The concept of rarity in book collecting is tricky. While many novice collectors might believe rarity is the most important element in assessing a book’s value or worth, seasoned collectors understand rarity is in fact one of the more insignificant elements in judging what a volume is worth or its place in the landscape of rare books. The murky nature of rarity in book collecting stems to some degree from the ill defined character of the term. Essentially, rarity is too nebulous and relative a term for book sellers and collectors to base any substantive, concrete value.
However, because the idea of rarity has a certain cache or currency in book collecting, a number of myths have arisen and been propagated throughout the book collecting industry about the intrinsic value of rarity and its influence on accurately judging a volume’s value. These myths can be quite detrimental to the book collecting experience and can lead collectors down hazardous paths in their book collecting journey.
With this in mind, let’s examine a handful of myths and concepts surrounding the idea of rarity in book collecting and how collectors can avoid the pitfalls of these myths in creating their collections.
Myth: Rarity = Value
Perhaps the most common and damaging myth about rarity in book collecting is that rarity automatically equals value—essentially, the more rare a volume is has a direct correlation to the price point assigned to that volume. To illustrate the false equivalency behind this relationship, let’s take the idea of a tenth edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Finding a tenth edition of this novel might certainly be a rare occurrence, however, does this mean this volume has a greater price point attached to it because tenth editions of the novel are scarce in the book collecting landscape? No. While a tenth printing of the novel might in fact be rare, such an edition does not possess any other significant characteristics to enhance its value. As you can see, rare does not necessarily mean valuable.
Myth: No link to demand
Whereas the relationship between rarity and overall value is something of a false one, there is a strong and critical link between the notion of rarity and demand. If demand for a certain volume is high, the value of that book based on the rare quotient will certainly increase. For example, let’s imagine an important global political figure was assassinated and this political figure had authored a memoir several years before his death. Because demand for insight into the life and times of this political figure is enhanced due to the circumstances surrounding his death, the rarity element of available volumes increases thus the value and price point of the book follows suit.
Myth: Condition doesn’t matter
We’ve discussed before on this blog how the condition of a book significantly impacts its value and that condition of a volume does play a large role in how desirable a book is in the rare book market. For example, a broken, tattered first edition of The Catcher in the Rye will see a diminished value based on its condition—a book needs to be in serviceable shape and cannot stand on the merits of being a first edition. The same principle applies to the idea of rarity. The degree to which a book is rare is not enough, and a volume must be in quality condition for the rare element to factor into its value. Our copy of The Catcher in the Rye must exhibit quality binding, well-tended pages, and a well-cared for cover for the element of rarity to factor into the book’s overall value and position in the collector’s marketplace.
Myth: Subject matter is not relevant
The topic or subject matter a volume deals with—and the primacy of the subject, or when the book was published in relation to the relevancy of the topic—can play an important role in the rarity of a volume and its associated value. For example, a nonfiction book published 10 or even 15 years ago about the ascendancy of Donald Trump as a business magnate would today have a higher rarity quotient attached to well-conditioned copies because of Trump’s presidential victory. Similar to the principle of demand which we discussed a moment ago, the enhanced interest in Trump’s life, viewpoint, and corporate career means copies of such a book are in greater demand and as such treated with more rarity than before the 2016 presidential election.
While certainly not all the myths about the notion of rarity in book collecting, these myths and the debunking of them will give novice collectors the insight necessary to put rarity in the right perspective, as well as remind experienced collectors about how the concept of rarity can often be overblown in assessing a book’s value and place in the book collecting landscape. With this information at hand, collectors of all stripes will be better equipped to make educated decisions about the value of the books they seek.