Coxsackie Antique Center

Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

Judging a Book by its Cover

by Bill Johns

We've all been told countless times that you can't judge a book by its cover. Like all aphorisms, sometimes that's true, and sometimes it's not. If you're looking at rows of books on grandma's shelves wondering how to glean the wheat from the chaff, you'd better learn to do some quick judging. And the cover is a good place to start.

Of course, we're not talking intrinsic value of the contents or readability here. We're just talking collectible value. There are still a few die-hard fanatics who actually want books to read. If you're one of them, then happily ignore all that follows and just look at the books to see if they look interesting.

First, assess condition. Condition is critical. Collectors want books in very good or better condition. If the book is truly rare and highly desirable, even a poor copy will have some value to a collector willing to restore it, but very few books fall into that category. If the book is water-stained, penciled or crayoned, has loose boards, has missing or torn pages, is badly faded from the sun, or is missing it's dust jacket, pass it by unless there is something really special about it - a very early Mark Twain, for instance.

A word about dust jackets. If a book was issued with a dust jacket, collectors want the dust jacket. A book without the dust jacket is worth only 1/4th to 1/2 what it would be with a "dj." Many people, even today, discard the dust jacket. They might as well throw away the book too (unless they want to read it.) On the very rare occasions when I actually try to read a book, I remove the dust jacket and set it aside somewhere safe so I won't tear it while reading the book. (Then I can't find it when I'm done with the book, but that's another story.) Dust jackets came into use very early in this century. It's a very rare book today that is issued without one. If it's a 20th century book, it almost certainly had a dust jacket. In describing a book, the seller will grade both the book and the jacket. "This is a near mint book in a slightly chipped dust jacket."

Second, look at the publisher. Some publishers are good and some aren't. If the publisher is Triangle or Blue Star, the book has very little value. These were both reprint companies that produced inexpensive editions of best sellers - comparable to today's paperback editions. Another ubiquitous reprint publisher is Reader's Digest. Their Condensed Books are worthless. They're not first editions, their not attractive, and they're not even the real book! Send them to the dumpster, or use them to heat your house.

Another prolific reprint publisher is Grossett & Dunlap. They're a little harder to evaluate. The vast majority of their books are reprints - though many are very nicely produced with wonderful illustrated covers. Those have a certain small value if in excellent condition. A few of their books are original works and worth a great deal. Until the 1930s they produce "photoplay" editions based on popular plays and movies, and printing pictures from the movie or play. In excellent condition, they are very collectible. The King Kong photoplay edition, for instance is worth well over $1,000. Another area where they issued first editions is in the juvenile category. Tom Swift and dozens of other juvenile series books have a strong collector following. They were also the original publisher for some of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books - Tarzan, John Carter, Pellucidar, etc. Some of those are worth hundreds of dollars. Finally, in the 1930s, they issued a series of art and children's books as first editions. Watch for them. So if its a G&D book of fiction in mediocre condition by a little known author and not a photoplay toss it aside. The handful that remain, save for further research.

The title is also a strong clue to value. Non-fiction will often have some value. The more specific the topic the more value the book MIGHT have. A book on Farming is worth something. A book on Bee Farming in Nebraska is worth a lot more. If the book is about a popular subject - Indians, baseball, railroads, etc. - then it might have resale value. If it's about a technical subject - steam engines, telephones, bicycles, etc. - it may have substantial value. On the other hand, religious books or grade school and college text books have almost no value. (But there are exceptions - most notably the "Dick and Jane" elementary readers. And some 19th century text books - geographies, for instance - also have some slight value if in EXCELLENT condition.)

Fiction has very limited appeal. 19th and early 20th century popular fiction, unless by a well know literary author, are worthless. How many people have heard of F. Marion Crawford? He was a prolific and very successful author at the turn of the century. Few have heard of him, even fewer want his books. Literary authors, however, as opposed to popular authors, can be very collectible - and the more obscure, the better. Of course, there's a conundrum. Is the author literarily obscure or merely deservedly forgotten? To tell who's who and who's not, memorize the table of contents of the Norton Anthology of Modern Literature.

In contemporary fiction, certain authors have become very hot. Early first editions by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, to name just a handful, can be worth hundreds of dollars. Of course those editions were printed in press runs of 10,000 or so books. Later editions by the same authors have press runs in the millions, so they will never attain the stratospheric prices of the early work. But on the other hand, they're certainly worth something because some people actually buy books to read!

We're making progress. Already we've discarded 80% of the books in Grandma's den - and we've haven't even had to pick a book up off the shelf.

Now, suppose we find one that sounds like it might have promise. What do we look for next?

Take it off the shelf and look at the dust jacket. Did grandma amass her huge library by joining the Book-of-the-Month Club? If she did, pack up and go home. Book Club editions are virtually worthless. But how can you tell if its a book club? Some book clubs are kind enough to tell us. It'll say "book club edition" or "selection of the literary guild" or something like that on the front dust jacket flap. Others will expose themselves by the lack of a price on the dust jacket. If it has a price, it's not a book club. If there's no price, then flip it over and look at the back cover. If there isn't a price there either, it's almost certainly a book club. Very few publishers produce books to give away free. A final check. Many book club editions will have a five or six digit number printed in a small white box, usually on the back cover. That is a book club code and a dead giveaway. What if there's no dust jacket? Then look at the back cover in the lower spine corner. You will often find an impressed symbol or letter. That impression means you've got a book club edition.

If the book is still in the running, open it and look at the copyright page. If it's a first edition by a collectible author or on a collectible subject, it might be worth something. Later printings have very little value. Many 20th century books will say "First Edition" (including some that aren't!) Many will list the printing. Only first printings have much value. "Gone with the Wind," issued in 1936 went through countless printings in a matter of months. Many a poor soul with a 1936 "first edition" is shattered to learn that the 42nd printing is not worth $2000.

Many books do not indicate the edition. The tricks to identification vary from publisher to publisher. There are whole books on how to recognize each publisher's firsts. Here are a few tips. If the copyright date matches the date on the title page, it MIGHT be a first. If the copyright page contains an A under the copyright, it MIGHT be a first. If the date is different or the letter is B or Z, it's probably not a first. There is a final trick of the trade. In recent books an obscure row of numbers is to be found on the copyright page, reading something like this - 87 88 89 90 91 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. What this obtuse code means is that the book is a 1987 1st printing. When the plates are sent to the printer for a 2nd printing, the printer will remove the "1" at the end of the line (unless he forgets to do it!) If it's a new year, he'll also remove the 87 at the beginning of the line. This system is now widely used and aids in identifying recent firsts. Beyond these few clues, you need to carefully research any suspected first editions to determine what you have and what it's value might be. (more on that in future articles.)

A final important factor to consider is age. Old is not an indicator of value. They've been printing books for 500 years. For most of that time, they were highly prized possession, carefully protected and preserved. Only in the last hundred years did they start making books from materials that seriously degrade with age. Therefore, many old books survive to fill up Grandma's shelves. For most old books, the only thing rarer than the book is someone who wants it. American Tract Society books are old. Some are attractive. A few are even interesting. But no one collects them. They have almost no value (Unless it's a book about missionary activity in the Sandwich Islands or Bechuanaland or someplace else exotic and collectible.)

So, in conclusion, with these thumbnail rules, we can eliminate 95% of the books on Grandma's shelves. And that leaves us with enough time to carefully evaluate the remaining 5% that MIGHT have some collectible value.

© 1997-2002 Coxsackie Antique Center

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