Dust jacket required: how to cash in between the covers

Collecting: Be it William Burroughs or Graham Greene, bookworms might not have to pay the earth for modern first editions
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The Independent Online

Britain is still a nation of book lovers despite the inexorable rise of the internet. More books are published, per head, here than in any other country, and Britons are also avid collectors.

Britain is still a nation of book lovers despite the inexorable rise of the internet. More books are published, per head, here than in any other country, and Britons are also avid collectors.

Collecting modern first editions (circa 1900 to present day) has become popular because it is relatively easy and cheap. And collect them we do, often in large quantities.

"I ought to sell some of mine if I can find a buyer," says retired lecturer and journalist Fred Hunter. "I've got 15,000-odd in the house and garage. Every cupboard in the house is full. There's a cupboard-full in the kitchen that I haven't seen for 15 years because there's a freezer in front of it."

Most collectors of "modern firsts", as they are known in the trade, have a theme. Mr Hunter's is modern poetry, particularly American and Beat poets, and what he describes as "outrageous fiction".

"I have a signed first edition of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and a signed copy of Yoko Ono's Grapefruit, which is a book of poems she wrote before she met John Lennon. Well, it's sort of poetry," he adds as an afterthought. "Sometimes it's just three words to a page."

Mr Hunter values his collection at "about £2 a copy" based on the idea that some books are worth about £2,000 and others about 20p. But, like any serious collector, he is not in it for the money. He has a personal attachment to many of the poets he collects. He was the sound recordist at the last public reading ever given by TS Eliot, and helped to cut Yoko Ono out of a paper bag at one of her "events" in the 1960s.

Poetry is not the most sought-after category in books, whose value depends on three main factors: the popularity of the author, the rarity of the book and its condition. For example, a first edition of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in pristine condition, now fetches between £15,000 and £20,000. As the first book of a then unheard-of author, it had a very low first print run of 300 copies, which has pumped up the price.

Book values are also boosted by Hollywood's magic touch.

"I've been selling Tolkien for 30 years and his work has steadily risen," says Adrian Harrington of Harrington Books in west London, "but when the first Lord of the Rings film opened, the mania surrounding it inflated prices."

Some writers stand the test of time better than others. First editions of Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll are very collectable, as are works by James Joyce - particularly Ulysses - and Graham Greene. However, large print runs will bring down prices.

"It's possible to get a nice first edition of a Graham Greene for under £100," says Ros Godlovitch of London-based Valentine Books. "There are lots of copies of many of his books available to buy."

As well as looking at popular authors from the 20th century, it is worth taking a punt on new works or authors if you think the books have substance. Had you bought titles by Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan when they first came out in the 1970s and 1980s, you could now be sitting on a reasonable investment.

Whatever your area of interest, remember the value of a book depends hugely on its condition, and especially on whether it still has its dust jacket.

"A very attractive first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in 1902, turned up recently," says Ms Godlovitch, "and it had a dust jacket on.

"It has been valued at between £75,000 and £80,000, as opposed to £2,000 to £3,000 for a nice copy without the jacket."

If you have always fancied building up a valuable book collection, keep the following points in mind:

* Don't pick anything with an inscription written in ink.

* Cutting the price off the jacket devalues a book.

* Always store books away from direct sunlight.

To start a collection, you could contact an antiquarian bookseller, or go to one of the many antiquarian book fairs around the country. Members of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association hold sales regularly, but the big antiquarian book event of the year is at Olympia in London (see below). It is still possible to find a gem in charity shops and at car boot sales, but it is getting harder all the time. You will have to pick up an awful lot of rocks before you find the diamond.

CONTACTS

* Adrian Harrington Rare Books: www.harringtonbooks.co.uk, 020 7937 1465

* Valentine Rare Books: 020 7636 3336.

* Antiquarian Bookseller's Association: www.aba.org.uk, 020 7439 3118

* Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (lists antiquarian book fairs all round the country): www.pbfa.org

Events

* 15 to 18 April: New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

* 3 to 6 June: Olympia Book Fair, London.

* 5 to 6 November: Chelsea Book Fair, London.

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