That bookshelf in your den and your passion definitely makes you a book collector. So why not turn your pastime into an investment and start stacking your shelf with collectible literature.

No! You don't have to change the type of books you read if that's what you're wondering. Is it expensive? It can be, but not if you follow the advice given by collectors in this article. None of them are rich, and yet, they've been collecting books for years. If you read on, you will also learn:

  1. why others became collectors
  2. What makes a book collectible
  3. How to tell if a book is a First Edition
  4. How to keep cost down
  5. How to protect your investment


Why Others Are Collectors

When Shelly Lewis (not her real name) started collecting books in 1992, she knew nothing about It. It all began when she stumbled upon an 1899 copy of Cabin and Field by Paul Laurence Dunbar in a garage sale. An elderly man sold her the book for $150. Today it's worth at least $450 or more and her collection has grown to include the works of Charles Waddell Chestnut, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison; Alice Walker, Walter Mosley and Terry McMillan. For C.E. Moondance, the interest in book collecting was sparked when he was a boy growing up in Memphis, Tenn. Blacks in the 50's in his hometown weren't allowed to visit the library but once a week. That experience taught him a vital lesson--"if you want access to information, it's best to own it."

Moondance and Lewis meet with other collectors and attend book signings and book fairs together. It gives them the opportunity to share their love and passion of books. But book collecting is more than just buying any ole copy of a novel and stacking on your shelf. A book is only considered collectible if it meets certain criteria. Here are a few basic guidelines you need to know to get started.

Start Buying First Editions

The first thing you should know is that serious collectors collect only First Editions. The exception is a book that is so rare that any edition is desirable. The first printing of a book is the first edition. Hardback books are preferred over paperbacks because of its permanence and better ink and paper quality. Hardbacks are also printed with paper covers called dust jackets. A first edition without a dust jacket is worth considerably less. In contrast, paperbacks are printed on cheaper paper with no dust jacket and are far less durable, becoming frayed over time. There are two more reasons why 1st printings are preferred:

  1. Editorial changes may have been made in the 2nd and 3rd editions, making the first edition the true original.
  2. The limited number of first edition printings also increases its value.

Condition isn't Everything, It's Everything

Even the value of a 1st print of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (note the title difference) is dependent on it's condition. Serious collectors won't buy a first print with dog-eared, yellowing or torn pages. First editions that solicit the highest price are in mint condition. Mint condition is almost like new. A book's condition is judged on the following scale:

The Better the Condition, the Higher the Price

Very Good

Paperbacks Quickly Become Worn and Torn

Starting Your Own Collection

Collecting older books by literary legends like Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck are not only hard to find but expensive. It's cheaper and easier to start with contemporary authors who have published in the last five years. The secret to keeping cost down is to shop around. "Shop used and discount bookstores and mail order catalogs first," says Lewis. "Nowadays, many major chains sell new releases for 10 to 15 percent off the retail price." A good source for older books is your local library. Many libraries will auction rare books that have been donated to them.

By John Carter & Nicolas Barker

Identifying First Editions

Since different publishers use different codes to distinguish a 1st print from later printings, beginning collectors may find it difficult to tell if a book really is a first edition. Print identifications commonly appear on the copyright or title page. Some simply state "first edition," while others list numbers in order like this: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. If the copy is not a first printing, the number '1' is dropped from the sequence. If you buy as soon as the book hits the store, it's more likely to be a first edition. For more information read, The Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions, by Bill McBride.


Collect Authors You Enjoy

The first rule of collecting is to choose authors and topics you enjoy reading rather than buying just for the investment. The value of a 1st print, like any other merchandise, is determined by supply and demand. While popular books generally cost more, the market fluctuates.

"A collectible book this year may not be as popular next year. A book you purchased for $10 two years ago, may become collectible and now be worth $50. So really, there's no wrong choice," says Lewis.

Increasing Your Book's Value

An author's signature will enhance a book's value depending on the fame of the writer, how rare the book is, and whether the writer is living or deceased. For contemporary writers, the price may increase anywhere from $10 to $25. Anyone lucky enough to own a signed copy of The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison can expect at least a $200 increase, if not higher. It's the only book the author wrote which is why it's worth more.

Don't have books inscribed to you, warns Moondance. The author's name is all that's needed. The ideal collector's copy looks like it belongs to whoever owns it. Bookstores frequently sponsor book signings. Check your local newspapers, particularly the Sunday Calender section for dates and authors.

Protecting Your Investment

To keep their collection in mint condition, most collectors never read their first edition and protect them with see thru acetate book covers. That means they usually buy two copies--a 1st print and a later edition, known as the reading copy.

Whether or not your collection is protected under your homeowners or rental insurance depends on your policy. It's best to check. If it's not covered, you will need to buy additional insurance. In case of property loss or theft, keep an accurate list of your books along with receipts in a safe place and take photos of your collection. makes recording your collection easy with database software you can download. You can even download a trial for free. Here's the link:




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    • PDwriter profile image

      Priyadarshi 2 years ago from India

      Passion for literature and passion for collecting things are two different things.

      You have offered an interesting dimension towards colleting books for the sake of satisfying literature craving (and additional benefit of returns in investment) in some folks.

      I almost constantly thought of "Hoarding disorder", or "Compulsive hoarding" while reading your article, until you mentioned about increasing the book value and protecting investments! Ha!

      Interesting insights, thanks for the good read.