Judging a book by its cover: How to evaluate First Editions

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Every book collector wants to get their hands on some famous first editions, but there are a whole host of factors that you need to take into account when you try to work out the value of a book.  Not all first editions are created equal, and evaluation goes well beyond age and rarity. You also need to weigh up the popularity of the author and the significance of the work, not to mention the presence of a signature or inscription.

But before we get into the details, the first challenge is to establish that the book you have really is a first edition. Book collectors and the publishing industry don’t always see eye to eye on this front. Collectors will accept nothing less than the very first printing of the first edition of the book. Whereas it’s not unusual for publishers to use the “first edition” term for reprints that have not been altered. For international releases, it’s also important to consider where the book was published first.

In any case, the copyright page should contain the information you need to establish whether it’s a true first edition. You’re looking for the words First Edition, First Printing, First Published, or perhaps First Impression. For books that were published after World War II, you should be able to find a Printer’s Key that will tell you the print run, however different publishers have adopted different codes. If it’s a 1-to-10 numbering system then you need the 1 to be present, or it’s likely not a true first edition.

You may assume that all first editions are valuable, but they’re not. Consumer demand is perhaps the most important thing, and authors and their works do go in and out of fashion for various reasons.

Enormous print runs produced an abundance of certain titles, and we all know scarcity generally pushes values up. You also have to consider the condition of the book. A tattered, shabby book in poor physical condition is never going to command as high a price as a pristine title.

There’s also a stringent grading system for books that determines their value, with grades that range from Very Fine, all the way down to Poor/Fair. Even a new book straight out of the box may not secure the top grading, as the smallest defect is enough to spoil its chances. At the other end of the scale, books with loose or dirty pages, and notes written in the margin, are unlikely to attract much attention.

To truly evaluate the worth of a first edition, a fair amount of work and analysis has to be done. Enservio Select specialty valuation services can help.

For more details on the topic of first edition books, please turn the page to my article published in Claims Journal, “Using Key Value Factors to Evaluate First Edition & Rare Books”.

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