A first edition could be a gift to bank on

First edition books are an ideal present for anyone who loves reading and collecting. What's more, as an asset class like wine or art, they're the gift that could potentially keep on giving.

First edition books are an ideal present for anyone who loves reading and collecting, and is an asset class of its own. While prices for wine and art have gone through the roof in recent years, first editions remain good value. 

What is a first edition? Among the blurb on the reverse of a book's title page, the words First Edition, or a line of numbers containing the digit 1, may be present. This means it is the first printing (print run) of the book. If a change needs to be made to its content, or the first run sells out, a second print run can follow.

Collectors like firsts' as they are usually printed in smaller quantities and become rarer and more valuable. Who would have guessed that a book about a boy wizard would end up being worth tens of thousands of pounds? That is what happened to J K Rowling's first book in 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which had a first printing of only 500 or so. Copies now sell for upwards of £10,000, and if signed by Rowling that price could double.

But you don't have to part with that kind of money for most first editions. Many can be bought for as little as £20. The key, increasingly, is buying books signed by the author, which can instantly push up the value, depending on how often the author appears in public.  

So which first editions should you buy? Look for authors who have both a popular and cult following and always buy signed books if possible. Reclusive Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is currently one of the most popular authors with collectors anything signed by him is very desirable.

Many publishers nowadays also offer limited editions, usually numbered and signed. Popular among these are Terry Pratchett special editions and autobiographies by sports stars and musicians (Eric Clapton's signed autobiography cost £50 new but is worth hundreds now).

When buying, go to a reputable online bookdealer such as First State Books or TimCK Books, or if you prefer browsing, try Adrian Harrington, 64a Kensington Church Street, London W8 4DB.

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