Buying and selling rare books

Here are a few suggestions on how to succeed when buying and selling rare books.

Selling rare books

Many people first encounter rare books by chance. You find a dusty box full of books in the corner of the attic; you spot a book that looks interesting in a car boot sale; you find that a relative has left you a family Bible. You may have questions about the contents of the book, or about its former owners, but you may also be interested in its value.

Priceless or worthless?

From time to time there are news stories about the discovery or sale of very valuable books. Although there are a small number of books which can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, you should not expect that your book will make you an instant fortune. You will need to do some checking first to see if it is worth anything at all.

Do your homework

Have a good look at the book to see what you can learn about it. Can you find the name of the author, the title, the place where it was published and the date of publication? This information may be on the cover, on the title-page, or even on a page at the back.

Check library catalogues

Use these details to search some online library catalogues (databases of books), to see if libraries have the book. You could try our own main catalogue or a multi-library catalogue like COPAC. This will hopefully tell you more about the book, and may give you an idea of how common it is. Take a note of what you find.

Check the dealers

Many bookdealers now use websites, so do some searches to see if there are other copies of your book for sale right now. If you find that your book appears to be worth something, think about anything that might affect the value of your particular copy. For example, if it is signed by the author or in a finely-decorated leather binding, it might be worth more; if it is missing pages, has been nibbled by mice or has ugly graffiti, it might be worth very little, unless it is truly rare.

How to sell

If you decide that your book is worth selling, we would strongly recommend that you go to a professional bookseller registered with the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. Some booksellers specialise in different kinds of books (e.g. children's books), and so might be better placed than others to sell your particular book. Bear in mind that bookdealers buy books in the expectation that they will be able to sell them for a higher price. It is a good idea to get at least two valuations.

If you have a large number of books to sell, you might consider sending them to auction, although you should still seek valuations first. The two main auction houses in Scotland are Lyon and Turnbull and Bonhams. Many people also sell books direct online through websites such as ebay.

Don't throw it away!

Nobody wants to buy your book? If you want to get rid of it, please consider other options. Many charity shops are keen to take books, and some libraries will accept donations of books they don't already have. The National Library of Scotland also accepts donations which are in line with our collection development policy. Even if your book seems uninteresting, there is probably someone who wants to read it!

Extra tips

We are often asked about the value of people's books. We cannot give formal valuations as a matter of policy, but we can try to help once you have tried the options suggested above.

Here are a few extra tips:

  1. Old does not mean valuable. Many people have 18th- or 19th-century Bibles; these are rarely of any significant value, as so many were produced.
  2. Beware of facsimiles. Sometimes books are published as exact, even photographic, copies of earlier, valuable books. An example is the first edition of the poems of Robert Burns, of which there are several facsimiles. You may need an expert to tell the copy from the original.
  3. Don't just judge a book by its cover. Sometimes people dispose of books because they look tatty or dirty. Often, rare books turn up in a worn condition. If the book really is rare and valuable, it may be worth contacting a conservation specialist to advise on the cost of restoration.

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Buying rare books

Do you fancy yourself as a book collector? There are many different kinds of book collectors. Some people collect books as reading matter, buying books on a subject that interests them or by a writer they enjoy. Others collect books as material objects, choosing them for their fine bindings, the quality of the printing, or because of their interesting former owners. Because of the variety of books, it is easily possible to start a small collection for a few pounds — or, at the other extreme, to spend millions on acquiring very rare and fine books. A good guide to book collecting and the terminology used is 'The ABC for Book Collectors' by John Carter and Nicolas Barker.

Do your background research

Much of the advice given to sellers above is also relevant to buyers. Do check the details of the book you want to buy to make sure it is what you want; do think about the condition of the copy; and do use a reputable bookseller. Sometimes it is possible to make a speculative purchase which turns out to be a bargain — but it is normally only possible to spot a bargain if you have done your homework first.

Getting serious

If you want to start collecting seriously, you will probably need to register with bookdealers specialising in your subject or area of interest. Many bookdealers will search out books for reliable clients and quote interesting books to you as they come on the market. If you have an unusual specialism, you may well be able to build up a good collection more easily. It's no good setting out to build up a collection of first editions of Shakespeare: the books just aren't available on the market. It is much easier and cheaper to collect, for example, 20th-century books on the Hebrides, or 19th-century books printed in Dublin.

Final points

It is fun to collect books, but bear in mind that they can take up a lot of space and can be heavy. People living in flats may need to check that their floors are up to supporting lots of full bookshelves. And don't even think about moving house …

That aside, it is a very rewarding hobby, which can provide hours of pleasure and possibly some profit. Good books do seem to be a reasonable investment — and as long as you are collecting books you also like to read, you will be able to enjoy them while their financial value increases.


Rare books for beginners

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