Book Collecting: How to Start Collecting Books

This guide is for people who want to start collecting books. You will get a complete overview of what kind of collections you can put together, how much it costs, and whether or not this hobby might be worth the effort.

“Book Collecting 101” is a blog post that talks about the basics of book collecting. It also includes some tips on how to start collecting books. Read more in detail here: book collecting 101.

Rudyard Kipling smoking a pipe in library.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Nate Pedersen.

We spoke about the benefits and how-tos of beginning a collection earlier this year. It’s certainly a man’s pastime. There is possibly no greater collection to accumulate than a hearty library of masculine tomes if you’re a gentleman reader – and you should be. With this essay, I’d want to show you how to add a meaningful book collection to your library and help it reach a new level of brilliance.

But first, some context. Manliness has a long and illustrious history in the personal library. From the 17th through the 20th century, it was a common feature in dwellings. The library was the ideal location for upper-class gentlemen to manage their estates and socialize (usually with a few drinks and cigars). A personal library of even a few bookshelves was a terrific way for the working man to unwind after a long day at work, as well as a possible instrument for advancing up the economic ladder.

Previously, wealthy gentlemen would acquire whole collections of renowned authors (“The Complete Works of Dickens,” for example), prominent texts in the growth of civilisation (the Great Books), and books pertaining to their specific interests or occupations. Any gentleman’s library would have the same basic titles, which meant that, absent a few remarkable outliers, the ordinary collection was sort of dull. Any opulent estate in America or Britain might have variants on the same library.

The library of the working man, on the other hand, was considerably more concentrated and intriguing. Due to limited funds, books were considered a luxury item that could only be purchased for certain purposes or out of a strong and persistent affection for a particular work. As a consequence, even though it was apparently much less spectacular, a working man’s library was a fascinating peek into their lives.

Vintage home shack in bookshelves in australia.

I’m much more curious in the books on the two shelves in this Australian bushman’s hut than I am about the massive libraries of affluent businessmen. Consider how far these books must have traveled to reach this cabin in the Australian wilderness, and how valuable they must have been to this guy. (You’d think this photo couldn’t get much better, but see his guns on the other wall.)

Every man should create a broad library like the one seen above. We should be able to access the significant books in our life at any time. What novels would you bring to an outback cabin in Australia? You should get those books. You don’t need any help; just purchase the books you like. Get them in the format that you choose. Don’t even think about reselling these. To utilize the library, you must first build it. Make notes in the books. When you’re on the road, toss them in your bag or the backseat of your vehicle. Play it safe when it comes to their health. If you prefer ebooks, keep in mind that purchasing physical copies of your favorite books boosts antifragility.


Book collecting, on the other hand, is a very other beast. You may build a planned, carefully curated book collection centered on a specific subject in addition to forming a broad library. And here is where the book collectors are distinguished from the rest of the pack.

Collectors are scavengers who scour the dusty shelves of vintage bookstores for answers to their questions. (Or, less poetically, over their laptops’ flickering displays.) They create targeted collections with certain objectives in mind. Men gather books for a variety of reasons, including aesthetics, hobbies, profit, charity, labor, enjoyment, intellectual pursuits, sheer awesomeness, and avarice. For example, I created one tiny collection for aesthetics on the bookshelf, another small collection to have all of the works of a hard-to-find author, another collection just out of interest in the topic, and still another collection merely to make a profit on later.

Regardless of the motive, every book collection worth its salt must have a primary subject that is immediately identified.

In his classic piece in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911), A.W. Pollard wrote on book collecting:

“The requirement for a primary theme in a contemporary private collection must be properly appreciated.” A simple curiosity store will not suffice for either the collector or the curator. It is the collector’s job to demonstrate his main point by the samples he chooses, the care with which he explains them, and the skill with which they are organized.”

Those statements were true in 1911, and they are still true now. Staying focused, saving time and money, and avoiding superfluous accumulation are all benefits of having a primary theme for your book collection.

Book Collections: What They Are and What They Aren’t

What should you gather, though? How can you maintain your concentration? While there are several ways to start a collection, here are a few tried-and-true methods:

1. The Author Collection: This collection allows you to create a whole library of works by a single author. This usually entails purchasing all of an author’s initial editions, although it may also include reprints, foreign translations, special editions, and magazine appearances. If you want to go after well-known writers, building an author library is a costly endeavor. However, concentrating on an up-and-coming author or a great author who has been ignored by history might help you establish a low-cost collection. The illustrator collection is a variant on the author collection, which entails purchasing all of the books illustrated by a single artist.

2. The List Collection: In this collection, you start with a short, well-established list (for example, Pulitzer Prize winners or Man Booker Prize winners) and then purchase all of the books on that list. This collection would primarily center on the initial editions of these books, although it might also include reprints, classic editions, and other options. The Rivers of America volumes, the Baedeker guidebooks to Europe, and the American Guide Series are among the non-prize-winning lists.

3. The Topical Collection: The only limit to the topical collection is your imagination. For example, I once spoke with a young guy who was frantically gathering everything he could on the 1972 Munich Olympics for his dissertation. That’s a unique and interesting book selection to peruse on the shelf. Similarly, you may collect books on trout fishing in Montana, golfing in Scotland in the twentieth century, literature extolling the glories of Cuban tobacco, or African adventure stories. The range of possible themes is limitless. Collectors of topical book collections often employ them.


4. The Aesthetic Collection: This collection considers the books it collects to be works of art. For example, you may collect publisher’s binding books, books with dust jackets decorated by a particular artist (such as Edward Gorey), 19th century sheet music with color lithograph covers, or vellum books. It’s comparable to putting together a little art collection when it comes to assembling an aesthetic collection. You buy the books because they’re beautiful.

Of course, you don’t have to stick to just one form of collection; I have one of each of the categories listed above. Regardless of the kind of collection you create, think about how each purchase repeats and expands on the fundamental concept conveyed in your library. This will assist you in remaining concentrated and not being distracted by the chase. (Collecting books, like any other hobby, has some good and bad parallels to hunting and gambling.)

It’s All About the Situation

Buying the finest copy you can afford is a solid rule of thumb. What exactly does this imply? Get the book in the best possible condition for your money. When you browse books online or in a bookstore’s catalog, you’ll find that retailers assign grades to their books using a standard criteria that starts with “Fine” and goes down to “Poor”:

  • “Fine” denotes a copy that is virtually new, unread, and shows no indications of wear or usage, particularly given its age.
  • “Near Fine” indicates that the book is almost fine but has a few minor flaws that the retailer will describe in the book’s description.
  • “Very Good” indicates that the book has one or two minor flaws that will be detailed in the description.
  • “Good” frequently has a few flaws.
  • A substantial number of flaws are present in “Fair.”
  • “Poor” is a reading copy only, not suitable for a comprehensive library (unless the book is extremely rare).

Of course, each bookseller’s interpretation of what defines a “Fine” book vs a “Near Fine” book, and so on, is subjective, but these ratings serve as good basic guides.

A note regarding dust jackets: if you can, get one. Whenever possible, look for books with their original dust covers and buy them in the best condition you can afford (this isn’t always possible). Dust jackets are graded on a scale of “Fine” to “Poor,” and they have a significant impact on the book’s worth. A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, would set you back a few thousand dollars. But a first edition with the dust cover in its pristine condition? Over a million dollars. Seriously. So go ahead and grab those dust coats. And make sure they’re protected with Mylar coverings, which can be found at paper and office supply stores like Demco and Brodart. (Learn more about The Great Gatsby’s original edition and why it’s so essential.)

Where Can I Purchase Collectible Books?

So, how do you find your books now? While browsing the shelves of a secondhand bookstore is fun and sometimes lead to serendipity, you’ll want to utilize the Internet’s vast resources to discover particular books for your collections. and are two great sites for finding rare and out-of-print books, which you can then buy from independent bookstores all around the globe. In this way, eBay is also a gold mine.


Seek the guidance of a rare book trader if you need assistance getting started. They may be discovered readily online via the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, and many of them would be delighted to assist a beginner collector in navigating these perilous waters.

How to Save Money When Collecting Books

If you don’t want to spend a fortune on books, follow these guidelines:

Don’t be a scrooge. Sell any books that are no longer useful to your collection. Sell the less desirable copies of books as you come across better ones in your collection. eBay is a terrific place to start.

Be astute when it comes to eBay. Find out how to save your searches. Learn how to use the “completed listings” feature to check how much comparable titles have sold for before. Get a feel of how much a book is worth and bid appropriately the next time it’s up for sale. Keep an eye out for bargains.

Know what you’re talking about. Learn all you can about the genre, subject, author, or artist you’ve selected. You’ll be able to find intriguing content — as well as deals — that fits your overall theme.

Make an effort to develop a connection with a rare book merchant. Before publicizing your collection, he or she will provide you relevant stuff relating to it (where it might be offered at a higher price).

Purchase from a bookshop directly. Sites like and are great for collectors, but they charge bookstores a fee on each transaction. As a consequence, several bookshops offer discounted prices if you purchase directly from them or via their website. Before you buy a book, look into this option, especially if it’s a more costly one.

Whether you wish to become a serious book collector or just want to gather the significant books in your life, remember Cicero’s self-sufficiency quote: “Anyone who possesses a library and a garden needs for nothing.” So let us all be content with nothing.

Do you have a library of books? Leave a comment to tell us about it!

Do you have a library of books? Leave a comment to tell us about it!

Nate Pedersen is an Oregon librarian, journalist, and editor. He was recently featured on AoM as part of the “So You Want My Job” series. Nate worked with rare book traders in North Carolina and Scotland before becoming an Oregon librarian. During the Great Depression, he gathers the Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guide Series. is his website.



If you want to start collecting books, the “starting a book collection reddit” is a good place to start. It will give you all of the information that you need in order to get started.

Related Tags

  • how to collect books for a home library
  • book collecting hobby
  • books and book collecting
  • best books to start a collection
  • building a book collection