Book collecting: 5 top tips for new book collectors

Strahov Library Prague 20
Strahov Library, Prague

Why do people collect books?

Collecting is instinctive. Most likely, our ancestors managed to accumulate scarce objects that helped them to survive, and through the miracle of natural selection, they went on to have more offspring, who also had a propensity to ‘collect’. People collect all sorts of things – the Guinness World Records site recognises collectors of traffic cones, air sickness bags, owl paraphernalia and even belly button lint. Kinda puts our libraries back in perspective, doesn’t it?

Anyway, people collect books for all sorts of different reasons. Some do it to increase their knowledge, some enjoy the aesthetics of illustrations, some love the feeling of nostalgia from a vintage collection, others do it for social connection, or even the thrill of the hunt or competitive challenge. Of course, some collect books as an investment, and many people do it for a combination of all of these reasons. A book collection can be the enjoyable work of a lifetime.

By the way, if you want to feel better about your own overflowing shelves, spare a thought for John Q Benham of Indiana. He owns the largest ‘private book collection’ in the world at the moment with over 1.5 million books that have filled his house, his six-car garage, a separate two-storey building and are even piled up outside under tarpaulins.

1. What should I collect?

Collect what you love! Some people build collections based on their favorite genre (children’s books, fantasy, or science, or mystery), or a time period that fascinates them (e.g. Victorian England), or a topic (e.g. baseball), or an author, a title, or even a publisher (e.g. the Folio Society).

Others (like me) collect all sorts of different things that take their fancy – I have lots of mini-collections, such as different interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, and books that contain removable ephemera like letters you can pull out and read.

However, a good piece of advice is to collect with intention if you can. That means having an idea of what sort of books you would like to have in your personal library, and spending some time working out which copies, or titles, best fit that ideal. There are so many books out there, and more are being published every day. So if you let yourself be driven by the latest ‘Instagrammable’ find that everyone else is buying you will soon be broke, and out of shelf space. Be selective about which books you bring into your home. I run this website because I think book aesthetics matter – content, obviously, is king, but I read plenty of books just for fun on my e-reader. I want my physical books to bring me joy – special bindings, pretty covers, clever hidden details, incredible illustrations, and made to last.

2. How do I make money collecting books?

Let me be brutally honest here – collecting books as an investment is pretty risky. Sure, someone got rich selling their first edition of Harry Potter or the signed Jane Austen they found in their attic. Some collections go under the auction hammer for very substantial sums. But many more people found they spent a lot of money for a book that was popular a few years ago, and now they can’t even give it away. Take my advice and collect for personal enjoyment.

But I really want to get rich selling books!
Okay, so you really want to make it as a book reseller. Good for you! I recommend picking a market segment that interests you and getting quite knowledgeable about it. Track prices on eBay (click the heart button next to your search results to get regular emails) to learn what’s reasonable, and what’s popular or scarce. If you know what you are looking for, you can often find bargains on eBay if the seller doesn’t realise that a particular edition is sought after and lists it poorly – so search the listing contents not just titles.

Make sure you buy the book in at least very good condition. Try to get first editions, even better first printings. Special editions are sought-after too. On the other hand, ex-library books, books with annotations or bookplates, or books that smell are likely to be worth much less than you are hoping for. Dust jackets can add a significant amount to the value of a book too. Grabbing free limited preorder incentives prior to publication is another great way to add value to your future sales.

A great time to sell a title is when the author is in the news, there’s a celebration coming up (prices spike before Valentine’s Day and Christmas), or if it has just been adapted for screen because a whole new audience has discovered the work. If you have a rare volume and plenty of time, try finding a book community that collects that book (e.g. through facebook, or a discussion forum, or a website like this one) and let them what you have. There is more likely to be someone there who will know (and be willing to pay) what the book is worth. Otherwise, eBay or a good second-hand book store are decent options as well. Good luck!

Don’t worry – I am collecting for my offspring, so they can sell it and get rich.
Hmmm. Don’t expect your offspring to value your collection quite the way you do. I personally do cherish the books I inherited from my grandmother. But I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen who are trying to offload huge collections they don’t know what to do with. And it can be hard, because the only other people who will really value the collection are other collectors, who likely already have duplicate copies of many of the books. They may pay top dollar for something particularly rare, but the rest of the collection is then unlikely to be of much value once you take out the rare pieces.

Why are you so negative about making money with my collection?
Sorry if I do come off a bit negative here! You can absolutely make money collecting books and many people do. But if that’s your plan, it will need some work and you should think about approaching it appropriately like a job. However, if you focus on collecting books you personally enjoy then you will ensure happiness first, and any money later on will be a bonus!

3. Is it booking hoarding or collecting?

Haha, hoarding vs collecting is usually judged through the eye of the beholder (so please don’t look at my groaning shelves unless you’re a fellow collector!). But medically speaking, yes there is a difference. Both collectors and hoarders are attached to their books, they acquire a lot of them, and they are reluctant to discard them. However, hoarders typically suffer some type of impairment from the clutter they accumulate. Collectors, on the other hand, are more focussed in what they add to their shelves (choosing particular genres, or authors, etc, not just ‘books’ for the sake of it), they are more selective (often planning what they are going to purchase), and they are also more likely to organise and catalogue their possessions.

So it’s actually a good sign that you’re so obsessive about having your books in alphabetical order, or lining that series up in publication order, or creating a rainbow display. Doctors say so.

4. I’m poor, how can I build a nice book collection/personal library?

First of all, remember that you don’t need to collect physical books if you want to read a lot of nice books. Project Gutenberg has many many thousands of free ebooks, including most of the classics. Libraries have all the latest releases and lots of backlists that you can read for free. Make use of these resources to help you find out what sorts of books are your personal passion.

But if you like having physical books in your space (like me!) then there are also lots of ways to save money. Choosing to collect books that aren’t expensive are a good start (e.g. a vintage series like the Junior Deluxe Editions is delightful, and most of the volumes are super cheap; Barnes & Noble’s collectible leather-bound classics often go on sale as 2-for-1 and they look fantastic on the bookshelf). Buying second hand is another excellent avenue – either online (I use Abes) or in a charity shop. Pre-orders are often sold at a discount, as are hardbacks right before the paperback edition is released. I also have a whole page with tips on how to find fancy books here.

5. Is book collecting worth it?

Building a personal library of beloved tomes should definitely be something that brings you intangible joy. That may come from the reassurance of always having something handy to read, the pleasure of having beautiful and meaningful bookshelves, or the thrill of the chase – there is a feeling of excitement when you track down a missing volume to complete a collection, or have an opportunity to show off a lucky find to a fellow bibliophile.

However, I do recommend finding a bibliophile to show off your book purchases – otherwise you may instead be the recipient of incredulous horror at where you are spending your money. Share your excitement here if you like – my little niche of the internet is very understanding of book joy!

1 Comment

MG · 12 August 2022 at 4:56 am

Your entire website has helped me a lot. I was so lucky to come across it!
Thank u.

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