When you think of rare books, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably old books, right? What about the second characteristic? This is most likely centered on the number printed, especially the number of first editions.

But neither of those are necessary factors when it comes to what makes a book truly rare, which is why we’re going to start our discussion of rare book collecting with what makes a book rare in the first place. 


The rarity of a book is governed first and foremost by one simple principle: supply and demand. Although rare books also often have the characteristics of being very old, of being very scarce, and being in very good condition, a book is only truly rare if there is high demand and incredibly small supply.

So let’s look at the aspects of supply and demand a little closer.

For a book to be rare there must be low supply, and there are several factors that contribute to this:

Scarcity of Copies

This one is pretty straight forward, but worth clarifying. The number of copies available helps determine rarity and value. This can be due to age, particularly with very old books. After hundreds of years, scant few may survive. It may also relate to the print number if only a small number of copies were printed. Another situation where very few copies appear on the market is because of a particular book’s popularity. Other points for consideration when it comes to availability include condition and completeness. Often older books with dust jackets are hard to find or because of age, the condition is poor. Similarly, first editions, which is the first printing of a book, can be hard to find.

The Very Best Condition

The second consideration after availability is physical condition. Books are generally classified on a scale from fine (best condition) to poor (worst condition). When evaluating condition, all physical attributes are evaluated, from the pages to the binding and spine, and the inclusion of and condition of the dust jacket. The more pristine the condition, the better.

Special Editions & Features

There are a handful of special features that can allow a book to command higher prices. One is the “limited edition”, which is an edition that is often produced in a different format or materials to other editions and is designed specifically as a collector’s item.

Other special editions may feature illustrations, photographs or maps that previous did not, or a different dust jacket. Other distinctions that can add value is an edition being printed by a renowned printer or being one of the first produced by a new printing process. Binding by famous binders can also add value to a particular copy.

Rare By Association

“Association” refers to books that are signed by the author and books owned by famous people, particularly if they contain the celebrity’s signature, inscription or notes. It is important to note, however, that just because a book is signed by the author does not necessarily make it rare. Some authors are prolific signers, while others seldom sign any of their books. It is important to research this before considering the value added from a signature.

But even if supply is low on a particular book, it still only becomes rare if someone wants it. Demand is of course generated by desire, and many collectors seek books of either historical significance or those by a particular author or subject.

Books of historical significance may have high demand due to their content, age or even the type of printing that was used. For example, any book printed before the movable type press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s will be rare. Likewise, a Gutenberg Bible, which was the first book of movable type to be printed, is one of the rarest books on the planet.

Authorship is another factor that drives demand. From very rare prints like Shakespeare’s First Folio to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tamerlane and Other Poems’ which was published anonymously, to The Codex Leicester, a notebook of scientific observations produced by Leonardo da Vinci and the most expensive book in the world, the books of the most illustrious authors are often the most sought after.


Just as not all books are rare even if only a small number were printed, not all first editions are rare either. And often, books assumed to be first editions are not first editions at all! A good example is Huckleberry Finn, where many copies printed in the “first edition” were not printed in the “first printing”.

Some of the criteria that helps determine a first edition and a rare first edition at that, are as follows:

  • The words first edition or first printing are on the copyright page.
  • The book has a number line on the copyright page. If it starts with a “1”, this is usually a first edition, but not always. Some publishers will print the words “first edition” above the number line for the first printing, but then drop the verbiage in the second edition but keep the number. Others will keep the words “first edition”, but change the first number to reflect the actual edition (i.e. 2, 3 or 4, etc.).
  • The date on the copyright page is the same as the date on the title page, as this confirms it is likely a first edition


The collection of rare books is pretty similar to regular valuable book collecting (aside from the focus on tomes that are truly rare) or really any kind of art collecting:

Collect the kinds of books you’re interested in, not just what is valuable. It can be hard to predict what will increase or decrease in value, so purchasing solely for financial investment is risky. (Plus, if you’re really going to invest your own time, you might as well get some enjoyment out of the books you collect!)

Choose a focus for your collection. A theme is what distinguishes a collection from a library or indeed even a pile of books. Many collectors choose to pursue authors, eras, subject matter or geography as their focus.

Learn everything you can about the market for the types of books you’re collecting. Become an expert in your field and also consider consulting other experts, especially if you’re collecting very rare, valuable books.

Collect the highest quality copies you can. This goes for the condition of the book, its edition, whether it includes a dust jacket and if it’s signed.

Rare book collecting isn’t for everyone. There is a lot of painstaking research and patience involved, but for those with perseverance and money to spare, it can be a richly fulfilling pastime, and potentially a highly rewarding investment.