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On Book Collecting
Are you an accumulator 
or a collector?
by Diannek


Now that the seasons are changing, it might be time to clear out all that clutter that has accumulated around the house.  Maybe it's time to think about simplifying things.  How about starting with all those books?

Most of us buy books. That's not unusual. Books are everywhere. Amazon.com sells millions of books and those huge bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders couldn't stay in business if we didn't haul sackfuls of books out of their stores on a regular basis. A paperback book doesn't cost much -- maybe less than the price of a ticket to the movies. Read it and give it away, right? But of course, we don't always buy paperbacks. Sometimes we can't wait until the latest hot-read comes out in paperback. We want to read it now, so we buy the hardback. We buy gift books, cute books, cookbooks, text books, and so on, and as a result, there are books stacked all over the place in our homes and offices.

Is this a problem, you might ask? It only becomes a problem when we run out of space for all those books. At some point, maybe when we have to move or redecorate, we decide that we really have to get rid of some of them, if only to make room for the ones we're planning to buy next. So then the question becomes: which ones should we get rid of? I was pondering this very question when I read a slim paperback mystery called Booked to Die by John Dunning. The story was about a book scout--a person who buys used books to resell to used book dealers. Book scouts can tell the collectible books from the junk. And while Dunning's mystery goes through its paces, the reader also becomes more enlightened about the business of book collecting.

Here's a key point: book collectors make serious money buying and selling used books. People who are book accumulators spend serious money buying books without understanding how book collecting actually works. We don't know if our books have any value, nor do we really care. And that's just the way the book collectors want it to be.

Here's something else to think about. Look at all those books in your house. They take up lots of room, especially if you have actually devoted part of your house to a library area. Some people have bookcases filled with old dusty paperbacks, out-dated college texts, and ragged hardbacks with broken spines and torn edges. Why? There are lots of reasons people keep books around, you can't part with them, you want to show off how smart you are, you just love the look of books on a shelf. Whatever...

It doesn't matter if you have a whole room full of books, or just one or two bookcases, you are still a book accumulator. The books on those shelves take up just a much room, whether they are valuable first editions, or dog-eared paperbacks you loved and just can't stand to part with, although you know full-well that you will never read them again. Why do we hang on to those books? 

The person I've just described is a book accumulator. Sometimes book accumulators begin to feel guilty about the money they are spending and decide to do something about it. 

Sometimes they join those mail order book clubs because the books are cheaper. What most people don't know is that book club editions (bce's as they call them in the trade) are nearly worthless from the moment you purchase them. They are always more cheaply made than the original printings -- they are often smaller in overall size, and thinner, with cheaper paper and bindings. They feel different. A book scout can tell by simply picking up a book whether it's a book club edition or not. The bce publisher would just as soon you didn't know this information.

Other times book accumulators may just put off buying the hard cover book they really want until "later", and by the time they finally do buy it, it's been through any number of printings and the book has no collector's value, because the value is in the first edition of the book. The time to buy a hardcover is when it first comes out so you'll have a first edition. One of the first things you should learn is how to tell if a book is, in fact, a first edition. Sometimes it's tricky. You need a little education to figure out first editions.

It bothers me to find out that I've been spending my money foolishly. For example, I've purchased book club editions many times in my life. Or I've put off buying a book I really wanted, only to purchase it later and end up with a third edition instead of a first edition (and didn't know the difference anyhow). I have purchased paperbacks just to save a few dollars, when I knew they were books I wanted to keep on my library shelf. These are all mistakes.

How to become a book collector: The first thing to do is become more acquainted with the books you have already accumulated. Look closely at each one. Decide if it is something you want to have on your shelf taking up room permanently. Then ask yourself why it's important to you.

-You might have a sentimental attachment to it.
-You might want your family members to inherit it.
-You might think it's valuable.

These are all good reasons for collecting books.

Books with sentimental value are in a special category. Keep them, if you must. The other two categories deserve further scrutiny. If they are books that will be part of an inheritance, you are committed to keeping them, but it might be a good idea to find out if they are worth keeping.  If you are passing on worthless junk to your relatives, they'll just have to throw them all out anyhow.  Wouldn't it be smarter to give them a collection of valuable books, while you're at it?  I have been shown book collections that friends told me they inherited.  I truly didn't want to disappoint them by telling them they had inherited books with no economic value, only sentimental value ~ and unfortunately, sentimental value is hard to transfer from one person to the next.

Economic value, on the other hand, is easy to establish and is something that often grows from year to year like many other investments. Even though you may say that you aren't really interested in book collecting, remember one thing:  if a book comes into your home and takes up permanent residence, wouldn't you rather have a book that might grow in value rather than one that definitely will not?  The decision you make in the bookstore when you randomly choose one book over another could be the difference between zero value and  potential economic value.

For example, take the most prolific popular fiction writer on earth:  Stephen King.  If you had purchased first editions of all of his novels you would have a very nice, economically valuable, collection.  It seems like King novels are everywhere, but if you look on the bookstore shelves, they only carry the current best-sellers in hard cover. Old King hardbacks, if they are first editions in excellent condition, grow in value, especially his very early work (and that's true of every writer).. And another important thing to keep in mind is that 80% of a book's value lies with the dust jacket.  If that King volume's dust jacket is ripped or torn, the book loses most of its value.  The same goes for those notes you jot into books, don't do it. Those charming little Christmas dedications people add to books take away a great deal of their value.  The only handwriting of value in that King first edition is the author's signature.

So, how does a person learn about book collecting?
The easiest way is to read books about it. And one of the best books on the subject of book collecting for the beginner is called Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books, by Ian C. Ellis. This book guides you through the process of learning the economic value of a book. Even if you are not interested in buying and selling used and rare books, you should be aware of the process, because it is a big business and it is one that is going on around you all the time, often at your expense. Another book on book collecting was published in 2002, that is still on the market, is called Among the Gently Mad, by Nicholas A. Basbanes. This one gives you a great deal of background about book collecting in the 21st century.

There are many other books on the market about book collecting, and the next time you're in Borders or B&N you might spend a few minutes looking at them. You can find them in the "Collectibles" section. You might find illustrated books that show fine photographs of rare and old first editions, and you might also come across price guides that can help you determine the current value of first editions. However, these days it's not hard to find out the street value of used books on the internet. There are lots of resellers out there: to name a few, take a look at alibris, ebay, of course, and powells.com, which has a very nice collection of rare books.

Once you've done your homework and have learned the basics of identifying first editions and rare books, then you will never look at books the same way again. You will have joined that group of throwbacks who are just crazy about books. You may even want to go through your own book accumulation again and trade some books, replace others and give some others to charity, but this time, you'll have a better idea of how to go about it.

Remember that stack of books you want the children to inherit -- the ones with all that sentimental value? Take a second look at those after you've learned something about book collecting. You might want to replace them with copies that might eventually become more valuable in time. For example, I recently found a first edition of Crichton's Jurassic Park in excellent condition selling for $2 at a garage sale. I already had a copy at home but I wasn't sure if it was a first ed. I was glad I bought the first edition. My home edition was a hard copy "ninth printing", meaning it was only worth about $3. The first edition is worth about $40 and will continue to increase in value. So replacing the copies was a very good idea. And since I'm replacing one book with another one, I'm not wasting bookshelf space either. That two inches of space in my bookshelf is now worth more and will continue to gain economically.

Now that I know something about books, I'm fairly careful about what I buy. I still buy paperbacks on occasion and after I finish reading them, I usually take them to the used bookstore for trade-ins. I'm still not in the category of "serious" book collector so I don't spend huge sums of money buying rare books, but I always buy first editions when I purchase new books. And I do have a "favorite" category of book that I "collect" so eventually my first editions should be worth something to my children when they inherit them. I have given them special instructions not to toss out my books. They may be in for a surprise. At least I hope so.

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