Sell Rare Books: How to Find and Flip Valuable Literature

Many hands go toward an open book in this photo collage.
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What do “The Hobbit,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” have in common? First-edition copies can be valuable. Your bookshelf (or your local thrift store) could be a literary treasure trove.

To find and sell rare books, you need more than a love for literature. You need a collector’s eye. William Chrisant developed his knowledge of antiquarian books as a graduate student, hunting for sources.

“I was able to buy books I thought were only available in museums and libraries,” he said. “They’re great sources of information, obviously. But there’s also the aspect of the binding, paper, and illustrations. I started learning more and more. Eventually, I had so many that I started selling them.”

Today, he owns the Old Florida Book Shop, where you can buy a 16th century copy of “The Woorkes of Geoffrey Chaucer” for $30,000.

But any thrift store is full of dusty old books. What makes that $30,000 tome different?

How to Find and Sell Rare Books

Determine a Book’s Value

The value of a book is written all over it — if you know how to read. Everything from an intact dust jacket to a rare autograph can make a book valuable.

Condition

“Condition is [to books] what location is to real estate,” Chrisant said.

A first-edition Ernest Hemingway novel in like-new condition may be worth thousands. But a beat-up, dog-eared copy could be worth… dozens.

If you come across a 20th century book that could be worth something, look for an intact dust jacket. It might not matter to the average reader, but collectors care whether the retail price on the dust jacket has been removed.

Rarity

Valuable books tend to be rare. Only 200 copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were available for purchase when it was first printed. In 2022, one of those copies sold at auction for over $30,000.

First Edition

First-edition books can be exponentially more valuable than books from later print runs.

Pay close attention: If the copyright page reads “first edition, first impression,” the book is one of the first copies ever printed. Second, third, and fourth impressions are usually more attainable – and less valuable.

Signed

Spot a signature? Lucky you. A first-edition copy of “Blood Meridian” signed by Cormac McCarthy sold for over $20,000.

Don’t just look for the author’s name in pen and ink. An illustrated book signed by the artist, a biography signed by the subject, or any book signed by a famous owner can also be valuable.

Something Special

The most valuable books of all have a story – other than the one found within their pages.

Chrisant once sold a copy of “Aurora Australis,” the first book published in Antarctica. When explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed to the South Pole in 1907, he brought a printing press. He and his crew spent their free time on the expedition producing 100 copies. They were bound not with cloth, not with leather, but with the crates that held their supplies. The cover of Chrisant’s copy read “LIQU,” for liquor, perhaps?

A similar copy sold at Bonhams for $97,500.

Pro Tip

To get a rough estimate of a book’s value, run a search on Bookfinder.com. You can find out how other sellers are pricing the same book.

Look For Rare Books

Ready to rifle through the stacks at the thrift store — or grandma’s attic? Keep your eye out for these valuable books.

“Twilight”

Fans who spent hours waiting in line for Stephenie Meyer to sign their copy of “Twilight” may be in luck. A signed, first-edition copy is on sale for over $1,000 on Abebooks.

“Bridget Jones’ Diary”

Another Y2K classic you might have on your bookshelf is Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” An autographed first-edition copy can be worth hundreds of dollars.

“The Catcher In the Rye”

Even if you didn’t know its value, the first edition of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger would stand out. A red carousel horse careens across the cover, New York in the background. A true first-edition copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” in excellent vintage condition is worth between $6,000 and $25,000, according to Captain’s Book Shoppe.

If the famously reclusive author signed that first-edition copy? We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Leaves of Grass”

Before Walt Whitman was an icon of American literature, he was a struggling self-publisher. He paid to print 795 copies of his poetry collection in 1855. But Whitman couldn’t leave “Leaves of Grass” alone. He published and republished it several times before his death in 1892. If you find any of those iterations in good condition, you’ve struck gold. The “Deathbed Edition” is available for $2,000 on Abebooks.

Decide Where Sell Your Rare Books

You’ve checked for damage, you’ve done your research, and you know you have something special on your hands. Where do you sell that rare book?

Sell on eBay

It is quick and easy to list a book for sale on eBay. But nothing in life is free: eBay charges 14.95% of the total sale amount up to $7,500, and 2.35% on the portion of the sale above $7,500 (if any).

Sell on AbeBooks

AbeBooks is the first place many bookworms will look for a rare, old collectible.

It costs at least $25 per month to sell on the website. That’s not counting the 8% commission fee or 5.5% payment processing fee. Those costs mean it’s probably not worth signing up unless you’re in the bookselling business for the long haul.

Contact an Auction House

Think you have the next record-breaking rare book on your hands? Call the professionals. Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Christie’s auction houses regularly fetch premium prices for books at auction. Of course, they will take a healthy cut.

Contact a Book Seller

Most antiquarian book sellers will be happy to take a look at your library. If they believe they can find a buyer, they can arrange to sell them via consignment or buy them outright. “I might say, ‘this is a $100 book. I’ll give you $50 for it,’” Chrisant said.

There is one advantage to selling a rare book to an expert: they will take good care of it before finding the right buyer. After all, most people who sell rare books aren’t just in it for the money. “They want the book to have a good home,” Chrisant said.

Contributor Ciara McLaren is a freelance writer with work in HuffPost, Insider and The Penny Hoarder. You can find her on Substack (@camclaren).