I’m surprised at the number of people who are genuinely curious on whether it’s possible to make money selling antique books. The market for collectible first editions is huge and it’s not getting smaller. While many new technologies, apps, and tools can mean there’s more competition to the old school book hounds versus the new school, but even with Internet on phones and app culture, there’s still plenty that falls through the cracks.
The market for buying and selling antique books has never been bigger! Capable collectors can still find great deals on antique books at estate sales, used book stores, and other sources and sell them to antique book stores, auction houses, individual collectors, or even online!
While the book hunting scene has changed immensely due to a variety of reasons, the demands for rare and antique books have not. Let’s dive into this, what the markets look like, different buyers and sellers, and more about how an amateur with an interest and just a few bucks can jump into this world.
Let’s dive in!
Rare Books Are A Huge Market
Rare books passed $1 billion in sales at high end auction houses for the first time in 2021 – and that was only auction houses. The majority of rare book sales happen at stores, online, or through person to person deals meaning the overwhelming majority of sales in numbers (and almost certainly total revenue) isn’t included in that $1 billion number.
This is a wide market, which is part of why there’s always so much room for new people to enter into it and to find a great deal.
Take these multiple examples of collectors who would look for completely different things – and likely would go to completely different sellers who bought from different acquirers.
- Sinclair Lewis aficionado collecting his early first printings
- History buff collecting primary school history books from 1850s to 1930s
- Medical buff collecting old medical books from 1800s
- American fiction collector looking for complete set of first edition Hemingways
- Eagle Scout looking for good condition copies of every edition of Boy Scout Handbook and Scoutmaster Handbook
This barely scratches the surface of the types of collectors out there, not to mention individual author fans like fans of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Louis L’amour, or Joseph Heller.
In other words there are books everywhere that are worth serious money to the right collector. I’ve scored major hits at small town flea markets, estate sales, local auctions, garage sales, used book stores, even eBay.
While some of these aren’t the gold mines they used to be (you wouldn’t believe what you could find on eBay back in 2004/2005), there are still rare or valuable books that can be found underpriced just about anywhere. And the more you develop an eye for it, the more often you’ll look at a book you have no reference on, take a chance, and make it work to the tune of a nice little profit.
Recommended Beginner’s Resource: ABC for Book Collectors
Do You Need A Store To Make Money Off Antique Books?
Nope! Having a good relationship with antique book shop owners, especially if you live in towns that have multiple such shops close by. Knowing what they specialize in, what they’re always searching for, and what they have little interest in can help you know when to make a quick but fair sale or when to not even approach because what you have is best given to another seller or listed online.
Now having an online store isn’t the worst idea, and there’s been one consistent destination that antique book collectors have used since the early 2000s and that’s Abebooks.com. So it’s the place that collectors tend to go when looking for first editions, first printings, or other special books online so that is where you would want to pay the monthly fee to set up your online store.
While this is an upfront expense and it does take time to list everything and keep track of orders, even a small number of sales is worth it and since buyers come to this site looking for specific books, online stores tend to move a good number of books especially if you have anything remotely interesting or in demand.
But you don’t need a brick or mortar location to make this work.
I sold books from an Abebooks store for several years and then eventually moved on to just flipping books when I found a particularly good deal so I didn’t have to deal with storage, shipping, or anything else anymore as I moved on to other projects in life. I didn’t make quite as much, but you work with what life and time gives you.
For someone who wanted to do both, it’s a fully viable way to make money as a side hustle and it even can be a full-time income although that takes a lot more work and can be a bit uneven as sometimes the buying market gets extremely hot, sometimes you make a huge sale from a very hard to find or rare first edition find, and at other times sales are a bit thin as you’re searching for that next find.
In the next section I’m going to dive into how this process works.
What Is A Book Hound & How Does Buying/Selling Antique Books Work?
Another way to think of a book found is someone who flips books. Take everything you know about retail arbitrage and put the same concepts to work. Not everything can be bought cheap at a retailer and sound for a higher price elsewhere…but a lot can. Same with rare, odd, or antique books. Most books aren’t worth much on resale, if they can be resold at all.
But there are many books out there that can catch the interest of collectors, and that means plenty of opportunities for finding books to sell.
So What Is a Book Hound?
Book Hound is the old school term that was given to individuals who focused specifically on hunting for antique books, rare books, or valuable first printing books that were heavily underpriced and then could be bought cheap and sold to an antique book store or professional collector for a large profit. Anyone who has watched antiquing shows or flipping channels on YouTube understand the concept, but Book Hounds focused specifically on the world of collectible books.
Generally this meant a home library of books about antique books, first editions, collectibles, and more because knowledge is definitely power. The more you know, the more you know what to look for.
There are tools that make this easier now. A smartphone with a connection gives you the power of Google to look up names, dates, first editions, and see what information pops up. I even wrote an article on some of the best apps for book sellers that can help out with finding good buys in certain circumstances.
These are great tools, but you can’t sit and check thousands of titles one by one.
This is where shaving a library you study frequently, and a large knowledge of lesser known pen names, can go a long way to becoming a successful book hound. While traditionally this mainly meant finding collectible books sometimes now this also blurs with retail arbitrage, school book flipping, and other methods for making money selling books.
How (and Where) Do You Find Valuable Books To Sell?
There are many options for finding valuable books to sell, but it’s important to realize that this is a search or a hunt. The old word would be antiquing or book hound, while in modern terms this might be called flipping, the idea is the same.
However, finding limited edition, collectible, and rare books that are underpriced to buy and be able to sell for a profit. The following are 7 of my favorite places to find valuable books to turn around and sell.
Flea markets are one of my favorite options because so many people are selling old books they don’t know have become valuable, books from parents or grandparents in boxes they haven’t opened in years (or decades) and you just never know what random books just show up. Sometimes there are great finds among tables and tables of books, while at other times I’ve seen a Flea Market setup and seen a single interesting book I was willing to take a chance on, which is how I found The Golden Censer for $1.
It wasn’t spectacular condition, but remarkably good for an 1890 work and for a dollar, I made the investment back many times. Flea markets can be great places to find first printings but they also tend to have interesting books pop up at random. If there’s nothing at one table, just keep on moving to the next.
If you love antiquing or flipping in general, flea markets should be a “must visit” anyway. Finding potentially valuable books in a flea market is something that happens quite often and for people who got into this for the same reason I did – the thrill of the hunt, the thrill of the find – flea markets are especially fun because you never know what your haul might look like.
Maybe you’ll find a collection of cloth bound elementary school books from the 1920s that would fetch a good price from a curious collector. Maybe no one knows who Sinclair Lewis is at this event, leaving you multiple first printings for $1 each. Maybe you see some paperbacks that have pennames only the most devoted Dean Koontz fan would recognize. Or maybe you’ll find an odd beautiful book with gold lettering or wood engravings.
In other words, it’s a treasure hunt and you never know if you will find gold or nothing or something in between, but flea markets can be a lot of fun and ridiculously profitable in the right circumstances.
Estate sales are hit and miss when it comes to books but some estates have massive numbers of books for sale and usually have public viewings where you can see and look at what is going to be auctioned off the next day. While there’s often competition for very high end stuff, don’t let that discourage you. If there are a couple of obvious insanely rare books that get all the attention, the high end bidders might not care about the early antique Sinclair Lewis books that are still worth several hundred per.
For those of us small fry, that’s not a bad haul in at all, especially if there’s a $800 copy of The Innocents or a $500 copy of Thunderhawk within that group, even better. Even beyond first printings, look for local published books, artsy books, or old interesting books that might not be “conventionally valuable” according to first edition standards, however might be valuable to the right collector.
Think train books, early photography, old history books, old school books, or anything that is themed or different. Very early books of Peanuts comics, in other words anything that has potential to be interesting from collectors.
Some will be hits, some misses, but especially if you have an Abebooks online store, even if you can’t find a direct buyer for many books at first, if you have an online store with interesting or unique books the power of traffic that Abebooks has means over time you will make sales here and there.
Small Town Auctions / Auction Houses
There are small towns that often have auction houses with consistent auctions. These can be estate sales, retiring couples moving, groups of people in a neighborhood wanting to sell more than they’re likely to get from a mass neighborhood garage sale, whatever the reason small town auctions can be loaded with interesting things. I’ve seen amazing items at small town auctions in the Northeast, but don’t sleep on the Midwest.
You would not believe how many interesting things from across the world were just sitting in farmhouses from those 1-2 trips overseas 40 years ago before an old couple decided it was time to move to Florida.
These small town auctions can vary immensely. I had the most experience around the small town of Belle Plaine, Iowa, of all places because my parents lived there, and while there was never a huge win that blew my mind, there were usually a few books here or there that were interesting and every couple of auctions there was a box of books or two that were worth bidding up on.
And the $1`boxes of books were almost always worth the buy, just in case. If nothing else, I already had the Abebooks.com online book store already so in a worst case scenario I could list any that looked interesting or were recent best sellers and in demand, and I could batch books on eBay just to get what I could from the others.
If you spend $6 on six completely full boxes of books you’re not going to do badly, even when there aren’t any collectibles or first printings of note.
Google Maps is one of your friends for finding local auction houses, as is a simple Google Search like “Auction house, City Name.” While there are sites that claim to have listings of auctions nationwide they tend to be pretty cruddy or thin. Look for the local auction houses so you know what’s viable in your area and what their schedules are.
While eBay isn’t nearly the gold mine that it used to be, there are still many deals to be found here. There are many more flippers, arbiters, and deal seekers on eBay, and a lot more knowledge about how flipping works, which means there’s a lot more competition for what’s there, but there are still first editions that show up on the auction site undervalued and have plenty of space to purchase and sell for a higher retail price.
eBay is also a place where you can watch over auctions, set up automatic bids for late in the process, or sometimes get really lucky and find a misspelling or otherwise messed up listing that results in a book not getting the attention it otherwise would.
There is more competition here so you really have to know your stuff to find really good deals but they are still there. Generally speaking, the more specialties you understand, the more likely you are to find a deal.
In other words, if you are familiar with a lot of valuable editions from the 1900s to the 1950s that others aren’t as familiar with, or know what oddball first editions of modern best selling authors’ early works are valuable, or simply have a buyer for certain niche books, then you will be more consistently successful on eBay than if you just have a surface level basic knowledge of rare books.
The other nice thing about eBay is time. If you’re at home at 11 p.m. and there’s not much else to do, scrolling through auctions to see if there’s anything worth keeping an eye on can give leads when you otherwise would have no other way or place to find a deal at that time.
Used Book Stores
Admittedly, there have been many trips to used book stores that end with me buying reading material versus making a find, however a good used book store can be an amazing place to find interesting and potentially valuable books. These come in all sizes and obviously moderate sized stores have less to look through than gigantic used book stores but that doesn’t change the fact that it only takes one good find to make it worth it.
And let’s face it, most of us who are attracted to the idea of being a book hound are never going to turn down the chance to go hit a used book store.
One of the best skills you can have when going through a used book store is having an instinct for what’s interesting. There are so many hardcovers of Dante’s Inferno that none of them published in the last 100 years are necessarily collectible because of the year and printing, but if you find a hardcover that has woodprint carvings inside, that is incredible find because the artwork is beautiful enough that a collector will want it.
That is a valuable buy at $2-3. The focus on a listing needs to be taking good photographs of that art as opposed to the first printing page, but it can be done.
Another example from a recent outing was I found a 1964 printing of a Scoutmaster’s Handbook that was in remarkably good condition. It had been used, but not by much, and was listed at $5.
Considering I know a lot of collectors who had been in Scouts or collected older Scouting memorabilia, this was an easy buy. I had no idea what it was worth, but even if I didn’t have those connections, that was an odd duckling find. If you find a book and the reaction is “Super cool, I can see how some collectors would really like this,” then it’s worth picking up.
I don’t know anything about 1930s leather bound school books on math or arithmetic, or medical books from the late 1800s other than there are collectors somewhere who would like them.
Keep that same eye in used bookstores and if you can combine that with a knowledge of valuable paperbacks and you’ll be in a really great position to find the best possible deals every time you visit your favorite used bookstore, or one that you happen to spot while traveling.
The Garage Sales can be hit or miss, and in most locations garage sales won’t be nearly as heavy on books as many other items, but it’s always worth a look. This can also depend a lot on area. College towns versus small towns, high education states versus lower, there are just some areas where books are a much bigger part of the culture or fabric than others.
I find something here or there with garage sales. I haven’t had nearly the success that some others I known have had, at least not with books, but sometimes you get a gem. A set of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons core books sold at $5 a piece can still be flipped for double or triple that because of how popular and expensive those books are sold for, even used.
I’ve found some old $35-50 first editions I’ve picked up for $3-5 each, and there have been others. At garage sales you are more likely to find an interesting odd or end, or a slew of popular paperbacks or recent bestsellers that you can get for a really good price and flip for a moderate profit online.
I had one friend who found an entire original Hardy Boys (blue hardcovers) series at a garage sale and got them for $1 per hardcover. Yeah, he made an insane killing on that one.
As an example of why garage sales are still worth the time comes in the form of a heartbreaking story from one of my good friends:
My uncle gave me his comic collection, and we’re talking about the type of collection that was a small fortune. Super Man #1, Batman, early rare comics in near perfect condition. This was worth six or seven hundred thousand when I had it. This was my emergency retirement plan, or my wealthy retirement plan if life worked out well. These were boxed up, but in the back of a closet, which was blocked off with a dresser. When I moved, I told my Mom in no uncertain terms to never, never take anything out of my old room, I would come back and get it if she ever needed the space. Fast forward a few years I come back from college, and she hands me $500. I ask what’s this for. She said “I sold those old comics at a garage sale.” I might have been a jerk for forcing her to look up in multiple sources what those were worth, but god, I can’t even be made at whoever bought them. They had the steal of a lifetime and knew it.
Eventually my friend forgave his Mom, but yeah, that would have been a rough screw up, especially because of the level of effort it would have took to get to the comics, drag them out, and make the worst sale idea in history.
But the point of the story in this case: if you had been the one at that garage sale you would be well on the road to retirement at this point. While I’ll take a flea market, auction, or estate sale over a garage sale in most cases because I’m playing the percentages, you’re leaving potential big finds off the table by not hitting these sales.
I can hear what you’re saying now: “Wait a minute, isn’t this where you go to sell valuable books?” And the answer is yes.
However, since Abebooks is where you find specialty books that might not have been widely printed or widely known about, and then getting that to give to a collector who isn’t as savvy or doesn’t know about this particular world.
An example from my own time during the Hey Day of my book hound days worked out like this:
A friend and roommate of mine from college was working a factory job and chatting with his co-workers. It came up that I bought and sold rare books and was always hitting up auctions and garage sales looking for a hidden gem. One of his co-workers had a hobby of tracking down lost “ghost towns” and there was one in northeast Iowa he couldn’t find any sign of, but he knew of a locally published vanity press book form 5+ decades ago that had old photographs and information that he believed could give him the clues he needed to track down the location.
I searched online for it on a whim and there was one copy on the entire Internet…on Abebooks, priced at $70. He was willing to pay $120 so even after shipping and insurance I was up for ordering the book, handing it to my friend to deliver, and getting the cash back that night. Worth 2 months of fees for my online store – very worth it!
You are not going to find a 1st/1st on Abebooks for cheap, buy it, and then sell it to someone else on the same website for a profit. That’s not going to happen, however being able to locate a unusual request and then get paid offline or via mail, that works out very well!
Educating Yourself To Become A Book Hound
There are so many more resources now than back when I was getting started, so don’t let a lack of knowledge stop you from jumping in. First of all there are many great online resources, including this website, which are designed to help educate you and give you a sense of the many resources that every experienced book hound is going to want while building their knowledge and expertise.
So there are some books you are simply going to want to start building your reference library. Some of the best starters:
- ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter
- First Editions: A Guide to Identification by Edward Zempel
- A Primer of Book Collecting by John Tracy Winterich
- Collected Books: The Guide to Values by Allen and Patricia Ahearn (older editions can still be valuable even if not fully up to date)
- Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the 21st Century by Nicholas A Basbanes
- A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride
- Collectable Paperback Books by Jeff Canja
- Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age by Matthew Budman
Don’t only limit yourself to the ones on this list. One of the books that was huge in getting me started was 20th Century First Edition Classic Fiction: A Price and Identification Guide 2003 Edition by Thomas Lee. And I would argue that whatever Thomas Lee edition is most recent should be tacked right onto this list.
For me, the organization of this book was fantastic and really helped me dive into this world, memorize information, and come back to glance over during long road trips or late nights where I just wanted to keep learning. The way information is presented makes a difference and each of us will have our preferences.
If you see more books on book collecting it never hurts to pick them up and keep expanding your library. If there end up being a few that just don’t quite get a lot of use with you because you have other ones that cover the information better for you, bundle together the ones you don’t want and eBay them…there’s always a market for bundles of book collector reference books.
YouTube & Online Resources
I’m actually surprised there aren’t more book collecting or book hound blogs and active YouTube channels. This is a topic I thought would have done really well in the Internet’s early days, leading to many well-known resources, but there aren’t as many as expected.
That said, if you’re a true beginner, there are some great resources out there.
Book Collecting YouTube Channels of Note
- Oddfellow’s Fine Books & Collectibles – Unfortunately very few videos made with the last ones being done 6+ years ago but the videos he makes are outstanding and really cover many beginner topics you’ll want to know as a book hound or collector.
- Reserved Investments Intro To Rare Book Market – Great introductory video that talks about the rare book market, investing in it, and what new collectors need to know which is also great info for new book hounds to understand how it works.
- Adam Weinberger Rare Book Buyer – Admittedly not super charismatic in front of the camera, but the information is excellent and really focuses on teaching the ins and outs of the rare book market.
Some Book Collector Blogs or Resources Worth Visiting
- The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America – Official page for the large organization all about antique books and book sellers. Not a resource I use often, but useful for some and and can be an interesting insight into the high end of what’s happening in the rare collectible books market.
- Books Tell You Why – Focus on the Book Collecting Topic and blog posts to get a wide array of points of views, topics, and information on various aspects of collecting first printings and rare books. One of the big book blogs out there.
There are other collecting blogs out there, but honestly I’m not sure they’re better (or depending the topic even comparable, to the quality of content we’re working to put out here.
So self-pitch to check out of the great resources we offer here in addition to looking around for book blogs that really speak to you. Book collecting and selling is so wide a topic that you can have five different antique book selling blogs focusing on five different types of books, and each one will have knowledge, stories, and information that specifically applies to those niches.
So spend time finding those sites that match up with what you are interested in and use those in combination of YouTube, book selling blogs, and talk to other book hounds or introduce yourself to local rare book stores to learn more and make connections or pick up references that can further help you develop you abilities.
This is one situation where the journey is as fun as the destination, and it’s a hobby, a side hustle, even a career that is nothing short of amazing.
Why Are Famous First Editions Less Valuable?
If you’re new to the world of antique book collecting, being a book hound, or flipping antiques, you might be surprised to learn that quite often the most valuable first editions/first printings of an author are often times relatively unknown titles. Meanwhile, the famous books the authors are known for are valuable, but sometimes a fraction of the value as those other works.
So why are famous first edition books often less valuable?
With modern antique books famous first editions are often less valuable because they aren’t the author’s first book. Since early less successful books have much fewer printings, they’re much more valuable to collectors while famous books may have tens or even hundreds of first editions available, making them less valuable.
That doesn’t mean you should pass up on a first edition of The Old Man and the Sea, but it does explain why Hemingway works you’ve likely never heard of are worth many times as much as a first printing. Let’s dive further into this!
Extreme Rarity Equates to Higher Antique Book Values
Many authors like Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and others who were famous often had their first books that had print runs of 500, 1,000, 5,000 or less. In other words, there were very few of these books to begin with and it was at a time when those authors were not household names.
When there’s 10,000 copies of one early work and only 1,000 of another, the 1,000 copy first edition is going to be more valuable because there will be far fewer for collectors to pick up and that limitation sky rockets demand.
This can even be clearly seen when looking at the most valuable antique first printings from famous authors, as these examples show below.
Example One: Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway is a giant in the literary world, but you might be surprised to hear the names of his most valuable first editions. Hemingway is also an outlier in the fact that his first breakthrough novel (The Sun Also Rises) is very valuable in large part because a corrected misspelling caught in the original print one kept the first printing down to 5,090 copies before the corrected version had tens of thousands of copies run off.
But even then, it’s not the most valuable of the Hemingway works.
The five most valuable collectible first editions for Ernest Hemingway are (prices F/NF estimates):
- Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923) $65,000
- In Our Time (1924 version) $50,000
- In Our Time (1925 version) $50,000
- The Sun Also Rises (1926) $50,000
- The Torrents of Spring (1926) $20,000
If you only recognize one or maybe two of those titles, that would make you a normal non-English major.
Example Two: Ayn Rand
Although Ayn Rand has a relatively small canon of works, she’s a prime example of how the lesser known works are more monetarily valuable because there were so many more copies in the first printings of Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged than We The Living or Anthem, when Rand was a relative unknown. The early works she published are often 2x to 4x more valuable than the first printings of her most famous works.
Related Article: How Much Is an Ayn Rand First Edition Worth?
The most valuable Ayn Rand works are (prices F/NF estimates):
- We The Living (1936) $8,000
- Anthem (1938 – UK) $7,500
- Fountainhead (1943) $4,000
- Atlas Shrugged (1957) $2,500
As you can see, Rand’s two most famous works, the ones that she is almost solely remembered for, are also the least valuable of the antique first printings.
Example Three: Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis is another classic example of how the unknown early books that have short runs take on a much higher value in the eyes of collectors than the works that made him famous works (Main Street, Arrowsmith, Babbitt). Lewis is mostly forgotten now, or known for It Can’t Happen Here, a much later work in his career.
Related Article: Early Sinclair Lewis Antique Book Collecting Guide
So what is Lewis’s most valuable antique book? Fun fact: it’s one that doesn’t even have his name on it. And you don’t even need the dust jacket for it to be the most valuable one.
- Hike and the Aeroplane (written as Tom Graham) $10,500 (no known dust jackets have survived, if one did even in bad condition that could sky rocket this number)
This is well over double the value of his better known books. Lewis’s other earliest works either didn’t have book covers or had papery ones that didn’t survive so the prices for those are $350-$1,000 and that’s without dust jacket, which is impressive when you consider that most antique books with collectible dust jackets only hold 5-10% of value without it.
Learn the Early Titles
While there are less copies of early titles, that means that many casual collectors aren’t likely to recognize these titles – especially if they are under a penname. Studying early works and studying works under pennames can give you the ability to spot gems in used books stores, auctions, or estate sales that others would miss – and let you know to spend your budget on the true gems while other less experienced buyers bid up the more well-known titles.
Keep this in mind, supply and demand, and you’re knowledge of why lesser known antique books are more valuable will help you potentially score some serious antique books over a book hound career
Books Are A Valuable Business
While articles have bemoaned the end of reading since the 1970s, in the five plus decades since the first complaints along those lines went up more books are sold than ever, more ebooks are sold than ever, more audiobooks are bought than ever, and more people read. Is the percentage of the population that reads books as a hobby going down? Sure, but not at the catastrophic rates that some media would have you believe.
Books are still a big business, and the love of collecting old books finding rare first printings, and making money as a book hound have never gone away. In some areas there is more competition than ever while in others there doesn’t seem to be any more attention than 10 or 20 years ago, meaning it’s just as open as ever.
This is a great starting point to getting you making money with books, and provide you with the resources and information you need to thrive in the world of buying and selling books!
Other Book Articles of Interest