Some Terms and Attributes to Consider when Buying Old Books
editions (post-1800) are especially volatile in price because there are
so many copies of a given edition available and so many editions of
successful works were printed. Individual typographic differences
("points") among editions can determine whether a copy is a "first
edition," a "first printing of the first edition," or even "a first
state of the first printing of the first edition." The "firsts"
were all the books made with a given setting of type, including
stop-press corrections. "First printings" may differ from mere
"firsts" because when the printer decided demand was strong enough to
reprint without entirely resetting the type, points of difference can
emerge between a first or second printing (e.g., a publisher might add
a "blurb" announcement to the title page or dust jacket). Points
identifying early hand-press editions also exist, but copies from
individual printings often differ in many "points" from other
legitimate copies due to more frequent stop-press corrections.
the binding fresh and "as issued," or faded, spotted, sun-faded, etc.?
Is the interior of the book marked by former owners, which almost
always reduces asking prices except
when the former owners were famous and/or relevant to the author (e.g.,
Boccaccio's annotated manuscript copy of Virgil)? If the book was
issued with a publisher's binding (post-1825-30) or dust jacket, is the
binding or dust jacket present and in what condition? Have the
interior pages been browned by sun-exposure ("foxed"), creased, torn
(especially "with loss of text"), or otherwise damaged? Is the
entire text-block still squarely in line with the binding, or has it
sagged down toward the fore-edge ("cocked") from long vertical storage
on a bookshelf? In older hand-press books, have bookworms
attacked any pages and for how many pages does the damage run (also,
"with loss of text"?)?
owned by or inscribed by the author, friends of the author, other
authors, or famous persons, tend to command higher prices than unmarked
books. Old books which were heavily annotated by
intelligent readers from previous eras of history can be considered
more valuable if they shed light on previous readers' interpretations
of the text.
Some general rules: book
prices tend to rise over centuries, but they also can fall if the
collector marketplace is struck by war or economic panics.
Individual authors or types of books can attract astonishingly
inflated prices based solely upon an elite market demand (e.g., the
rage for Caxtons since about 1750, the pursuit of incunables since the
1600s, the market for individual press's output like the Aldines or
Elziveres). Book buyers may be mad, greedy speculators,
passionate fans, or just curious civilians, but all of their appetites
may be appealed to by booksellers' descriptions, which range from the
"scientific" (just the points and condition) to the "poetic"
(rhapsodies about the book's or author's importance to culture, etc.).
Beware the latter!