Book Collecting Guide

Book Collecting on a Budget

There is a famous quotation by the 13th century scholastic Erasmus, which - if you’ve been around books for any length of time - you’ve doubtless heard a thousand times over: “When I get a little money I buy books. If there’s anything left over, I eat.”

Unfortunately, the high prices commanded by the upper echelons of collection often suggest that the pursuit of book collecting will leave nothing left over to eat.

But, there’s good news for those of us on a more modest bibliophilic budget: there are ways we can both enjoy the pursuit of book collecting and manage to leave a little something to put bread on the table. We’ll cover a few tips in this article on how you can keep both your shelves and your belly full.

The trick, as with all things, is balance - and figuring out what is most important to you. With a few concessions, you can often fill that void in your collection with a copy or edition of a book that is as satisfying (or perhaps more so!) to own as the first printing -- at a fraction of the price:

Purchase later printings

The most collectible -- and therefore, expensive -- copy of a book is its first printing. Often however, a book will have gone into several later printings, the chief characteristics of which largely mirror the first printing. So, rather than a 1st printing of the Great Gatsby, which could set you back several thousands of dollars (even without the jacket; over $100,000 in a jacket), you might be able to find a slightly later printing (also published in 1925 and nearly identical in appearance) without a jacket for a few hundred dollars. While it may lack the glamour of a true first, it is almost certain to be a lively addition to your bookshelf.

Lesser conditions

As we’ve stated many times elsewhere, and as we’ll state again many times over: condition is everything. As one of the three most important characteristics of what determines a book’s value (the other two are scarcity and demand), condition can be a big factor in the price tag. For example, while a Fine/Fine copy of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian might fetch $4,000, if you were willing to make some sacrifices in condition, you might find a Very Good copy for $2,000 or less. But, be careful of the slippery slope: while the price gets lesser as the condition falls from Fine, so does this book’s collectibility and appeal. A good rule of thumb is that a book in less than Very Good condition is rarely worth your time (remember, good isn’t good) and you might consider some of the other options mentioned in this article for plugging that hole in your collection.

Other editions

Consider other editions of a book. While these later editions will almost never approach the full value and desirability of a first edition, many of them are actually much more visually and aesthetically appealing then the original first edition of a book and can be truly satisfying objects to have on your bookshelf. You can find alternate editions by using our advanced search and putting the author and title in the fields provided and adding the search terms highlighted below to the keywords field.

  • Limited Editions Club (LEC). Limited Editions Club issued very handsome, well produced reprints of important works from 1929 through the mid-century. These were often signed by the author and/or illustrator and were true limited editions, in the sense that they contained a statement of limitation.
  • First Edition Library (FEL). First Edition Library produced exact, facsimile replicas of famous first editions from the 19th and 20th centuries and sold them originally by subscription. Accurate to a fault, the only easily discernible different was a statement on the copyright page (which was otherwise a facsimile itself) that indicated it was a reprint by FEL.
  • Easton Press. Easton Press produces attractive, high quality leatherbound editions, often with gilt edges and gilt decorations on the boards. Sometimes these are reprints of earlier works, but often are limited signed editions released in advance of the trade firsts of more recent works.
  • Franklin Library. Similar to Easton Press, Franklin Press (aka Franklin Library) issues classic works in fine, leather bindings. However, Franklin Library can often be cheaper than its Easton Press cousin.
  • Golden Cockerel Press. A private British publishing house, Golden Cockerel issued beautiful editions of works, usually illustrated with woodcuts from some of the preeminent artists of the century. Sometimes these can be relatively affordable, however can in some cases become quite expensive.
  • Lakeside Classics. Published around Christmas since 1903, these are very attractive, fine press octavos that generally cover more historical material rather than fiction. In their own right, they have become highly collectible and are often sought specifically by collectors.
  • Modern Library. Published by Random House, earlier editions of these often diminutive books can be attractive fillers for your collection. If readability is a concern, however, you may want to shy away from Modern Library editions, as their size (usually 12mo or 16mo) often necessitates a smaller typeface. (however, in a few cases, the Modern Library edition is in fact the first edition!).
  • Folio Society. A British publishing house that reprints some of the great, classic works, including many multivolume sets. Usually attractively bound in cloth and housed in slipcases.
  • Heritage Press. Also issued by Folio Society, Heritage Press books were often produced from the same plates, with the same illustrators, but with simpler bindings and often cheaper than the Folio Society editions.
  • Other illustrated editions. Oftentimes, especially for classic works, there may be editions that have been illustrated by various illustrators, artists and photographers. The collectibility and price of these often depend on the notoriety of the artist, as well as the production quality of the book itself. For example, a first edition of Moby Dick is prohibitively expensive for most book collectors ($40,000 and up for a really nice copy), but Random House issued an amazing edition in 1930, illustrated by Rockwell Kent and highly prized, that can be found for less than $1,000.
  • Book club editions. In some cases, a collector might opt to purchase a book club edition to fill an otherwise unattainable hole in their collection. While book clubs are not commonly collectible or particularly valuable, there are some exceptions to this, particularly when the book club edition closely approximates the first edition -- and the first edition carries a prohibitive price tag. A notable example of this is J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, of which a first might cost $10,000 to $15,000. The first book club edition is therefore collectible as well owing to its much lower price and the fact that it is visually very similar to the first printing (and because it had Salinger’s photograph on the jacket, which he was loathe to have there). It can typically be had for several hundred dollars.
  • Hardcover editions. If the only copy of a book you have on the shelf is a paperback, or if you’re just looking for the most cost-effective entry point into collecting books you enjoy, purchase a hardcover edition. Even if it isn’t a first edition, a hardcover is more attractive and has more lasting appeal and durability than a paperback copy, and often just for a few dollars more than a paperback copy. This is typically the least expensive and easiest entry into book collecting for many newly minted collectors.
  • Paperback editions. It sounds counterintuitive, especially given the advice above, but paperbacks can be collectible, too, and sometimes one can enjoy collecting first or early paperback editions of otherwise expensive first editions. This is especially true of early pulp and science fiction books, which often featured stunning, fascinating or outrageous cover art. For example, a first edition of The Maltese Falcon will likely pull a thanksgiving meal or two off the table, but some of the early pulp editions can be had for less than $100.
  • Facsimile jackets. Another hybrid approach to collecting is to purchase the actual first edition, without a dust jacket (which can save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars) and purchase a separate, facsimile jacket to both preserve your book as well as to enhance its visual appeal on the shelf. Be certain that the jacket contains a statement somewhere indicating that it is a facsimile, otherwise it is considered a forgery.

Collecting for a lifetime

While you’ve assembled this first-rate collection, you don’t have to give up completely on the idea of eventually acquiring a signed first edition if that is your goal. Book collecting is, of course, a lifetime passion, and it can often take a lifetime to build your collection up to where you envision it. Always keep an eye out for upgrades to the copy you have. For example, you might have bought a nice modern hardcover of Gone With the Wind, in which case you can keep your eye out for an older edition in a dust jacket (just remember, old is not necessarily better and -- yes, you guessed it -- condition is everything. don’t trade out a fine modern copy in a jacket for a 1950’s copy in poor condition missing a dustjacket). Continually upgrade pieces of your collection as opportunity affords.

Collecting books for yourself or others doesn’t have to mean you have to choose between food and books. With a little patience and a keen eye for what characteristics are important to you in your collection, you can build an outstanding collection of books that reflects your personal individuality and passion on a modest budget.