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Hidden Treasures on Your Bookshelf

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You May Already Own Books Worth $200 to $5,000

There might be a book on your bookshelf that’s worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Valuable books can turn up at yard sales and book sales, too, where you can buy them for next to nothing.

Even though the most valuable books of the 20th century predate the 1960s, there are a fair number of books published since 1960 that have significant value. Many of these valuable modern books are from early in the careers of authors who only later became widely read.

What to look for: Only first printings of modern books tend to be collectible and therefore valuable (see box on page 12 for more about first printings). Modern books generally must be in pristine condition—that is, virtually like new—to have significant value.

Here, 20 first printings that have become collectibles…

Editor’s Note: Collectible book values fluctuate, so it’s worth checking recent sale prices on AbeBooks.com before selling. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the highest price asked for a book such as yours on this site is the value of your book. Some sellers ask much more than their books are worth, and even small differences in book condition can have a tremendous impact on value. More telling is the lowest price asked for the book in comparable condition.

  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980). Toole’s ­posthumously published novel won the Pulitzer Prize but was initially printed by a university press in a very small first printing—reportedly just 2,500 copies. Value: $3,000 to $4,000. Helpful: A true first-printing dust jacket should have no reviews on the back, only a blurb from Walker Percy.
  • Americana by Don DeLillo (1971). DeLillo’s first novel received favorable reviews but didn’t sell especially well, so first printings are relatively rare. Value: $300 to $500.
  • City of Glass by Paul Auster (1985). Auster was known mainly as a poet and essayist until he wrote this Edgar Award–winning detective novel. Value: Around $500.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1971). Thompson’s third and most famous book has become a counterculture classic. Value: $500 to $750.
  • Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx (1988). Proulx’s first book of fiction wasn’t as popular as her later best seller The Shipping News (1993), but Heart Songs’ rarity makes it valuable. Value: Around $300.
  • Housekeeping byMarilynne Robinson (1980). Robinson’s first novel came out of nowhere to earn a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Value: $500 to $750.
  • If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien (1973). First printings of O’Brien’s acclaimed Vietnam war memoir are quite rare. Value: Around $2,000. Also: O’Brien’s Going ­After Cacciato (1978) can bring $350 to $500.

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  • Lonesome Dove by Larry ­McMurtry (1985). Lonesome Dove wasn’t McMurtry’s first novel—far from it—but it was a book people read, not one that just sat on bookshelves. It also is a long book-more than 800 pages-and the spines of fat books tend to age poorly, so few pristine first printings remain. Value: Around $350. Also: McMurtry’s first two novels, Horseman, Pass By (1961) and Leaving Cheyenne (1963), can sell for low four figures. The Last Picture Show (1966) can bring $300.
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). Rushdie is a British author, but the first American printing of Midnight’s Children, his breakthrough second novel, was the true first printing. It preceded the UK edition by a few weeks. Value: Around $750.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1970). A first American printing of this hugely important novel is quite valuable—and quite tricky to identify. Value: Around $2,000.

Helpful: To confirm that you truly have a first American printing, check the copyright page for the phrase “First Edition.” If you find this, flip to the ­final blank page of the book-if there’s a number line (see box for more about number lines), it is not a first printing. (This is a rare case where the number line is published at the back of the book, not on the copyright page.) Finally, check the very end of the first paragraph of the front flap on the dust jacket. On a true “first state” dust jacket, this paragraph will end with an exclamation point, not a period.

  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970). First printings of Morrison’s debut novel are extremely rare and valuable. Value: Around $5,000. Also: First printings of Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1973), are nearly as rare and worth as much as $1,000.
  • The Broom of the System by ­David Foster Wallace (1987). Wallace’s first novel was printed simultaneously in hardcover and paperback. Only around 1,300 copies of the pricier hardcover first printing were made. Value: Around $1,000. Also: The first printing of Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) was much larger, but like many well-read books, few survived in pristine condition. Those that did are worth around $200.
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969). The Godfather became a best seller, but it had a relatively modest initial print run. Like Lonesome Dove, it is a fat, well-read book, so few first printings survive in pristine condition. Value: Around $3,500.
  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974). Shaara’s novel about the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, but the first printing was done cheaply and the binding tended to fall apart. That increases the value of pristine first printings that remain. Value: Around $5,000.
  • The Magic Journey by John ­Nichols (1978). This book was released in hardcover and paperback at the same time. Most readers opted for the less expensive paperback, so first printings of the hardcover are rare. Value: $500 to $750. Also: Nichols’s Milagro Beanfield War (1974) can bring around $250.
  • The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy (1965). McCarthy’s first novel won an award but sold fewer than 3,000 copies. Value: Around $3,000. (Even copies in not-quite-pristine condition can be worth four figures.) Also: First printings of many of McCarthy’s other early Random House novels are relatively rare and valuable, too. ­Outer Dark (1968) can bring $2,000 in pristine condition…Blood Meridian (1985), around $1,000…and Suttree (1979), $500 to $750.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré (1963). Le ­Carré’s classic spy novel was first published in England, but the first American printing is valuable, too. Value: As much as $500. Helpful: A true first American printing of this book reads “First Edition” on the copyright page but does not otherwise mention which printing it is.
  • The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978). The first printing of Garp, Irving’s fourth novel, was a fairly sizable 35,000 copies. Ordinarily that would make this book too common to have much value—but it was a well-read book and a fat book, so relatively few first printings survive in pristine condition. Value: $200 to $300. Also: Irving’s pre-1978 novels are valuable, too.
  • Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow (1960). Doctorow’s debut novel was initially published on cheap, easily damaged paper, so few pristine copies remain. Value: Around $1,000. (Even copies in very good but imperfect condition can bring $400 to $500.)
  • Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? byRaymond Carver (1976). Carver’s first book from a major publisher helped reinvigorate the American short story. Its unlaminated dust jacket is easily damaged, increasing the value of pristine copies. Value: Around $2,500.

How to Identify First Printings

If you have one of the books mentioned in this article, it’s only valuable if it’s a first printing. Not every book identified as a first edition on its copyright page is a first printing. If minor changes were made to the text or dust jacket early in the publication process, only copies printed prior to the changes are first printings.

It can be difficult to tell whether a book is a first printing. In many books published after 1970, there’s a “number line” that can be used to identify first printings. Look for a row of numbers up to 10 on the copyright page. These numbers might be arranged in ascending order, descending order or in some other order. If the number one is ­included in this row, the book is likely a first printing. If not, it probably isn’t.

Exception: Random House first printings do not have the number one in their number lines—the lowest number will be two. A Random House first printing also should include the phrase “First Edition” on the copyright page.

If there is no number line, the phrase “First Edition” or “First Printing” on the copyright page suggests that the book could be a first printing, but it is no guarantee. Book Collecting 2000 (Putnam) by Allen and Patricia Ahearn offers clues for identifying first printings in a wide range of collectible books.

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Source: Ken Lopez, a dealer in rare books based in Hadley, Massachusetts, who specializes in post–World War II British and American fiction. He has been a book dealer since the late 1970s and is past president of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. LopezBooks.com Date: June 15, 2014 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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