There may be gold on your bookshelves. If you've inherited books from relatives, you may have within your collection a number of books that could fetch a pretty penny at auction. For instance, an 1831 copy of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" with illustrations and in decent condition is estimated to be worth between $10,000 and $15,000 at auction. Antiquarian booksellers are always on the lookout for those rare gems, first editions and notable titles, and they may pay several hundred to several thousand dollars for that one book that's been on your bookshelf for years. And don't forget more recent titles from the 1950s through the 1970s. Those could bring in $100 or so if the books are in great condition.
"Great condition" is the key phrase when it comes to book value. To garner top dollar, a book must be like new, not yellowed from age or cigarette smoke, not mildewed, not water-damaged, not written in. A prize book in poor condition might be worthless, and book dealers usually turn down aged, damaged books they know they can't resell. Granted, few people vacuum sealed their books long ago to keep them crisp and new-looking, but books that lived in moisture- and smoke-free homes tended to keep a newer appearance and fare well on the resale market.
Right now, you're probably looking at your bookshelves and wondering what you have and how much money you can make. If you're at all allergic to dust, slip on a protective mask so that this hunting expedition doesn't leave you sneezing and stuffy all day. Pull out your books to look for first editions, special collector's editions and any books for which you have a feeling of potential value.
Next, it's time to start the fun project of researching estimated values. Esther Lombardi, About.com guide to classic literature, suggests the following websites: www.bookfinder.com and www.abebooks.com. Type in your book titles, and those sites will show you the valuations of those titles if they have them in their system. Write down the values you find for your books, but don't get too excited yet. Book buyers at indie stores and antiquarian booksellers will likely pay a bit less so that they can make a profit. Still, it can be very exciting to see hundreds of dollars next to some of the books that you own.
If you find rare books in your collection, go to a book appraiser who can evaluate the condition of your books, look up values and tell you about trends on the market. Find an appraiser through the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (http://www.abaa.org) or Booksappraised.com, and ask your local librarian for suggestions, as well. They know the best local appraisers and can direct you.
The experts at Vintage-books.com say, "You are likely to get the most money at a local independent bookstore that sells used books and has been in business for quite a while. This store should have the reference material and knowledge to best evaluate your book and offer a fair price." Local sellers survive by stocking fresh supplies of valuable books in their stores, so they'll be motivated to buy from you. And working with a local dealer also will save you postage fees.
Remember, says Vintage-books.com, that old books aren't necessarily rare books, so keep your expectations in check. One gem out of 50 books is a good day.
Look for dust jackets (the paper cover on a hardcover book), which are essential for a 20th-century book to be considered acceptable. And the jacket must be in perfect condition, as well as the book itself. Vintage-books.com says the "dust jacket can represent up to 95 percent of the value of a 20th-century title. Collectors are also very conscious of the condition of these jackets. Edge chipping and small tears need to be protected from getting worse."
Look for known names. In 2011, a copy of "Tender Is the Night," by F. Scott Fitzgerald, first edition with dust jacket, had an estimated value of $6,000 to $8,000. Without the dust jacket, the value would drop to around $300.
And an insider secret about book value: If the book was published in London and in New York, the location where it was first released is considered the true first edition and will be more valuable. So as you check your books for value, you're likely to embark on an exciting research project.
Mistakes in a book's printing also make a book more valuable. "Mark Twain's 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' has over seven documented (and corrected) mistakes during the printing process. If you have all of them (or many of them) in your copy, it can be worth over $10,000. Other copies with a few mistakes are usually worth between $500 and $1,000. These 'issue points' can be found in online references to bibliographical information gathered on each book," says Vintage-books.com.
And an author's signature on the book can raise the value, as well. Vintage-books.com says that "an unsigned copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Tender Is the Night' without a dust jacket might bring around $300. With a simple signature, it could bring $8,000."
While it may seem easier to just list your books on eBay to get quick cash, you wouldn't want to see your book on the morning news as purchased for $20 and sold at auction for $2,000. So stick with the professionals to give yourself the best chances for a windfall.