What Is my Lincoln Book Worth?

There are a lot of Lincoln books in the world. Abraham Lincoln is the most written about personage in American History. So it is a fair bet that most American households have some sort of Lincoln book in their libraries.

As a result, the inevitable question arises: "What is my Lincoln book worth?" It is the most frequently asked question I get from readers of this website. My answers are always longer than the questioner anticipates, because there are no definitive answers, regardless of the title.

I generally tell them that the value of any given book depends on three "internal" variables and one "external" variable. The three "internal" variables are condition, edition, and scarcity. The "external" variable is how you define "worth." Each of these variables deserves to be explained.

The internal variables are more easily explained than the external. First, condition. There is an axiom in the real estate business that the value of a piece of property depends on three things: location, location, and location. This truism can be extended to the book business as well, as the value of even the rarest title depends on three things: condition, condition, condition. Book collectors want books that are clean, tight, bright, and complete. The value of even the rarest book will be significantly diminished if it is in poor condition. Books that have any sort of library marking on them (ex-library books) and books issued by book clubs are avoided like the plague. A collector may accept an ex-library book as a "hole-filler" until a better edition can be found, but do not expect him/her to pay a lot for it. Likewise, a book that is in poor condition (i.e., chipped, loose, or missing spine, broken or weak hinges, dirt, stains and soiling) is worth a mere fraction of the same title in fine condition.

The second internal variable is edition. As a rule of thumb, collectors are seeking first printings of first editions. Thus, a first British printing of Lord Charnwood's book, Abraham Lincoln, is much more valuable than the 1996 Madison Books reprint.

The third internal factor is scarcity. Outwardly, the law of supply and demand has a great deal to do with value. If there are more collectors wanting a particular title than there are available books, the value will be driven higher. Conversely, the more copies of a particular book that are available, the lower the value. But other variables affect scarcity. Some books are issued in limited editions, thus insuring a finite number of copies available. Also, books that are signed usually fetch a premium.

So in determining a value you consider condition, edition, and scarcity of the title, but you are not yet finished. You have to consider the external variable: what do you mean by "worth" or "value." Or precisely, value to whom?

In considering value, you have two scenarios: you want to know what the book is worth for you own personal edification or for insurance purposes. We could call this the book's "retail" value: the price you would have to pay to go out and buy another copy. The other scenario is that you want to sell the book and pocket the cash. This we could call the "wholesale" value.

To determine the retail value of a book, all you need to do is find a comparable title for sale somewhere. Internet book listings like
Advanced Book Exchange, Bibliofind, or Alibris make this task easy. These are the values I place on my Lincoln books for insurance purposes, because if I were to lose my library in some catastrophe, I would have to go out into the marketplace to replace them.

The wholesale value, or the price you can reasonably expect to get for your book if you sell it, is much lower. As a general rule, you can expect a dealer or reseller to give you somewhere between 25% to 50% of the retail value of any given title. And don't be surprised if a dealer is not interested in buying your book at all! Almost all dealers have a nearly endless supply of the more common titles, and would not want to be burdened with more "dead wood." This may sound like a cold or harsh statement, but it is the plain truth.

Of course you can try to sell your book directly to a collector, but finding a buyer willing to pay you the full retail value may be an impossible task. With the internet offering resources like newsgroups and online auctions, the possibility of finding such a buyer may be better than in years past. However, many collectors are reluctant to buy from private parties and prefer to stick with established dealers.

So . . . after all this . . . What is your Lincoln book worth?

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 1999, 2000

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