What makes a book collectible?

How to start building your rare book collection

For many of us, books are a source of great pleasure. Hunting down a first edition or signed copy of your favourite novel and being able to hold it in your hands and admire it whenever you want is a particular joy. Certain rare books can also be worth a tidy sum, so it’s understandable that you might want to turn your collector’s passion into an alternative investment.

Pom Harrington, owner of antiquarian book dealers Peter Harrington, describes rare books as a “passion investment” that is ideally pursued for the love of books rather than more traditional money-making goals. “I think it's a good choice of words,” he says. “There's no question that we can look at the history of how the rare book market has changed over the years. Lots of things have gone up. Some things have gone up tremendously. There's been some very strong growth. But it's also subject to fashion.”

One of the draws of investing in rare books is that they are tangible – you can hold them in your hands and enjoy them. “It's not just a digit on the end of the balance sheet,” says Harrington. He takes great pleasure in showing guests his Roald Dahl collection, particularly the author’s first book, with an inscription to Dahl’s beloved mother. “I buy Roald Dahl because I thought they're undervalued as much as anything else,” he explains. “I happen to think Roald Dahl will be great in 20 years time. I did start buying 20 years ago, mind you.”

So what makes a book rare – and valuable? Unsurprisingly, the scarcity and uniqueness of the book is key. First editions and original bindings, signatures or inscriptions by the author or a famous owner are factors that can make a book more valuable. For instance, a first edition of David Copperfield might fetch around £1,500, but a copy signed by Charles Dickens could sell for £100,000 or more.

Completeness is also very important. “If it's missing a leaf, missing a page, it really destroys the value,” says Harrington. He warns against going for a cheaper but inferior copy of a desired book and thinking you are getting a bargain. “You know, it could be a 17th century edition of Don Quixote in English – and I've seen this done. You can buy a beautiful copy for £5,000 and I've watched someone go and pay £2,500 for a copy that was beaten up and eaten by a dog or something. When it comes to selling it, it's not so easy. But the beautiful copy, sure, no problem. Often people have to learn the hard way.”

The wild card in terms of the value of rare books is desirability. Trends change, and while research and skill may sometimes help in staying ahead of them, there will always be an element of luck. It can be surprising what can affect demand for a book. Even geopolitical events can come into it – the unrest in the Middle East has seen a decrease in tourism in Egypt, which has led to a drop in demand for a once very popular travelogue by 19th century illustrator, traveller and painter David Roberts. What once reminded people of their own travels no longer retains the same resonance.

Desirability can also be affected by major movie adaptations – and their success (or lack thereof). Demand for rare J.R.R. Tolkien books rocketed thanks to the popularity of the Lord of the Rings films, but while the Narnia adaptations caused a bump in sales of C.S. Lewis books, the movies were less well received and demand for his books quickly tapered off. “It's only now, 10 years on from the movies that things have recovered and C.S. Lewis is flying under his own steam,” says Harrington. “Again, that's fashion's influence on popularity.”

For these reasons, the value of newer books can be harder to anticipate. Scarcity remains a key factor. Books that receive short initial print runs like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and, most famously, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and then go on to gain a huge following can be extremely valuable, but that future popularity is almost impossible to predict. If that were otherwise, publishers would be printing more copies in the first place.

If you want advice or to get a particular book valued, UK booksellers’ accredited body is the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association (ABA), of which Harrington is currently the president. “Anyone who's a part of the ABA is bound by the code of ethics,” he says. “That really is the gold standard. If you find a dealer who is a member, then they know what they're talking about.”

The best guide to building your rare book collection is to follow your passion, rather than trying to guess what will be popular with others in the future. “I think people who buy dispassionately – they just buy something because they think it might be a good thing – tend to be wrong, frankly,” says Harrington. Liquidity can be an issue with rare books, but if you buy quality books that you really love, you’re more likely to be able to find a buyer further down the line. “Follow your heart about what you think is great. Buy the best you can afford – that will serve you well.”

American Express and Platinum Card branding with 'Don't live life without it' strapline

Spend for the future

The Platinum Card from American Express allows you to save as you spend, earning you a Membership Rewards® point for every £1 you spend on your Card. Your points can be used to pay for almost any item on your Card Statement – including a beautiful first edition of your favourite book – and they never expire, so you can save them up and spend them when the time is right.

What's more, The Platinum Card also offers over 30 travel and lifestyle benefits, including airport lounge access, worldwide travel insurance, as well as a 24/7 Concierge service that can book you dinner out or an action-packed holiday away where you can read and relax.

For more information and to apply for The Platinum Card, click here.

Annual fee: £575. Terms and conditions apply.

Important information 

If you’d prefer a Card without any rewards, other features or a Cardmembership fee, an alternative is available – the Basic Card. Go to americanexpress.com/uk/basic-card for more information. Applicants must be 18 or over. Approval is subject to status, and Terms and Conditions apply.

Membership Rewards points are not earned on balance transfers, cash advances, American Express travellers cheque purchases, foreign exchange, fees and interest charges for returned payments, finance charges, late payment and referral charges, fees/charges including joining, annual and Membership Rewards fees. Membership Rewards Terms and Conditions apply to all Membership Rewards points redemptions. Visit americanexpress.com/uk/mr-terms.

For full Terms and Conditions of The Platinum Card, please visit americanexpress.co.uk/platinum

Promoter: American Express Services Europe Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

This article does not constitute personal advice and is not a personal recommendation on the specific products mentioned. If you’re not sure whether an investment of this type is right for you, please seek advice from suitable financial advisers who will be able to advise based on your personal circumstances. If you choose to invest, the value of your investment could be at risk and fall, so you could get back less than the amount you put in originally.

Investing in books is not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.


The $15m violins up for auction
Alternative investments

The $15m violins up for auction

Instruments from Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri – the “da Vincis of violins” – are fetching stellar prices at auction.
17 May 2022
Collectables: the scramble for blue diamonds
Silver and other precious metals

Collectables: the scramble for blue diamonds

Coloured diamonds are securing bigger prices at auction, says Chris Carter
3 May 2022
The race to put art on the moon
Alternative investments

The race to put art on the moon

Two space cadets are hoping for a big pay day by putting works of art on the moon. Chris Carter reports
28 Apr 2022
Why investors may need to pivot from ESG towards carbon-intensive industries
ESG investing

Why investors may need to pivot from ESG towards carbon-intensive industries

Investors have been keen to show their green credentials by shunning carbon-intensive industries. The cost of that virtue signalling is now becoming a…
1 Apr 2022

Most Popular

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?
Share tips

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?

Tobacco company Imperial Brands boasts an impressive dividend yield, and the shares look cheap. But investors should beware, says Rupert Hargreaves. H…
20 May 2022
Everything is collapsing at once – here’s what to do about it
Investment strategy

Everything is collapsing at once – here’s what to do about it

Equity and bond markets are crashing, while inflation destroys the value of cash. Merryn Somerset Webb looks at where investors can turn to protect th…
23 May 2022
Barry Norris: we’re already in the 1970s. Here’s how to invest
Investment strategy

Barry Norris: we’re already in the 1970s. Here’s how to invest

Merryn talks to Barry Norris of Argonaut capital about the parallels between now and the 1970s; the transition to “green” energy; and the one sector w…
19 May 2022