What makes a book collectible?

How to start building your rare book collection

bookcase full of old leather-bound books

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.”

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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.”

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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.