By Marc Ramsey.
So why do some books have value, and others do not? We get calls on a weekly basis from people wanting to sell us what they think are their treasures, found in an attic, an estate or library sale, or on Granddad’s shelves. More often than not, we are offered books that the seller really doesn’t know much about and has no personal relationship with, and therefore can’t explain to uswhy they think the book might be worth something to someone else. But these days, more often than ever it seems, thanks to the Antiques Road Show, Pawn Stars, the tough economy, and news items about Batman or Superman comic books fetching a million bucks each at auction, everyone seems to think that the mother lode is just within reach and might be right around the corner. And though that might be a rare possibility, the fact is that the world is awash in books, and has been for many centuries. Most really aren’t worth much in terms of resale, and consequently, we wind up turning away far more than we ever purchase.
Our shop specializes in military titles, especially new, used, and very rare books on and from the American Civil War period. This is the world we live in, the world of the history book, and after 25 years in the business, generating a monthly catalog and selling books at numerous shows, conferences, on the internet, and in our store, we’ve come up with a basic formula that we feel is a reliable guide on just exactly why books might have value, and why we can expect to sell certain ones in our particular market.
Content, Quantity, Condition, the three Maxims.
First and foremost, Content: a book has got to have something important between the covers; a unique perspective, original source material not found elsewhere, good writing, rare images and maps, expert analysis, a veteran’s well-crafted memoir or journal, expert editing, an interesting and informative introduction or forward, extensive rosters, etc.
Then comes Quantity: how many of this title were printed, how many survive, how many are out there in the market at this moment? If it was mass produced, as were so many Civil War books, then and now, the value on the resale market will be limited. However, if it is a first edition, signed by the author, then the quantity of that particular volume would be limited, and thus it might indeed have value. If it was a book privately printed for the author’s family and he saw serious action or had service in a famous command, like Hood’s Texas Brigade, and there are only a few known to survive, then there is the likelihood of that book having serious value. It’s easy to understand that the mass produced trade paperback version of the memoirs of Gen. E.P. Alexander would not be as important to the collector as the original printing of his "Military Memoirs of a Confederate,” first edition, signed by the author (oh joy to find such a rare copy!).
Then thirdly comes Condition: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard ‘Well, it’s in good shape for an old book, the covers are coming off and the pages are falling out, but it’s in great shape, considering its age.” Not! The better the condition, the higher the value, the worse the condition, the lower the value; no excuses, no apologies. If it smells of tobacco smoke, especially these days, it has serious condition issues. If the lettering on the spine is faded or gone, if it has spotting or stains, it has serious condition issues, and if the book has been home to scurrying little wormy critters, well, you get the point. If it’s signed by somebody important, but it’s a wreck, then the value is that of the autograph, and not the poor old book. Simply put, a book needs to be in something approaching its original condition to realize its best value. Just like a classic car, my old ’67 Corvette Stingray for instance, the presence of replacement parts affects the value. New end papers, rebacked spine, rebinding and the like, will help preserve the book, but will affect the value to some degree downward. On those happy occasions that a volume with important content, of very limited quantity, bright spine and in fine, close to original condition comes along, then you’ve gotten our attention, because now we do indeed have something of value, and something which is likely to fetch a good price in the Civil War book market.
There are also other factors, falling within these parameters, which can contribute to or detract from value. A key consideration is the dust jacket. If a book was originally issued with a paper cover, then the presence of the jacket today, and the better its condition, is a key determinate of value. The fact is that the older the book, the higher the percentage of its worth is determined by the presence of the dust jacket and the jacket’s condition. A book published in the early 1900’s for instance, can be worth two to three times as much with its original dust jacket than without. A more recent title almost always must have the dust jacket in fine condition in order to be sold at all on the second hand book market. Certain prime and rare reference books "may” be an exception to this rule.
First editions are another element that adds a premium to a book’s worth; of course determining a true first edition can be a challenge, and a risk. A bookseller who misidentifies the first edition of a certain title, but labels it as such, is likely to lose customers and credibility in short order. But if a true first edition of an important book in fine condition can be properly identified and offered for sale, it will likely sell quickly, and at a good price. Once again important reference works can be an exception, if they are offered in subsequent editions with expanded content. However, even here a hard core collector will be likely to prefer finding the first edition of this title for his library, especially if it is signed by the author (s). And on the subject of autographs, please be aware that a book that is signed, that is, just presenting the author’s signature, and maybe a date or simple greeting like "Best wishes” is far preferable to a book that is inscribed to a certain individual. If I am buying a book, especially if it is a gift, I don’t generally care to see a dedication to some former owner, unless it is someone famous, "This book is lovingly dedicated from the author to my best Gal, Signed Jefferson Davis, Pres., CSA.” That would be okay, I think it’s safe to say.
Civil War books of certain categories may also have a special appeal to the collector, researcher, or serious reader. Books such as those excellent titles produced by the Neale Publishing Company around the turn of the century (19th to 20th) are still highly sought after, especially if they are in fine condition, which, unfortunately for these lovely works, is seldom the case. Also books that are named in Richard Barksdale Harwell’s "In Tall Cotton, the 200 Most Important Confederate Books...” form a category around which numerous serious collections are still being built at this time. Books by certain noted and popular authors, such as Clifford Dowdey or Douglas Southall Freeman carry an extra measure of desirability. Freeman’s Confederate Bookshelf in his "The South to Posterity” is another fine guide to the best of Confederate literature. Then there are the unit histories, north and south, the earlier ones most often produced by and often signed by veterans, and the more recent ones produced with the benefit of modern research and constructing more accurate rosters. The rarer ones tend to be Southern, and fetch the highest dollar, while among the more numerous Northern regimentals can be found serious collector’s items that are much sought after almost regardless of price. Finally, there is the category of books that I have watched progress from new, or slightly used, when I first started reading about the Civil War, to today, when many are now true collector’s items. These are the books published during the Civil War Centennial years of 1961-65, along with a number of works that were penned in the decades just before, an era of remarkable publishing and publishers, and of authors who could really write. Plus the artwork on the dust jackets of these little jewels is unique and exciting, and unlike anything produced today. (If anyone has a fine-plus copy of Eckenrode and Conrad’s "James Longstreet, Lee’s War Horse,” please give me a call!).
So now we know what books have value, and why, but exactly how do we determine realistic pricing. In our world, we price conservatively, as we are in it for the long haul and strive for an active turnover of stock. Others are happy to shoot for the stratosphere, and set a price that will almost insure that the book will gather dust while awaiting that rare "Price is no Object” kind of customer. If you have gone to the internet and observed the wide range of prices for the same titles in like condition, you have seen what I mean; an asking price can be very different than a selling price. Our method is first based upon what we paid for it, and secondly, what we sold it for last time. There was a time that Civil war books, like real estate, appreciated in value every year at an almost predictable rate. No more. Except for the true rarity, a first edition signed by an author or veteran, or a general’s autobiography in pristine condition, prices are currently holding steady, and will probably remain so for some time. That is why the best price guide still on the market, in my opinion, is that by Tom Broadfoot, "Civil War Books, A Priced Checklist With Advice, Fifth Edition.” It is sixteen years old at this writing, but it is a great place to start, and not too far off in most cases, in spite of the passage of time. It is also an excellent aid to identifying first editions, and determining the number of printings a certain title has enjoyed. Then, AbeBooks or Alibris on the internet might be consulted, at least to find out what certain known and reputable dealers are selling the same titles for, and how many copies might actually be available. Spending as much time as possible comparing prices at bookshops, conferences, Civil War shows, and antiquarian book fairs is also a good idea, and always a productive and enjoyable way for the bibliophile to deepen his knowledge, and maybe even get lucky from time to time. My advice when pricing a book that you actually want to turn into currency of the realm is to find the average price for a particular title, and then price your copy somewhere below that. Finally, when in doubt, think about asking an expert, another bookseller, or maybe an appraiser. Many of us don’t really charge very much, and we always love to share our opinions. The bottom line is, price the books to sell, not to keep, and be happy with a modest markup.
Of course we have been discussing retail values, with an eye to selling to the general public. If, on the other hand, you think about selling to a book shop or book dealer, be prepared to negotiate a wholesale price, which can vary widely depending, once again, upon the content, quantity, and condition of the book or collection involved; what kind of books, how many, and what kind of shape they’re in, to say nothing of the predilections of the particular book buyer with whom you are hoping to do business. To sum up, once again, the true value of a book is the price that it is likely to sell for in the current second hand book market, either wholesale or retail.
Happy Hunting, and I hope this has been a help.
Marc is the co-owner of Owens & Ramsey Booksellers and the author of
The 7th South Carolina Cavalry, to the Defense of Richmond,