Collecting books in a digital world

Collecting books in a digital world

The rare book market continues to grow, but which titles should you be looking out for?

Words: Matthew Barker

A recent study in the US found that 56 per cent of adults had read at least one book over the past year, compared with 28 per cent who had read an ebook. Clearly, the printed word is still very much part of our lives and, just as you wouldn’t go driverless with your favourite Ferrari, when it comes to sitting down with a good book, most of us take greater pleasure in page-turning rather than swiping.


And then there’s collecting and investing in rare books and manuscripts. In November of last year, London dealership Stanley Gibbons launched a (non-tradable) Rare Book Index of first editions from the last century. The Great Gatsby was the most expensive, at just under £250,000 (€295,000).


As Michael DiRuggiero, owner of Manhattan Rare Books in New York points out, collecting rare books isn’t a new trend. ‘One thing I have noticed is a growing interest in fine art books, those with original art or lithographs and those signed by the artist. Compared to paintings, after all, rare books seem very inexpensive.’


Do books need to be old to be collectable? ‘Not at all. There has to be demand and scarcity. Sometimes the first edition of a relatively new book is printed in small numbers and only later becomes a huge success, which, consequently, makes it quite pricey. The classic example is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

‘Although the book was published in 1997, only 500 copies of the hardcover first edition were printed and 300 of those went to libraries, where they saw a great deal of use. A copy today in excellent condition could command a price of around $25,000 [€22,000].’


DiRuggiero admits that it can be a rather conservative market at times, and certain titles tend to remain popular. ‘Classics, books that have been canonised in a certain field, are the most desired. When someone decides to collect American literature, they invariably look for books such as Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Leaves Of Grass, The Great Gatsby, The Sound And The Fury, The Catcher In The Rye, etc.’


Such books are relatively easy to keep in good condition. DiRuggiero recommends having a custom box created by a specialist binder and always protect the book from sunlight. Gloves should be used when handling particularly rare titles.


Finally, some words of advice from DiRuggiero: ‘Buy what you like. That said, my job is to steer potential buyers away from mistakes. The most common for someone beginning a collection is to focus almost exclusively on price. The cheapest copy of a book is usually the cheapest for a reason.


‘The books that have grown most in value are the best books: the ones in best condition, the ones with a great association, the ones that are nearly impossible to find again. Often these books may seem expensive at the time, but in the long term they have ultimately been the best buys.’