What makes a book valuable?

A little note on value, for what it’s worth. 

For most books, there are rules that apply. The alphabet soup of exceptions I will get to later. For now, a bit about just the vowels: Author, Edition, Illustration, Overall condition, and the Uniqueness. 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was an American writer


Some authors are valuable as a book of the moment. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird,   her one novel of impact published in 1960 still resonates in American culture over half a century later. Some are valued for books that create great change to science or politics Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 A century and a half later global politics and science are still impacted by the words these authors put to paper. A few have moved the masses and stood the test of time to become a valued and collected part of human culture. Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies first published in 1623, ('' The First Folio”), when illiteracy was the norm and reading a luxury. Shakespeare’s works contributed dramatically to the standardization of grammar, spelling, and vocabulary and thus to the overall popularity of all books in the past 500 years.


   Who printed the book and when impacts the value to readers and collectors alike. A first edition is the most desired as well as being likely to be the smallest edition, creating value through high demand and low supply. Even a popular modern writer such as JK Rowling had a debut. A 500 copy hardcover launch of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ( American Edition Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) is now valued in the $45,000 range. The second book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had high demand, a large supply of first editions, they value under $5,000 each in pristine condition.

  Some editions are valuable because they were the first printing of a certain topic or language or the first book printed by a particular publisher,  or in a particular place.  Occasionally later editions will have additional text, author changes, or new illustrations that increase the value. An edition published for the first time in a new language is desirable even if it is a later edition. The first novel in Western literature, Don Quixote was first published in Spanish, part one in 1605 and part two in 1615. The first English edition was published in 1675. Both editions are valued in the six-figure range with provenance.

Illustration and Illumination.

  To shed a little light on illumination; think of these as handwritten books or early printed books with text that decorative initials, borders, and miniature illustrations. Shiny, bright, colorful, and pleasing images amongst the content. The flourishes, designs, and art can include precious metals such as gold or silver and date back over 1000 years. These works are often valued and collected as art as well as literature. An 800-year-old copy of The Gospels of Henry the Lion, considered by art experts to be one of the world's finest and most perfectly preserved illuminated manuscripts, set a record for books and art prices in 1983 by selling at auction for 11.8 million dollars. By contrast, single pages of more common 13th century illuminated manuscripts can be had for a reasonable one to two hundred dollars.

An illustrated edition of the same author's work can be illustrated by artists, amateurs, the author themselves as well as in a variety of sizes, qualities, and styles. Value can vary widely based on the illustrations of any work. JRR Tolkien created his own cartography and illustrations for his Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit. Later American editions were illustrated by Barbara Remington who had in fact not yet read the works the art was created to illustrate. Both types are collected and valued for very different reasons.


 Then there are special art illustrated editions of popular, famous, and at times controversial works. These are valued highly by art, literature, culture, and investment collectors.

Ulysses  by James Joyce  — Illustrated 1935 edition by Henri Matisse. Only 1,500 copies ever printed, 250 of which were signed by both the artist and author. Signed copies when available sell for $20,000-$25,000 depending on market conditions.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll  — Illustrated in 1969 by Salvador Dalí

  12 heliogravures* of  bold color and surrealist imagery as the name Salvador Dalí promises to deliver.  The original book selling for 1000s of dollars;  a 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been released, complete with Dalí’s illustrations is easier to find and more reasonably priced at $45 in very fine used condition.  * Heliogravure is a photographic printing process with remarkable consistency to the artist’s original work.


  The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, Illustrated by Édouard Manet in 1875

In 1875 Édouard Manet, a leading French impressionist, made a series of lithographs for a translation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven".  

 Manet was a French modernist painter. His work moved from Realism through Impressionism. Recognized slowly for his genius and contributions, bills were paid in his lifetime by applying his artful talents to any commission, to the joy of readers, Poe fans, and art lovers to this day.

Manet version of the Raven linked below:

You can view it here https://www.openculture.com/2015/05/edouard-manet-illustrates-edgar-allan-poes-the-raven.html

For comparison see

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, Illustrated by Gustave Doré 1884

A popular and in-demand 19th-century artist, Gustave Doré made his name illustrating works by such authors as  Balzac, Milton, and Dante. In the 1860s, he created a beloved memorable edition  of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, as well as  completing a set of engravings for an 1866 English Bible.

Dore’ version of the Raven linked below:

You can view it here https://www.openculture.com/2014/04/gustave-dores-splendid-illustrations-of-edgar-allan-poes-the-raven-1884.html


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, current trends in art will impact the desirability of some art illustrated editions, thus impacting the market value. If you enjoy it, then it is worth more to you!

1st Edition with Illustrations by DORE
Rare Edition of Shakespeare coming to au

Overall condition:

Condition is complicated. I use the term overall condition to help enforce the concept that it is never just one thing that downgrades a value. Here I recommend looking for three C’s  :


Complete - Condition matters; cover, spine and all pages should be complete and secure, without tears, losses, and dog-eared corners.  A missing flyleaf ( tissue paper ) or torn blank page still counts but is less of an issue than any missing text or illustration. Complete matters. A book published in multiple parts, with additional color plates, maps, or illustrations, or inserts should be complete to fulfill the potential value. The Green Mile by Stephen King is a  serial novel and so it is only desirable if offered in a complete edition. Covers matter. If your hardcover book was published in the 20th century then it may have a dust jacket, the newer the book the more likely it had one. Dust jackets can make or break the value of a desirable edition. For example The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:1925 First Edition:  with intact very fine dust jacket  $26,000.00, with very damaged dust jacket $10,635.00, with no dust jacket $6,000.00. All these amounts were realized at auction within a few years of each other.

Clean – You know what clean is. Cleanliness is next to completeness in value. Some very light dust, light foxing, and or shelf wear are typical and acceptable to all but the highest end of collections. Odor, stains, watermarks, damp warp, mildew, and crayon scribbles are rarely acceptable to any collection, even in children’s books.



In the context of age and use for this book has it been handled and stored reasonably, poorly, or remarkably well. Bindings only became somewhat uniform in the late 1890s, distinguishing condition is much more complicated in 19th century and older books. Books in their original binding are more valuable than those that have been re-bound even when both editions are complete. An older 18th-century book, such as Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719), is going to be worth more in a worn yet original calf binding versus a pristine rebound Morocco leather cover on the same text. A more modern example:  An Audubon book used for occasional reference printed in 1910, versus a teen novel printed in 1942 on wartime resources. The newer book started off in worse condition due to cheaper materials. The older book was a luxury reading item at the time of publication. The condition expectation for each must account for these factors.

Asking a professional to determine the condition is always recommended, as exceptions can be made for older books, rare books, or current high-demand editions.



Unique or Unusual


The unique and unusual appeal to book collectors across many levels of interest, genres, disciplines, and investment. Timeless classic subjects presented in new, unique, and or unusual ways increase the value. The generationally popular classics are produced in massive size editions, copies of Winnie the Pooh by  A. A. Milne is found in most households. However, a deluxe copy, a leather-bound copy with art illustrations, or a signed copy would make the usual, ordinary edition of this book a unique copy. A copy of Winnie the Pooh that had been owned by the author's son  Christopher Robin Milne (21 August 1920 – 20 April 1996)  the basis of the character Christopher Robin in his father's Winnie-the-Pooh stories would become a treasured Unique and unusual one of a kind edition of a book that otherwise might have little value. 

Autographs, inscriptions, provenance from a known collection or person all can add a unique desirable element for a collector. Another consideration is the subject matter and here obscure can be as valuable as popular. A rare text on an often-ignored subject in print such as Pajeot Violin Bow Makers of the 18th and 19th centuries by Sidney Bowden becomes the holy grail for a collector of books on the art of string instrument creation or the curator of a museum collection on 18th-century instruments.


Lastly, the unique and unusual fluctuations in the book world market are enigmatic to those outside its sphere and still hard to read for those of us at its core. A good book is like a good friend. I value them all. However, each book and each buyer are individuals. I enjoy meeting them both as well as making new introductions. Looking forward to meeting you and your friends!


Sincerely, Niki