How to Find the Value of Old Books Without an ISBN: Are They Worth Anything?
International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) make it easy to identify books and see how much they’re worth, but how can you find the value of books without an ISBN? The issue applies to any book published prior to the 1970’s, when the ISBN system was formalized. Here’s how to find out how much your old book is worth even if it doesn’t have an ISBN.
Identify your book
Examine your book for identifying information you can use to research its value. Search the cover, dust jacket, title page and edition notice (copyright page) and make a list of the following information:
- Title, author(s), editor(s) and illustrator (if any)
- Publisher name and published date
- Binding (paperback or hardcover)
- Signatures or inscriptions
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If the edition isn’t explicitly mentioned, see if the copyright page lists prior printings. Also look for a line of numbers or letters. If such a line exists and includes the number 1 or the letter A (in any order), you likely have a first edition (though there are exceptions).
If your book has a dust jacket, see if it mentions “Book of the Month Club” or “Book Club Edition.” Book club editions can often be identified by the presence of a price on the dust jacket or a blind stamp (an indented shape, like a dot or maple leaf) on the back cover. They typically aren’t worth much; however, some book clubs published fine books from high-quality materials that can be quite valuable. Examples include books by The Limited Editions Club and The Book Club of California.
Next, check the binding. Do you have a paperback or hardcover book? Paperbacks aren’t usually considered collectible, except first editions and those that feature notable cover art. Hardcover books are often described as cloth or clothbound, and values can vary significantly.
If your book contains a signature or inscription, which can impact value, note it on your list.
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Assess your book’s condition
Use these tips to determine your book’s condition so you can find out how much it’s worth.
- Check the dust jacket for tears, chips, stains and creases. Note any blemishes from removed price stickers or signs of shelfwear
- Examine the binding for defects like bent corners, creases, stains, tears and fraying
- Open the book and look for tears, creases, stains and water damage. Note whether a previous owner scribbled notes or scrawled their name inside, and check for remainder marks on the page edges – these can be dots, lines or stamps placed by the publisher to denote returned books
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Note that any change in the book since it left the publisher is considered a flaw in condition. List every potential flaw, then determine which of the following grades best describes your book’s condition.
Very Fine, or As New (VF)
Describes a crisp, fresh copy and is the highest possible grade. Even a sole minor blemish disqualifies a book from very fine grade
A copy without visible flaws but lacks the pristine crispness of a very fine copy. Any minor blemish in the book or on the dust jacket must be noted in the description. A book that is slightly less than fine may be called “near fine”
Very Good (VG)
The most common grade given to a collectible copy. A very good copy has been handled and shows signs of wear, but it is still appealing. Flaws like ownership signatures, bookplates and remainder marks must be noted in the description, along with rubbing, chips, tears and dust jacket price clipping
To quote a bookseller, “good ain’t good.” The book has been used and abused, but it is whole. There might be one major flaw, like dampstaining or a cracked binding, or there might be an accumulation of minor problems. The dust jacket might have some design elements lost, but it must not be fragmentary
A book that shows significant wear. It might have ink marks or stamps, or it might be missing endpapers or half of a title page, but all text pages are intact
Poor/Reading Copy (P)
All text pages are intact, but the book appears very worn with serious soiling, scuffing or marking. Former library copies with stamps and card pockets are considered reading copies
In general, collectors are interested in books in very fine, fine, near fine or very good conditions. Anything less is considered a copy for casual readers and is priced accordingly. In addition, any book with a remainder mark is not considered collectible unless it is truly scarce.
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Note that dust jacket conditions matter, too. They’re often listed just after book conditions. For example, a “VG/F” grade would mean a “very good” book with a “fine” dust jacket.
Find the value of your book
Armed with your list of identifying information along with your condition assessment, search online book dealer inventories for your book by title. Then, cross reference identifiers like author, edition, publisher, binding and condition to get a general idea for the value of your book.
These websites offer book search engines that can help you identify your book:
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Study the search results to see if you can find books that exactly match your identifiers and condition. It’s a good idea to find several copies, if possible. These sites also display book asking prices so you can see how much your book is worth.
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If you can’t find exact matches, see what similar books are selling for. Note that some copies have special features like signatures and custom bindings that make them worth more than standard copies. Keep in mind that asking prices aren’t “sold” prices, so the prices displayed could be greater than what the market will pay.
Though this process isn’t perfect, it will help you get a general idea for the value of any book without an ISBN. You can use that to determine your next steps.
What to do once you have an idea of your book’s value?
If it looks like your book is valuable, you can:
- Contact a professional appraiser to find out exactly what your book is worth. Even if you don’t want to sell your book, the appraisal can be used for insurance or tax purposes. Many book dealers are qualified to give appraisals. You can find them on The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, American Society of Appraisers, Appraisers’ Association of America or International Society of Appraisers’ websites
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- Offer the book to a dealer. Keep in mind dealers must resell for a profit, so they’ll offer less than market value
- Sell it at auction. Sotheby’s and Heritage Auctions are among many auction houses that sell books. They can also help you identify the exact value of your book. While auction houses take a fee, they can also help you get the highest price for very valuable books
- Sell it online. List your book on peer-to-peer platforms, sell it on Amazon or auction it yourself on sites like eBay
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If your book isn’t particularly valuable, you can either keep it to enjoy or get rid of it. Here’s how to get rid of books with little to no value.
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