Introduction to Book Collecting

Book Collecting

By Allen and Patricia Ahearn
Copyright 1999 by Allen and Patricia Ahearn
Used with permission.


Book collectors start as readers. This may seem obvious but is important to keep in mind, for the majority of book collectors collect authors or subjects that they are currently reading or have read and enjoyed. In fact, perhaps “enjoyed” is really not descriptive enough. Collectors do not just enjoy these books; they feel an affinity with the author and admire the author as one of the best in the field. The author expresses the collector’s thoughts and inchoate insights and expresses them in ways the collector would if he or she had the talent, or takes him or her to a time and place the collector is interested in or to a setting that removes the collector from his or her current world and cares.

Book readers become book collectors when they find that books have become important as objects that they wish to own, admire, and enjoy at their leisure. This is an important point, for most readers are content with reading a library copy or a paperback reprint and have no desire to go beyond this point. In order to understand the drive of a book collector, one must understand that most are attracted to book collecting for three reasons: the true enjoyment or fun of the search, the love of the book as an object, and the economics or investment potential. From our experience with collectors-and most dealers for that matter-all three motivations exist in varying degrees.

For the Fun of It
To us, book collecting seems to be more enjoyable than other collecting hobbies because the scope is broad and the availability of material is large. We haven’t done any research, but we suspect that the quantity, variety, and availability far exceeds any other collecting field, such as stamps, coins, glassware, or furniture.

In his book The Book-Collecting Game, A. Edward Newton puts it as well as anyone has:

“Book collecting. It’s a great game. Anybody with ordinary intelligence can play it: there are, indeed, people who think that it takes no brains at all; their opinion may be ignored. No great amount of money is required, unless one becomes very ambitious. It can be played at home or abroad, alone or in company. It can even be played by correspondence. Everyone playing it can make his own rules-and change them during the progress of the game. It is not considered cricket to do this in other games.”

In his Modern Book Collecting for the Impecunious Amateur, Herbert Faulkner West describes collectors in general thus:

“Some collectors desire beetles, while others have divergent and decided propensities for empty bottles, full bottles… silhouettes, tea caddies… horseshoes, guns, stuffed owls, stuffed animals, stuffed shirts, candlesticks, trademarks, first editions… Although it is quite evident that collectors are not entirely “all there,” I have always found them to be nice, harmless people, whom any of my readers could invite home without danger of being disinherited.”

And from Book-Collecting as a Hobby, by P. H. Muir:

“Book-collecting is not exclusively a hobby for rich and leisured people. It is less a matter of money than of method. I know many people of quite modest means who have gathered valuable and important collections with no greater expenditure than casual book buying might entail.”

The point is that the greatest pleasure for the collector is in the chase, and if you can afford to buy an occasional new book, you can also afford to buy an occasional old book.

Books as Objects
It would seem that the transition from reader to collector occurs when the book itself is perceived as an object, akin to art perhaps. Certainly, if you are going to pay $25 or $50 for a first edition when you could borrow a copy from the library or purchase a paperback reprint for $5.95 (and up), you have bought an object that you want to own and actually look at occasionally, just as you want to own an original painting or a signed limited print when there are copies available at significantly lower prices.

Economics & Investment
When we started buying first editions years ago, the decision was based (rationalized) on a simple fact. If we bought a reprint or book club edition of a book by an author whose work we believed would stand the test of time, we knew that the most we could ever get for it when we sold it was a dollar or perhaps even less, if it was wanted at all. Whereas if we bought a first edition, we believed we would always be able to get back one half of the cost, and there was a good chance that we might eventually get all of our cost back and even more. Therefore, if we were going to buy a copy of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey at $4, and we had a choice between a first and second printing, obviously we would buy a first. The economics of buying the second printing made absolutely no sense to us. But admittedly, we enjoyed owning a first edition of the book as an object on our shelves, because we had made the transition from readers to collectors. Today a first edition of Franny and Zooey is selling for $150.

Now the second step was a bit harder. We’d enjoyed Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and wanted a hardbound copy, but a first edition in the early 1960s was selling for $15 or $20, four to ten times what a hardback reprint would cost. A lot of money at the time, at least in our circumstances, but there still seemed little choice, given our feelings about the importance of the book, so we sprang for it. It turned out to be a good investment relative to the purchase of a reprint. Today a nice copy of Catcher is selling for $2,500. Whether it was a good investment relative to other investments, such as stock or real estate, is certainly questionable, but we wouldn’t have made those investments anyway, so it’s a moot point for us.

Three things seem clear to us:

1. Two people can buy the same titles over a ten-year period and each accumulate a library of 500 volumes, fifty a year, a book a week on average, and the person who was selective as to edition and condition will have a collection that is worth considerably more than the other, probably at no greater overall cost. It is no secret that very good to fine copies of recent books turn up on antiquarian bookstore shelves, as remainders in new book bookstores, or at book sales for a fraction of their published price.

2. We are talking about a relatively long period of time, probably five years at a minimum and more likely ten to twenty years, for real growth in value.

3. Collectors can set their own financial limits. They can spend $100 or $100,000 a year or anything between. They can collect books that few people are currently collecting and are low priced, or go for the big-name authors and “high spots,” where the competition is the keenest and the prices reflect it.

In summary, if you are looking for a good investment for the short term, don’t buy books, but if you want to spend a certain amount of money for books, or already spend a certain amount for books every year, we believe that a collection of good books will not only give you pleasure over the years but will also not disappoint you or your heirs when the time comes to sell them.


This article first appeared in Book Collecting 2000: A Comprehensive Guide, by Allen and Patricia Ahearn, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, Copyright 1999. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the authors.