Is There Money to be Made in Rare Books? Reader's Digest Says "Yes"

- by Michael Stillman


A copy of the Gutenberg Bible (Library of Congress image).

For those who get their financial advice from Reader's Digest, you just got a "yes" on buying rare books, first editions in particular. Reader's Digest recently came out with a list of 8 Cheap Items to Buy Now That Will Be Worth a Fortune Later. On that list is "first edition books," with the explanation, "If you’re able to get your hands on a first edition of a new book that could potentially become very popular, you could make a lot of money off of it in the future." They cite as an example the one everyone cites these days, the Harry Potter series. Of course, if you bought one of the other hundreds of thousands of books published in the past two decades, you wouldn't have done so well.


The introductory paragraph then takes us to a more detailed list of "8 more rare books that are worth a fortune." There are actually 15 books on this list, which is why the publication is known as Reader's Digest, not Mathematician's Digest. There aren't too many other items on this list that living people could have purchased new. Older readers might have been able to pick up a James Bond when new, maybe even Salinger's classic. None of us were here to get a freshly printed Shakespeare First Folio, let alone a Gutenberg Bible.


Here is what is on their list, along with the estimated values. Their prices mostly seem on the high side, a seller's preferred price, rather than that of a buyer. One surmises they may have seen an auction price for a special copy, perhaps a signed one, or the highest priced listing on AbeBooks. However, even if some prices are exaggerated, they are right in saying, "If you have one of these rare books sitting on a shelf somewhere, get ready to cash in!" Check your shelves to see if you have a Gutenberg Bible lying around.


Shakespeare's First Folio. $5.2 million.


In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. $321,000.


Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling. $55,000.


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. $180,159.


Casino Royale by Ian Fleming. $130,000.


The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. $11.2 million.


The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. $210,000.


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. $194,000.


Tamerlane and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe. $662,500.


Ulysses by James Joyce. $355,000.


The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. $56,124.


The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. $40,000-$75,000.


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. $2-$3 million.


Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. $137,500.


Gutenberg Bible. $5.39 million.


If there is one bargain in this lot, it is the last of these. $5.39 million was the price paid at Christie's in 1987 for the Esther Doheny copy of the Gutenberg Bible. That is the last one to be sold. It is worth a lot more today. In 2015, Sotheby's sold a section from the Gutenberg consisting of 8 leaves for $970,000. The Gutenberg Bible contains 643 leaves. Readers of Mathematician's Digest will be able to do the math on that one to estimate what a complete Gutenberg might be worth today.