October 1999

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Judging A Book By Its Cover, Part 1

By Bill Johns

October 1999 issue of Trustee

We've all been told countless times that you can't judge a book by its cover. Like all aphorisms, sometimes that's true, and sometimes it's not. If you're looking at rows of books on grandma's shelves wondering how to glean the wheat from the chaff, you'd better learn to do some quick judging. And the cover is a good place to start.

Of course, we're not talking intrinsic value of the contents or readability here. We're just talking collectable value. There are still a few die-hard fanatics who actually want books to read. If you're one of them, then happily ignore all that follows and just look at the books to see if they look interesting.

First, assess condition. Condition is critical. Collectors want books in very good or better condition. If the book is truly rare and highly desirable, even a poor copy will have some value to a collector willing to restore it, but very few books fall into that category. If the book is water-stained, penciled or crayoned, has loose boards, has missing or torn pages, is badly faded from the sun, or is missing its dust jacket, pass it by unless there is something really special about it -- a very early Mark Twain, for instance.

A word about dust jackets. If a book was issued with a dust jacket, collectors want the dust jacket. A book without the dust jacket is worth only 1/4 to 1/2 what it would be with a "dj." Many people, even today, discard the dust jacket. They might as well throw away the book too (unless they want to read it,) On the very rare occasions when I actually try to read a book, I remove the dust jacket and set it aside somewhere safe so I won't tear it while reading the book. (Then I can't find it when I'm done with the book , but that's another story.) Dust jackets came into use very early in this century. It's a very rare book today that is issued without one. If it's a 20th century book, it almost certainly had a dust jacket. In describing a book, the seller will grade both the book and the jacket. "This is a near mint book in a slightly chipped dust jacket."

Second, look at the publisher. Some publishers are good and some aren't. If the publisher is Triangle or Blue Star, the book has very little value. These were both reprint companies that produced inexpensive editions of best sellers - comparable to today's paperback editions. Another ubiquitous reprint publisher is Reader's Digest. Their Condensed Books are worthless. They're not first editions, they are not attractive, and they are not even the real book! Send them to the dumpster, or use them to heat your house.

Another prolific reprint publisher is Grossett & Dunlap. They're a little harder to evaluate. The vast majority of their books are reprints -- though many are very nicely produced with wonderful illustrated covers. Those have a certain small value if in excellent condition. A few of their books are original works and worth a great deal. Until the 1930s they produced "photoplay" editions based on popular plays and movies, and printing pictures from the movie or play. In excellent condition, they are very collectable. The King Kong photoplay edition, for instance, is worth well over $1,000.00. Another area where they issued first editions is in the juvenile category. Tom Swift and dozens of other juvenile series books have a strong collector following. They were also the original publisher for some of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books -- Tarzan, John Carter, Pellucidar, etc. Some of those are worth hundreds of dollars. Finally, in the 1930s, they issued a series of art and children's books as first editions. Watch for them. So if it's a G&D book of fiction in mediocre condition by a little known author and not a photoplay toss it aside. The handful that remains, save for further research.

The title is also a strong clue to value. Non-fiction will often have some value. The more specific the topic the more value the book MIGHT have. A book on farming is worth something. A book on bee farming in Nebraska is worth a lot more. If the book is about a popular subject -- Indians, baseball, railroads, etc. -- then it might have resale value. If it's about a technical subject -- steam engines, telephones, bicycles etc. -- it may have substantial value. On the other hand, religious books or grade school and college text books have almost no value. (But there are exceptions - most notably the "Dick and Jane" elementary readers. And some 19th century text books -- geographies, for instance -- also have some slight value if in EXCELLENT condition.)

Fiction has very little appeal. 19th and 20th century popular fiction, unless by a well known literary author, are worthless. How many people have heard of F. Marion Crawford? He was a prolific and very successful author at the turn of the century. Few have heard of him, even fewer want his books. Literary authors, however, as opposed to popular authors, can be collectible - and the more obscure, the better. Of course, there's a conundrum. Is the author literally obscure or merely deservedly forgotten? To tell who's who and who's not, memorize the table of contents of the Norton Anthology of Modern Literature.

In contemporary fiction, certain authors have become very hot. Early first editions by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, to name just a handful, can be worth hundreds of dollars. Of course those editions were printed in press runs of 10,000 or so books. Later editions by the same authors have press runs in the millions, so they will never attain the stratospheric prices of the early work. But on the other hand, they're certainly worth something because some people actually buy books to read.

We're making progress. Already we've discarded 80% of the books in Grandma's den -- and we haven't even had to pick a book up off the shelf.

… Part 2 - Continued in the next issue of TRUSTEE

Copyright, 1998, Coxsackie Antique Center (Bill Johns, author of this article, is co-proprietor with his wife, Diane, of the Coxsackie Antique Center in West Coxsackie, NY)

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