Michael writes in with this question:
I want to know how to determine if I have a first edition book or not. I have several books, Black Beauty 1945 without any other copyright dates, I also have The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, without any dates but the one given, Darwin doesn’t even have a date of copyright. Where can I learn about old books and their value? Much appreciated if you can help.
This is really a two part question. How to find first editions and how to figure out what books are worth. I am a book collector, a book hoarder even, but I don’t give much thought to the value of my books, and I don’t particularly look for collectible books when I go out shopping, just cheap ones. Still, I have managed to pick up some knowledge about collecting over the years.
At the bookstore our rule of thumb for identifying first editions (and first printings – which are even more important) was to look for the numbers one through ten on the copyright page of the book – if all were present it supposedly indicated that the book was a 1st/1st; that is, a first edition/first printing. I was later told by a book collecting acquaintance that this technique is laughable at best since different publishers indicate the edition and printing of a book in different ways and that these methods have changed over the years. According to him, the only surefire way to properly identify editions and printings is using a guide. And apparently the best of these guides is Edward Zempel’s First Editions: A Guide to Identification, which contains listings by publisher and year.
As for assessing the value of your books. I have seen massive volumes dedicated to pricing books, but they are probably not worth the investment. Aside from the most high end and obscure stuff, a simple search on bookfinder.com will do the trick. This handy Web site aggregates the inventory of thousands of booksellers using various book listing services. Just type in title you’re looking for and see what that edition in a similar condition is going for. Once you know what the market is asking for your book, you have a good idea of approximately what your book might be worth. One last note: 99.9% of books, including paperbacks, book club editions and nearly all non-first edition hardcovers – aren’t worth much more than pocket change – unless, of course you decide to read them.
But like I said, I’m little more than a novice on this subject, so if anyone has any expertise they’d like to share, please press the comment button below.
Update: From the comment below, B Thomas suggests using Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions and Points of Issue, both by Bill McBride. “They are pocket-sized so you can take them to the bookstore with you.” Sounds pretty handy.