How To Invest in Antique Books * Investor Insights

How To Invest in Antique Books

By Susan Lassiter-Lyons | Alternatives

Mar 22

Do you consider yourself a bibliophile? Do you smell books when you first buy them new?

Or, perhaps more relevant, do you want to earn back a return on your investment in a luxury good no matter what the economic environment?

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, I want to tell you about one of the best luxury markets in the business: Antique books!

I've invested in books for several years – first editions and signed, first editions – and have a lot of fun going to book shows and estate sales.

I've found some pretty spectacular antique books. Here are a couple that stand out…

I have a first edition of Oscar Wilde's “De Profundis” that I picked up for $12 at an estate sale. It's worth $850. 

I have a signed, first edition of Truman Capote's “In Cold Blood” that I picked up for about $500 at a book show several years ago. It's worth $2,750.00.

I have a first edition of Margaret Mitchell's “Gone With the Wind” that I picked up at a garage sale many years ago for $2. It's worth $7,500.

That's just three from my personal collection of first editions.

The crown jewel in the collection is a very well-known book by my favorite author. My wife doesn't like me to share the details of that one publicly, so I'll keep it to myself.

Just know that if you do it right, you can acquire a very valuable collection of antique books.

But wait—what about e-readers and ebooks?

I know what you’re thinking: Are books still worth any money in an age where we have so much access to digital books?

The short answer is absolutely yes.

In fact, the very advent of technology and books may have pushed antique books to be worth even more than they otherwise would have been.

Modern books are transient, impermanent.

Books that were created back when they could break down due to less resistant materials (or even have parts of them thrown away) are rarer and rarer today.

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And as every investor knows, rarity equates to value.

Out of all the luxury goods, books may be one of the most resilient.

The worth of a vintage guitar may fluctuate depending on if someone is capable of playing it.

But if you can read, you can still get the full value out of a book.

It may also be because a rare book isn’t necessarily dependent on supply.

There may be dozens of editions of Moby Dick out in the world. But if you find a first edition copy, that will still be worth a lot of money. It’s still the first!

Plan for preservation and later profits.

Books aren’t something you can sell in a hurry.

You may have to hunt for the perfect buyer for a certain volume you picked up.

One expert suggests holding on to books for at least fourteen years—you’ll be able to ride out the boom and bust cycles and see what it’s really worth.

Books can suffer damage, and you’ll have to take care of them if you want something that will be a good investment down the line.

If you come across an antique book you love and decide to bring it home from the dealer, you’ll probably want to keep it out of direct sunlight AND out of the reach of kids and pets.

Don’t read it too often if at all, so you don’t risk damaging it. All these rules are extra applicable to original manuscripts!

Your book’s worth may surprise you!

When it comes to rare books, publication history matters nearly as much (if not more) than the book’s name and author.

If a book is popular, it’s more likely to been printed several times and in several iterations. That means less value for your particular edition!

One of the best online resources for checking the worth of rare books is AbeBooks.

That's the site from which I posted the screenshots above.

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If you’re contemplating the purchase of a rare book, check the worth here before you make your purchase.

It’s not a foolproof system. But it’ll give you an idea of the landscape and the potential versions of your book that may exist in the current marketplace.

Don’t pick a rare book for your collection just because it’s a popular book. It should be a popular book that had a limited number of publishing runs.

Better yet, try collecting books that you yourself like. Even when the market slows down, you’ll still be happy with your purchase.

That's why I target books and authors I love. I can't imagine selling any of my books – I actually bequeathed the collection to one of my heirs.

The rules of luxury investment still apply.

As with every luxury and unusual investment we’ve discussed here before, you need to be careful and watchful when you invest in antique books.

It’s not like investing in stocks at all.

It’s a totally different market with a different set of rules.

You won’t get rich overnight, and you definitely won’t get rich assuming your knowledge of a similar luxury market will carry you through.

Rules, by the way, which can totally be different depending on the book.

Even if you own a first edition of something, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a ton of money for it because of that.

Maybe the fourth edition is where the author made a bunch of changes and that’s the one that’s worth investing it.

Maybe your particular book contains a few mistakes that make it even more valuable!

Be sure to research your local market and experts when first starting out in antique book collecting.

When I was researching this article, I was amazed by how much I heard this over and over again: “Just ask questions.”

It’s an incredibly friendly market for new people to enter. So if you’re at all interested in books, feel free to jump in at your next antique book fair.

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