On book collecting – Part Two

Previously we discussed the various things to look for when choosing a book to collect, but where do you get these books? Read on for my top six tips!

Note: The specifics tend to be U.S.-centric but in general the tips are true for book collectors all over the world.

Tip #1 – When starting out go through an established bookseller.

If you are just starting out, a good place to begin is with a reputable bookseller. Online there are a number of businesses that sell first editions and signed copies. There are many ways to go astray as you begin collecting, starting with with trustworthy sellers can help you to avoid early mistakes. 

Some that I have used and feel comfortable recommending are –

Goldsboro Books – A great bookseller  I’ve used many times and never had a problem. The gold standard when looking for U.K. first editions and especially signed editions. 

VJ Books – I’ve run into a couple of instances of their inventory being out of date so a book you place an order for ends up not being available, which can be frustrating. However, overall they are a solid business with a tremendous variety of authors available.   

The Mysterious Bookshop – They have huge selection and it’s a must see location if you visit New York City. However, they do the majority of their sales via email and a recent experience with a lack of response left a bad taste in my mouth. Still, they have a great collection of mysteries and thrillers so it may be worth it to find something you’ve been looking for.

The Poisoned Pen Bookstore – They have book signings just about every day of the week and are another resource if you are looking for modern signed fiction. They are another who I’ve had inventory issues with in the past similar to VJ Books.

The big three online book markets – Alibris, Biblio and Abebooks are the major online book marketplaces for smaller independent book sellers. Be sure to research the seller however as some flyby night operators mix in with the legitimate sellers.

Bookfinder – It’s like Google for book buyers. Enter a author or title and it will check Alibris, Biblio, Abebooks, Amazon and Ebay to find the best deals, shipping included. A great resource when searching for obscure books.

With both booksellers and EBay, be sure to do a close reading of the description. Look for what it says and sometimes doesn’t say. Is it remainder marked? Missing a dust jacket? Inscribed, but not by the author just a previous owner? Nothing is worse than getting a book in the mail you thought was something it wasn’t due to misreading the description.

Tip #2 – Use EBay, but carefully.

With EBay, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It can offer some great deals, but it can also be wildly overpriced. It can show you exactly what you’re getting or can be a shot in the dark. I don’t recommend going through EBay until you get a firm grasp of what you are looking for and know enough to avoid major mistakes. A few tips –

  • Use the pictures. The best thing about EBay is that if it’s a good seller, they will post plenty of pictures and you will know exactly what you are getting. The more you have to rely solely on the written description, the more chances that you won’t get what you were looking for.
  • Set the top price you will pay for something and stick with it. Don’t get sucked into the thrill of the auction if you get outbid. You will lose out on some items, that’s just the way it is. While overpaying may get you the item, in the long term it’s just not worth it.
  • Wait until close to the end of the auction to bid. Related to setting your price I recommend waiting until near the end of an auction to bid. Early bidding tends to overinflate the price for everyone interested. The closer to the end of bidding you wait the lower the overall price.
  • Use the “Best Offer” option if they have it. If someone says they will look at best offers, it usually means they are willing to negotiate. You’re giving money away if you don’t even try. Don’t lowball them but a respectable offer tends to be accepted. You can add a note when submitting your offer and I usually say something like “Thanks for offering this item, I pay right away via -.” This makes the offer a little bit more than a shot in the dark to the seller.
  • Use the alerts to find that sought after item. EBay gives you the option to set up to 100 alerts that will notify you if an item you are looking for has been posted for sale. Take advantage of this. It’s a low effort/high reward option to find a good deal if you’re willing to wait.
  • The advance search settings help see what the going price is for an item. In the advance options you can search for items that have ended to see what price they were sold at, or if items are overpriced and haven’t been selling. Green prices are for things that have sold, red for unsold.
  • Trust your gut. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. You’re not getting that UK 1st edition/1st impression of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for $10.

Meeting spy novelist Joseph Kanon

Tip #3 – Use author signings to get your book signed.

I also recommend watching local bookstores for signings of your favorite authors. This is a great way to get past books signed and as an added benefit you get to meet the author! If you aren’t in a location that gets a lot of authors coming through, some bookstores are more than happy to get your copies signed for you, provided you buy a copy of the book they are there promoting and pay for shipping. Many times they will be able to get them personalized for you. All you have to do is email the store in advance to confirm they are still doing this, ship your books, and wait. Most places quite reasonably ask that you buy one book of the author’s latest for every 3 books you send in.

Bookstores I’ve done this with our –

Murder by the Book – My first experience with them was very positive and I’ll look to use them again.

Poisoned Pen – When I’ve used them for getting backstock signed I’ve had no problems.

Mysterious Bookshop – Another where when I’ve used them for getting backstock signed I’ve had no problems.

Politics & Prose – I went through them this past summer and had a great experience.

Tip #4 – Contact the author directly.

This is more true of authors that are just starting out than ones that have millions of fans, but if all the above methods fail you can sometimes get your books signed by directly contacting a favorite author with a nice note. Of course you need to pay the shipping there and back, but it can be worth it to get a signed copy of one of your favorite authors who rarely does a book tour. As an example, Susan Hasler, formerly of the CIA and now writing very funny, yet real, books on spying, (Seriously, I can’t recommend her first book enough. If you enjoy the ensemble spy writing of Mick Herron you’ll enjoy her books) was kind enough to sign my copy of her first book Intelligence this way.

Tip #5 – Visit thrift stores. 

I’ve gotten some of my best finds by visiting thrift stores. John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Helen MacInnes, Jasper Fforde, Studs Turkel and Mr. T(!?!) are all authors whose books I’ve found signed and selling for pennies in thrift shops. Yes, you end up looking through a lot of books that aren’t first editions or signed, but when you do find one it’s like hitting the lottery. 

Similarly used book stores and book  sales offer many opportunities for signed novels. I’ve had many times where a signed book has slipped onto their shelves unnoticed and priced cheap.

I also recommend keeping an eye out for authors that you know are local. The likelihood of finding a signed copy of their book is much higher. You may not need it, but someone on the other side of the country might be interested in buying or trading for it.

Tip #6 – Once you have your book keep it looking sharp.

Cover your dust jackets with a acetate book cover. Dust jackets are the first part of a book to see damage and the most difficult to keep pristine. A cover will keep your book looking sharp for years to come. It’s also amazing how much a book cover will class up the most tattered dust jacket. The best deal I’ve found is from VJ Books for 100 acetate covers.

For some older more rare books finding an affordable copy just won’t be in your price range. If you find a copy without a dust jacket I recommend Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. He has a wide selection of books for which you can order dust jackets. They all prominently say they are reproductions, not the original, so there’s nothing shady going on. 

They can be a really great addition to your book when missing the dust jacket. I’ve bought from him before and highly recommend his business.

Finally, if at all possible you want to keep you books in a temperature controlled space away from moisture. Water in all its forms is the enemy of books.


Well, fresh recruit, I’ve taught you all I know. Now I’ll be out there on the World Wide Web fighting you to snag that rare book first. Good luck!

2 thoughts on “On book collecting – Part Two

  1. Pingback: On Book Collecting – Part One – Spy Write

  2. Pingback: Collecting Spy Books, with Jeff Quest, Matthew Bradford, and Tim Shipman (143) - Spybrary - Spy Podcast

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