Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Where to invest in Rare Books…

I’ve been thinking seriously of late about throwing more dough at books. Not that I don’t already buy enough to fill gymnasiums every week. No, I’m talking about buying fewer, more expensive, rarer books…for ‘fun and profit.’ Treating them like blue chip stocks.

Over the past decade I haven’t even broken even on the stock market. The only people who seem to make money in this scam, both on the way up, and the way down, are the brokers. Real Estate has been marginally better, and then there are GICs, but if 0% to 6% is the best one can do, why not use the money to actually enrich life? Put it into something you know and love? Everyone will tell you that buying books for profit is a fool’s game. But what if your objective isn’t to make a killing…but, just, for a time, to possess beautiful, important objects, and in so doing make a reasonable return, surely this is possible? To sit and hang out with a set of good friends…and then pass them on for a 0-6% gain? Is this so unreasonable?

Now the challenge of course is to find the friends…the books you love which are sure to hold their value. Right now there appears to be a real glut on the used book market. I have lots of f/f first editions by decent authors -  currently looking at: Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried, Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs – that booksellers I’ve approached just don’t seem interested in buying, at least for reasonable money…can’t blame them really, when they can get the same or better for one or two dollars per at local book sales and auctions… these used to be $50 books…and I can’t get my money out of them.

Which begs the question: If I do invest say $15,000 in a handful of books, for a start, which ones – of those I’m passionate about – should I buy? The last thing I want to do is go starving to the grave clutching my Kelmscott Chaucer, my Nonesuch Shakespeare, my Sphinx in scurvy’d hand. Which ones will hold their value over say the next decade? Given the advent of e-books and digitization, it’s pretty clear that -as in the past- books which are well constructed, beautifully made, in fine condition, will gain in importance…I’ve been reading about Fine and Private Press books lately, and talking to current producers (Stay tuned for an interview conducted recently with Richard Coxford of Bytown Books on collecting fine press editions). This is where I think I’ll be going…but not before talking to some experts in the field. I plan to put this scenario to the cognizanti of the antiquarian book trade in the coming months. Stay tuned for their responses.

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3 Responses to “Where to invest in Rare Books…”

  1. Oliver Clark Says:

    This is an interesting question. The essential problem for the private individual about making money in the book game is the illiquidity of the market and the margins taken by auction houses and dealers. (Incidentally, dealers have to live – a fact that is sometimes not appreciated.)
    In other words, except where you find an outstanding bargain you must be prepared to buy and hold.
    And my advice is to buy what you like, avoid the fashions of the moment, and let your tastes develop over time. By all means seek out bargains, but if you want to be treated seriously, sooner or later you must purchase from dealers. Always buy the best copy you can afford. It will turn out to have been cheap and you can sell it more readily.
    If you have some idea of what you are doing collecting successfully in these terms need not be that expensive – knowlege is the key. Looking through my bookshelves at home there are a good many which are now worth a lot more, but which I bought because – well, yes, I couldn’t believe how cheap Cuala Press editions of Yeats were (in 1980), I still have the 1st in dust-jacket (excellent condition) of All Quiet on the Western Front that I paid a whole £65 for; likewise 1st of Keynes General Theory, Stephen Spender’s Poems with Ms corrections and various seventeenth-century Cavalier poets. This has been one approach – not systematic collecting, just occasionally purchasing things that I like, that are unusual, in fine condition has probably been very rewarding – even though I’v honest not thought about it much.
    More recently, I’ve tended towards collecting a particular private press, the author and illustrators associated with it, manuscripts, archives, etc. It probably makes for the best collection in the world in this small area, but it gets expensive because you have to have everything – and there are many variants – and frankly noone is going to pursue this subject with the same degree of monomania as myself.

  2. The Second Pass Says:

    [...] Reading” series for 2009, and posts the first entry, by Hari Kunzru. . . . Nigel Beale considers getting into the rare books game, and wonders where he should put his money. . . . Scott Esposito understandably snoozes at the New [...]

  3. Brian Thomas Says:

    I am a high school teacher and on a limited income. As much as I collect for the love of the books, I realize that the value of them plays a part in which books I can acquire. I collect a lot of hypermodern lit, which is a different game from buying Keats and Yeats.
    When I read books, I am (very) occasionally convinced that a book is “future classic literature” (As an English teacher, I explain it to my peers as “a book that will be taught in the high schools of the future or become a cult novel of the future”). Then, I go out and find the best signed copy I can.
    This has worked (Palahniuk’s “Fight Club”, Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”, David Foster Wallace’s “Broom of the System”, each with multiple signed copies bought at cover price) and backfired (too many to name). The investment is relatively small ($30 to $50) and it makes me happy.
    A very morbid angle (more long term) is to identify authors who are getting up in years. A signed Gabriel Garcia Marquez “100 years of solitude”, while expensive, is relatively cheap compared to what it will be once he dies. Cormac McCarthy, Delillo, and Salinger also fit the bill.

    With all that said, I would invest in a fine signed first of “The Kite Runner” for about $400 and watch it soar.

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