Vintage books, unlike some collectibles, continue to escalate in price during a recession. Many select titles double and triple in value. Christie's New York recently held a rare book auction that netted $1.2 million.
At the same time, however, many budget-conscious average collectors have become fussier and lately have been buying fewer books. They realize long-term value depends on significance of the book or author, scarcity and condition, and general interest in the topic or time period.
It's important that a book is a first edition, which is the first print run of a book on the first set of plates. Go with your instincts on which books are worth collecting, but pick a writer you like, since most won't appreciate in value.
"You can't buy very marvelous paintings for small sums of money anymore, but you can still buy very marvelous books for relatively small sums," says Peter Kraus, owner of Ursus Rare Books Ltd. in New York. "Not only is it a passion-driven endeavor, but the books are only going to become more valuable."
Prices of like-new, first-edition books vary, but the right choices have risen:
* "Indemnity Only," the 1982 mystery novel by Sara Paretski that features private eye V. I. Warshawski, now sells for $1,000.
* Tom Clancy's thriller "The Hunt for Red October," made into a hit film, has escalated to the range of $450 to $600.
* Best-selling author Amy Tan's first book, "The Joy Luck Club," published in 1989, is now worth $75 to $100.
* The Ernest Hemingway classic "The Sun Also Rises," which sold for $3,000 five years ago, now commands $15,000.
* "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, has appreciated from $1,000 to $4,000 in the past five years.
"Prices paid for books are excellent because there's excellent material available, with 20th-century literature and American historical manuscripts gaining the most," says Selby Kiffer, vice president of the book and manuscript department of Sotheby's auction house in New York.
Yet rare books are relatively illiquid and you may have to wait years to see appreciation. Prices are volatile, and, if you are buying through a dealer, there are markups. Selling through a dealer can take time, though you also can sell to other collectors or at auction.
"Today's collectors are being conservative and buying blue-chip authors," explains Beth Garon, co-owner of Chicago-based Beasley Books.
"Remember, condition is everything, so the collector must use plastic dust cover protectors, keep books out of sun and away from water, and must read them carefully, so as not to damage them in the process."
While many first editions are clearly marked, others are tricker and may require a dealer appraisal. Signed copies also can add to value.
One trend is that African-American authors are gaining in value, Garon says. Gloria Naylor's 1982 book "The Women of Brewster Place," made into a television miniseries, is now worth $400.
Another work by a black author, Jean Toomer's 1923 book "Cane," sold for $500 five years ago and today is worth $2,000.
"Follow your heart and intellectual inclination and don't overextend financially," counsels Martin Antonetti, librarian for New York's Grolier Club, whose worldwide membership includes 650 book lovers. "You don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good collection."
Some once-valued works, such as assorted fiction by Anthony Burgess of "Clockwork Orange" fame, and Thomas Berger, author of "Little Big Man," have fallen from favor and declined in value.
Vintage children's books are popular. A copy of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum from 1900 now costs $8,000, while "Peter Rabbit" by Beatrix Potter from 1901 brings $50,000.
The original Big Little Books, published by Whitman Publishing from 1932 through 1950, are 4 1/2 -by-4 inches and 400 pages thick. Sold initially for 10 cents, some are worth hundreds of dollars.