Until midnight last night the Bloomsbury publishing house had on its website a clock ticking away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until JK Rowling's fifth Harry Potter offering hit the shelves. This goes to show just how eager the reading public is to get its hands on the latest in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
But the initial clamour for the long-awaited follow-up to The Goblet of Fire is unlikely to be reflected later down the line at auction. It does not have the same collectible clout as the first in the series and is unlikely to wow the auction houses in the way The Philosopher's Stone has done.
Just as Wimbledon usually prompts people to take up tennis, a major book launch such as a new Harry Potter always makes people wonder about the money to be made by investing in books. But, like all investment in collectibles, it is never as simple as it seems so the golden rule is to buy books you enjoy at a price you can afford. If you sell them at a profit, that is a bonus. Investing in books can become your livelihood only if you specialise in it and make it your career, and most people are not prepared to make that commitment.
Whatever your particular area of interest, it is important to build a collection based either on a theme or an author. A collection will give you the bargaining power at the point of sale, because sets will sell for more per book than individual volumes. And, with few exceptions, only first editions have the scarcity value to make it worth considering them as potential investments.
Sets of first editions of the complete Harry Potter series should become valuable, but with each new instalment of the adventures of Hogwarts' finest the hammer price has depreciated. Because as the Harry Potter phenomenon has grown, so have the print runs of first editions. The Philosopher's Stone had an initial print run of a reported 350 but the latest is in the millions.
A first-edition Philosopher's Stone reached £16,000 at auction last year but it is unlikely that in a few years The Order of the Phoenix will even recoup the cover price. By the time The Chamber of Secrets was published, the Harry Potter phenomenon was yet to take off so the print runs stayed relatively low. This means that for a good-condition, first edition of the second book in the series it is possible to get between £1,000 and £1,500 at auction. The third in the series, Prisoner of Azkaban, was still being marketed to children when published but it will go for £100 to £150 at auction.
Luke Batterham, a specialist in the book department of Bonham's, the auctioneers, says: "By the time The Goblet of Fire came out the print run was up to 1.5 million. It is probably worth less now than it was when it was published." And a first-edition set of The Lord of the Rings went under the hammer last year at Bloomsbury Book Auction at the height of the hype surrounding the film and failed to sell. The lack of interest was blamed on a glut of JRR Tolkien first-editions flooding the market at the time.
There are modern (post-1900) authors who regularly do well at auction. Writers such as Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll have stood the test of time and their first editions are much sought-after. Unfortunately, unless you are lucky enough to stumble across a true gem among the Jackie Collinses and Penny Vincenzies in Oxfam you will have to pay significantly more for first or limited editions of this calibre of author, as they are likely already to be part of private collections.
The more durable younger generation authors of the 1970s and 1980s such as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis remain solid, too. A first edition of Amis's Dead Babies from 1975, with an inscription on the front endpaper, original boards and dust-jacket, was recently estimated at between £180 and £220 at a Bloomsbury book auction. And a 1980 first-edition Metroland with original boards and a dust-jacket by Julian Barnes was worth an estimated £100 to £150.
The "ultra-modern" authors, such as Louis de Bernieres, author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, are steadily rising up in price too. A 1991 first edition of Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, with original boards and dust-jacket, was estimated at between £80 and £120, and a 1994 first edition (first issue) Captain Corelli at £100 and £150 recently at auction. A first-edition second issue of the book was valued at between £50 and £75 at the auction.
The move from paper to celluloid can have a startling impact on the price collectors are willing to pay for first and limited editions of the book the film is based on. But book handlers say the effect is usually short-lived. Books that typify an era also sell well. In good condition, Philip Pullman's 1995 classic His Dark Materials: Northern Lights can be worth up to £1,500 at auction. And a reasonably good condition The Subtle Knife from 1997 can easily fetch £100 to £150.
If you are prepared to dredge the second-hand bookshops in your area, you might pick up a bargain. It is always worthwhile trying to haggle the price down in second-hand shops, as you can often manage to get up to 10 per cent off.
Not surprisingly, the value of the book will depend hugely on its condition. All-important is whether it has its original dust-jacket. Do not underestimate the amount of difference that makes to its price. If the dust-jacket is still intact then it is considerably more valuable than if it is missing. No more so than for authors such as the hugely collectible Virginia Woolf, whose work was published at a time when dust-jackets were usually discarded. So those with dust-jackets command a far higher price than those without. "For value, a dust-jacket is absolutely key and can mean the difference between going for £100 and £1,000 in some cases," Mr Batterham says.
Another price determinant is how famous the work is. In the upcoming Bonham's book auction the estimated value for a first edition of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is £2,000 to £3,000. Bloomsbury Book Auction holds regular auctions throughout the year. Bonham's is holding its next book auction, including modern first editions, on Tuesday.
'I felt guilty about getting a £125 bargain for only £2.80'
Jojo O'Connell, 29, used to work in an antiquarian book shop on the remote Scottish island of Iona, so she should know the worth of investing in books. Initially, she started collecting her favourite authors for the pleasure of owning an original work. Only later did she see the investment value in her mini-collection (25 Dylan Thomas first editions, 10 Iris Murdochs and seven Doris Lessings, some signed by the author). "Until then I had only seen the literary worth," she says. Ms O'Connell enjoys scouring the second-hand bookshops in Manchester, where she is a writer, and in her home town of Birmingham.
It has paid off. "I bought Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood in Oxfam in Birmingham for £12 five years ago. The book is now going on abebooks.com for £70."
Also in her collection is a first edition of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, (published by JM Dent,1954). She paid £100 for it in a Manchester bookshop two years ago. It is now estimated at £175 on robertfrew.com and £300 on peter-harrington-books.com.
Her best buy left her feeling uneasy. "I bought Dylan Thomas's 1953 The Doctor and the Devils, published by London Dent, in Oxfam in Manchester six months ago for £2.80," she says. "It is estimated at £125. I knew it was worth a lot more than Oxfam was charging, so to appease my conscience I stuck a fiver in the donation box on the way out of the shop. It still made it a great bargain but I felt less guilty about paying so little for it."
* Bloomsbury www.bloomsbury-book-auct.com 020 7833 2637
* Bonham's www.bonhams.com 020 7229 9090