Why Rare Books Are Really, Really Expensive

The $270,000 Book

Culture : Books By Photo by Chris Wright

Sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), the New York Antiquarian Book Fair gathers over 200 American and international dealers, each of whom showcase a wide variety of books, autographs, manuscripts, maps, cartoons and ephemera. We visited the fair with a single question: in an age of $1.99 Kindle Singles, why would a book cost thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars?

The Changing Face of Rare Books


Moving Online
Like the mass-market literary industry, the rare book industry has had to adapt to survive. Although some sellers keep brick and mortar stores — see Caliban Books in Pittsburgh, or Jarndyce Books in London — many others operate only online, keeping their collections in storage, or in their houses. Matthew Raptis, owner of Raptis Rare Books, operates out of a historic Italianate villa in southern Vermont, and accepts visitors only by appointment.

Client Lists
Rather than waste time with browsers, most of whom won’t spend thousands of dollars on books, many booksellers cater to an exclusive list of interested clients. This allows the sellers to be selective about the books they acquire — instead of buying every interesting thing they find, they can buy with a customer in mind.

Niche Focus
Specialization also helps: Dr. Jörn Günther, who traveled to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair from Switzerland, primarily sells miniatures (hand-painted illustrations of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts), as well as 11th to 16th century manuscripts and early printed books. One of his researchers, Erene Morcos, estimates that only five other people in the world operate in their niche at their level, meaning that if you’re interested in 11th to 16th century manuscripts and early printed books, Dr. Günther might be your man. Other sellers have different specialties: Ken Lopez of Ken Lopez Booksellers focuses on 20th century literary 1st editions and Seth Kaller of Seth Kaller, Inc., focuses on maps and autographs.

As many of the sellers were happy to explain, first editions — the run of a book’s first printing — always command top dollar. If the book becomes successful, those first editions become even more valuable. One of the most famous recent first editions is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for fear that a book with the word “philosopher” in the title wouldn’t sell): when Bloomsbury first printed the book in 1997, they only made 500 copies. Of the originals, 300 got sent to libraries, and the remaining 200 went to friends, family and publicists. Because of the book’s success, the first 200 without library stamps are now worth upwards of $62,000. Though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the first 199 copies are worth $62,000 — Nigel Reynolds, an arts correspondent at The Daily Telegraph, threw away his copy after meeting with the then-unknown Rowling as she attempted to publicize her book.

Autographs also drive up the price of a book, as do inscriptions: a first edition copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, one of 5,000, is available on abebooks.com for around $10,000. However, the copy that Nabokov gave to his wife, inscribed with a note in Russian and the drawing of a butterfly, is one of a kind, and as a result costs $270,000. On the same website, a first edition copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road costs around $12,500. A signed first edition costs around $25,000, and a signed first edition with a personalized inscription — written in red crayon to proto-conservationist Pieter Whitney Fosburgh and his wife, Liza, and only available through Peter Harrington Books in London — costs $170,000.

A decent story can also make a book more expensive. Of all the books that bookseller Derek Walker, an expert with Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford, England, brought to the fair, his favorite is the first Swedish edition of The Vampyre, the book that codified vampire mythology. Famously, the book was written during the same meeting that spawned Frankenstein — after reading Fantasmagoriana during a gathering on Lake Geneva, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley), Percy Bysshe Shelley and Claire Clairmont decided to write their own stories, with Mary Godwin’s becoming Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Polidori’s becoming The Vampyre. However, much to both Polidori’s and Byron’s chagrin, The Vampyre was first published under Byron’s name. By 1824, when the Swedish edition came out, people knew the story’s true authorship, but the copy is still attributed to Lord Byron.

These are just a few of the reasons why a first edition copy of Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, might cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000, and a signed first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian might cost around $15,000. Although we (probably) won’t drop our next paychecks on an inscribed copy of The Little Prince, it’s clear that many will. The market for paper — at least, collectible paper — is very much alive.