Are books an appreciating asset?

Where do you go to buy books?

A big bookstore, of course.

Why?

I strongly doubt any of us has read 2 percent of the books published in English in the past century. Even if you narrow it down to “books in the genres, on the themes, or by the authors I prefer,” it would take an astonishing effort to read 20 percent of what’s available. So where did we get the idea the next thing we read has to have been published this year?

If there are essentially just as may new-to-you books available to someone spending a few hours touring a yard sale and then visiting a local thrift shop, I submit the only folks who “need” to limit themselves to new releases are book reviewers, those employed by film producers to spot fresh screenplay material, and those who attend social gatherings where they feel terribly at sea if they haven’t read the latest “best-seller.”

(Even in the last case, I believe I’d rather volunteer, “Actually, I just re-read ‘Lord of the Rings’ ” — or “The Judas Pair,” or “Atlas Shrugged.”)

I stopped by one of those new-book joints this week, looking for a few favorite titles and authors. If you haven’t shopped one in awhile, the first thing you’ll notice is the way paperbacks have shoved out most of the hardcovers, presumably due to high manufacturing costs squeezing the profitability of the longer-lasting books.

When fans who read C.S. Forester’s “Hornblower” novels as teen-agers and then moved on to Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series ask where to go next, I generally recommend Bermard Cornwell’s “Sharpe’s” series, which follow an up-from-the ranks British infantry officer through the peninsular campaign and on to Waterloo.

My bookstore visit found only one Bernard Cornwell in hardcover, a first printing of his new “Sword Song” — part of his series on Alfred the Great — at $26. Many of the “Sharpe’s” novels were available, but only in trade paperback (about 5 x 8 inches) at $14 apiece. Cornwell’s later and more complex literary tapestry, the King Arthur trilogy concluding with “Excalibur”? Not to be found.

The aforementioned “Master and Commander” series about the British Navy in the Napoleonic era, by Patrick O’Brian? No hardcovers available; only trade paperbacks: $14.

Although the sequels never quite lived up to my hopes, I often recommend Laurie King’s “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” which is not a new Sherlock Holmes novel but rather a novel about a bright and spunky orphaned girl growing up in the west of England after the First World War, featuring Conan Doyle’s retired detective as a major character. My bookstore visit found no Laurie Kings. (A follow-up phone check confirmed “none in store,” though other branches in town reportedly have the trade paperback reprints.)

The aforementioned “Atlas Shrugged”? Paperbacks only at the “new” bookstore, priced from $9 to $25. (Yes, a $25 paperback.)

Anne McCaffrey’s classic “Dragonflight”? Paperback only; $8.

A 10th printing of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” was available in hardcover at $24. His “Blood Meridian”? Trade paper only; $15.

“On the Road”? “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Paperback only: $10 to $15.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”? The 28th printing of the 40th anniversary hardcover edition was available, at $20. Otherwise, only paperbacks at $13.

What would you pay for a hardcover copy of any of these novels at a used bookstore? It would depend very much on condition and whether you had in hand a first or other early printing. (Book club editions are much cheaper. If your modern book has a pre-printed price on the front dust-jacket flap and a complete number line — 1 through 10 — it’s probably a first printing.)

What would you pay for a used hardcover copy of any of these books at a thrift shop, a yard or estate sale, or as a cast-off library donation? A buck or two.

Which of the books above is an appreciating asset, and which is a depreciating asset?

Aha.

If you treat it well, that first printing of Bernard Cornwell’s “Sword Song” from the big chain bookstore will hold its value well, currently selling for about $20 Online, used. It could appreciate.

Later printings of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” also hold their value at about $20, and could go up.

All those trade paperback reprints the “new” bookstores now peddle? Resale value a couple of bucks, at best.

Now let us suppose that in your used book hunting you come up with a “very good” first printing of “Sharpe’s Waterloo,” in a very good dust jacket (not quite as good as “fine”). If you treat it well while reading it, your resale value on that book should be about $80 Online, which means a reputable used bookstore owner might pay you $15 to $25. “Sharpe’s Eagle” — the first in the series? About $35 Online; resell it for $7 to $10 (but not if you spilled iced tea on it).

The 1983 first of “Sharpe’s Sword”? $300 in the American first edition from Viking — a reputable used book dealer might give you $60 to $100. The British first printing from Collins, of which only some 500 were printed, can be a $2,000 book.

Used “very good” copies of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander”? The 1969 Lippincott true first can run $250 to $800 Online — resale to a used book shop could net you $50 to $250. The 1970 British Collins first edition? More.

A late, 26th hardcover printing of “Atlas Shrugged” from the 1970s (original list price $26.50) is now a $40 book. A true 1957 first printing? $300 to $700 Online.

A first of “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” runs $100 to $200. Might as well get a signed copy at $250.

The true 1968 first of “Dragonflight” is a $1,000 book — the dust jacket alone can fetch hundreds. The hardcover first of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”? $500 to $1,500 Online.

“Mockingbird”: more than $500. “On the Road”: $600 to $3,000. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: $1,500 to $6,500.

Are you likely to find all or most of these sought-after first editions with “very good” dust jackets in a month of looking? A decade? Probably not. I certainly wouldn’t recommend paying these full prices unless you’re a knowledgeable collector — many is the likely sounding book that’s broken hearts by turning out to be an ex-library veteran or a hard-to-pin-down book club edition.

And alarm bells should go off whenever anyone mentions a collectible category that “only goes up.” Tell that to the folks who sank fortunes into sports collectibles. Authors can rise and fall in popularity, too.

The point is simple. With rare exceptions (including true “paperback firsts” never preceded by a hardcover edition), the $14 you spend on a paperback reprint is thrown away after a single reading. Seek carefully for used hardcovers by collectible authors, and not only do you get the pleasure of reading a good book — take care of it, and you just might be able to sell it for more than you paid. Or bequeath it to your grandchildren.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of “The Black Arrow.” See www.vinsuprynowicz.com/ and www.lvrj.com/blogs/vin/.

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