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What makes a rare book?

What makes a rare book?

A question that is often asked. Why do some books sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, while others are valued for pennies? Does that box in the attic contain collectable books that are worth anything? Firstly, from a book collectors point of view a rare book has to be one that they want badly. If it is generally regarded as desirable and even better, hard to find, then you’re well on the way to having a valuable book, but is it a rare book?  Different booksellers use different criteria and the terms “rare”, “antique” and “old” are not clearly defined. Here are a few factors to consider when looking at a special book and it’s value and rarity.

Just because it’s old doesn’t mean that it’s rare! 

In general books printed in the hand press era (from the 1450’s invention of the printing press to until the mechanism of printing in the early 19th Century) are recognised as rare. Yet many books printed in the 19th century can be classed as rare due to the poorer quality of paper and so may be more fragile than older books. Eighteenth century editions of the Bible survive in such numbers that few are considered valuable or rare.

Is the old book important in some way?

Authors that made a significant contribution to science, history or influencing society in some way are the kind of books that are collectable and therefore often valuable. A first edition book by Charles Darwin, for instance, will fetch thousands of pounds. Also any special bindings, an early use of a new printing process, or an autograph, inscription, or marginal notes from a famous person can contribute to a book’s importance and its value. For example, H. G. Wells is  remembered for his science fiction novels, and is recognised as the father of science fiction being nominated for The Nobel Prize for Literature for four years. His works of “The Time Machine” (1895) and “The War of the Worlds” (1898) would clearly be of far greater value than a more recent science fiction novelist.

How about the condition of the book?

Condition is often everything! A damaged or incomplete book will significantly affect the value and desirability of a book. Badly repaired books will also negatively influence the price of a book. The condition of any dust jacket is also a factor to consider. There is a wider spread view in the trade that dust jackets that have been repaired, even if professionally to a high standard, are not a sought after as those left in their original state. A multi-volume set of books which are all in pristine condition can have considerable value if the set is complete. First edition children’s books are often more rare to find in a good condition because they aren’t the best library archivists! Coloured in and torn pages plus discarded dust jackets are common. This is why, for example, good quality first edition of many Dr Seuss books frequently sell for considerable sums.

What about the history of the book?

The story of where a book came from and who might have owned the book is called provenance in the trade. Having an interesting provenance can add considerable value to a book and it’s rarity. Without any doubt the most highly valued form of provenance is that which shows an association copy or a link between an important owner of a book and its author. This is often with an inscription or a presentation. An inscribed copy usually carries the author’s signature along with the recipient’s name, while a presentation copy is given by the author to the recipient. A personal inscription by the author to a significant person would make the book more appealing to a collector.  For example,  Lewis Carroll’s  “Alice In Wonderland” that was personally signed and dedicated to none other than Alice Liddell, the real-life child on whom Carroll’s fictional Alice was based, fetched £15,400 at auction back in 1928. One can only guess it’s value now! Signed or limited editions of a book can add considerable value to a book.

And how many rare books are out there?

A book can be rare because there were very few copies printed or it was printed for private circulation only. First editions tend to be considered “rare” as publishers might cautiously publish only the number of books they think will sell. This is especially true for first time authors where the demands of the public are not certain. These first editions, especially if printed in small numbers, are particularly prized by book collectors.  For Ian Fleming’s first Bond book Casino Royale, only 3000 of the first edition, first impression, first state (without the Sunday Times mention) were printed. Many went straight into the library system so their jackets were discarded, making complete copies very rare, highly sought after and very valuable. Even in recent times, the first hardback edition of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosophers’ Stone’, was a run of only 500 copies printed. A copy sold at Southerby’s in 2015 for £25,000.

Does anyone want it?

This is the million dollar question! The desirability of a book is crucial and is anyone prepared to pay good money for it? Owning an first edition book in pristine condition of an unknown author might not be a book of great value to others – even if it is to you! Collecting books is a often done for very personal reasons. These can be quite varied such as collecting your childhood favourite author, or extending a special interest hobby or even to fill a shelf to show off!

Ultimately, though, the value of a book as a collectable item, is directly related to the book’s relative scarcity and its condition. It is basic supply and demand. When many collectors seek the same book and only a few copies are available, that book value increases. Yet what makes a rare book is a fine mix of numbers, importance, condition and provenance to make it truly rare and valuable.

For more books go to our authors list 





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Alice In Wonderland – The Charm And Value of Early Publications

We were recently asked for advice from a Canadian customer about his early edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Whilst responding, it got us thinking a blog would be useful on this complex subject – the various early and first editions of these most famous of children’s books.

After all, given that Alice in Wonderland as a book has never been out of print and has been published in at least 174 languages, the number of publications of the book will be vast! We’ll only concentrate on those up to 1908 as, after 1907 the copyright expired in the UK which generated at least 8 new editions in that year alone spiraling it further into popularity and value. The variety of illustrators for this work is similarly huge and includes the masters of Arthur Rackham, Milo Winter and Getrude Kay (with of course the original and most iconic John Tenniel!). Alice in Wonderland books are obviously highly collectable and Rare and Antique Books hold several of these scarce and delightful editions.

The genuine original illustrations were actually drawn by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) himself, in his original manuscript of the tale which was inspired by a boat trip in 1862 with three daughters of The Dean of Christ Church (one of whom was Alice Liddell) and The Rev. Robinson Duckworth of Trinity College. During the trip Dodgson narrated the tale to the girls and Alice persuade him to write out the story which he completed in 1863. He then gave the illustrated manuscript, titled Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice who ultimately sold it for a world record price of £15,400 at Sotherby’s Auction in 1928!

These original thirty seven drawings by Dodgson are contained in the rare 1886Alice's-Adventure-Underground-Lewis-Carroll-First-Edition-1886. Alice-In-Wonderland edition of “Alice’s Adventures Underground”, so using the original title as written by Dodgson, as a facsimile of the actual original manuscript.Alice's-Adventure-Underground-Lewis-Carroll-First-Edition-1886. Alice-In-Wonderland His charming and childlike drawings perfectly capture the wonderment of Alice and the fantasy world that he was creating. There is something rather special about seeing the word and images completed in Dodgson’s own handwriting!

This publication followed twenty years on from the first official edition – the 1866 publication published by Macmillan bound in red cloth, employed John Tenniel as the illustrator. It is clear to see how he developed Dodgson’s original images. Tenniel’s images were iconic and proved to be an instant success to children and adults alike. Whilst the book is dated 1866, it was distributed in time for Christmas 1865 but itself followed an earlier printing the same year that Dodgson recalled. A handful of these exceptionally rare 1865 copies did though survive and are, without doubt, the most valuable of all published editions. At this point in time Macmillan had no idea of the future success of the title, so released the book in small printings of a few thousand at a time.
The very first edition displayed no printing numbers on the title page and copies of this edition are extremely rare and valuable, especially in fine condition. This was then followed by later printings stating say “SEVENTH THOUSAND” and so on in ever increasing numbers for many years – obviously the lower the number and the earlier the publication stated, the more valuable the book, condition aside.

Next came the 1872 first edition sequel “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” which made a charming pairing with the Alice In Wonderland book. This too followed the same style of ‘thousand’ printings on the title page and the very first edition on this book is still both rare and valuable.

Through-the-looking-glass-Lewis-Carroll-first-edition. Alice-In-Wonderland.The trade copies of Alice’s Adventures were released in 1887 when the publisher, Macmillan, took the opportunity to make several corrections to the original text. The books were published in lower grade materials to save costs and were labelled as ‘People’s Edition’ yet the bright green and illustrated covers do not detract from their charm. These too employed the same “Thousands printing” identification that continued to run well into the 20th century.

The miniature editions published again by Macmillan in 1907 (Alice) and 1908 (Looking Glass) are similarly appealing as they followed the same design style of covers to the original editions, just smaller. They make for a far more affordable, yet Alice's-Adventures-in-Wonderland-Through-the-looking-glass-first-edition-Lewis-Carroll-1907-1908delightful option for collecting or as a gift. On screen it is difficult to appreciate the charm of these small compact books which only measure 16 x 10 cm – it seems like they have taken an Alice potion to reduce their size! For the first time a more traditional identification system was used for the editions, stating the year and month of any reprint ie. “Through the Looking Glass Miniature Edition, October 1908, Reprinted December 1908”.

Once the copyright on illustration passed in 1907 there was a flurry of illustrators keen to work on Charles Dodgson’s books. At this time Arthur Rackham had recently shot to fame with his illustrated Rip Van Winkle and so his drawings were an ideal choice. Rackham’s illustrated book was published in 1907 by Heinemann with an introduction by Austin Dobson – maybe in an attempt to sway people to accept an illustrator other than Tenniel!Alice's-Adventures-In-Wonderland-by-Lewis-Carroll-Illustrated-By-Arthur-Rackham-First-Edition

‘Tis two score years since Carroll’s art,Alice's-Adventures-In-Wonderland-by-Lewis-Carroll-Illustrated-By-Arthur-Rackham-First-Edition
With topsy- turvy magic,
Sent Alice wondering through a part,
Half-comic and half-tragic.


                                        Enchanting Alice! black and white
Has made your deeds perennial;
And naught save “Chaos and old Night”
Can part you from Tenniel;

But still you are a Type, and based,Alice's-Adventures-In-Wonderland-by-Lewis-Carroll-Illustrated-By-Arthur-Rackham-First-Edition
In Truth, like Lear and Hamlet;
And Types may be redraped to taste
In cloth-of-gold or camlet.

Here comes a fresh Costumier, then;
That Taste may gain a wrinkle
From him who drew with such deft pen
The rags of Rip Van Winkle!


Although the initial reaction to any illustrator other than Tenniel was “just not right” the Rackham illustrations proved to be a success and are iconic Alice In Wonderland images today.

These antique and early editions of Alice in Wonderland mark the start of the profusion of illustrated books which we have witnessed since 1907 and so make them especially delightful and collectable books. To see these books and more editions by Charles Dodgson go to Lewis Carroll books.

The British Library has owned Charles Dodgson’s original manuscript since 1948 and it is now available to browse on their website. Their edition is unique in that it was created by Charles Dodgson as a gift for Alice Liddell in 1864 rather than for publication, which he adapted it for a year later. It is a fascinating read.

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A. A. Milne – A literary success

Pay attention to where you are going because without meaning you might get nowhere.”  said A. A. Milne.

Allen Alexander Milne was to create happiness for many adults and children with his verses and tales of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, yet he gained little pleasure from the success of the books.

The British-born “A.A. Milne,” as he was known to millions of readers, began his career as an essayist for the Punch magazine and moved onto producing light hearted plays and novels in his own right. His initial literary works enjoyed some notoriety and a loyal following. His early works included short stories, “The Sunny Side” (1921),  A Gallery of Children” (1925) and the play “The Dover Road” (1921) which were all well received.

The first appearance of The Pooh character was in the Punch magazine as a poem, “Teddy Bear” published in February 1924 and again in a Christmas Eve story called “The Wrong Sort of Bees”. Milne was encouraged to write more children’s verses and “When We Were Very Young” was published in 1924, quickly followed by “Winnie the Pooh” in 1926. A further book of children’s verses was produced in 1927 in “Now We Are Six”. The charming illustrations were drawn by Ernest Shepard who had links with the Punch magazine and his drawings helped to promote the Winnie The Pooh stories into a rare and roaring success.

Milne was beginning to feel constrained by the restraints that his readers demanded to create more of the Pooh stories. He reluctantly obliged in his next book, “The House at Pooh Corner” in 1928. Milne continued to pursue his other literary persuits during this time producing the stories of “The Secret and Other Stories”(1929) and the plays “The Fourth Wall” (1928) and “The Ivory Door” (1929). Milne enjoyed writing whatever pleased him and appeared to revel in the movement from verse, play and story which was not encouraged by his Winnie The Pooh followers. Milne commented that he has “Said goodbye to all that in 70,000 words” (the length of the four principle children’s books) although his publisher, Methuen, continued to issue whatever Milne produced with approximately twenty five further works of novels, plays, political polemics and essays. These included “The Toad of Toad Hall” (1929), “Michael And Mary”(1930) and “Two People” (1931). Unfortunately these literary works did not come with the public recognition Milne sought and he continued to dislike being cast as a children’s author. “The World of Pooh” won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958 but I suspect that it held little joy for A. A. Milne to receive it.

I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh. “There there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”  A. A. Milne Winnie the Pooh
The-Sunny-Side-First-Edition-A.A.Milne 1921Michael-And-Mary-A.A.Milne-First-Edition-1930Two-People-First-Edition-A.A.Milne 1931A-Gallery-Of-Children-A.A.Milne-First-EditionThe toad of Toad Hall by A.A Milne 1st edition

“It is a terrible thing for an author to have a lot of people running about his book without any invitation from him at all.” – A. A. Milne


To view more of his rare and first edition books visit our page A .A .Milne and I hope you enjoy all of his publications!