How to prospect for Gold In Second Hand Books

thrift store second hand books

With so many second-hand books around, if you ever wondered how many book titles there are in the world, Google analytics has done the math for you.  When last published in 2010, the total was 129,864,880.  That’s not counting all the copies printed of each title!

How Much Gold In Them Thar Hills?

It is possible to make a living re-selling second-hand books, though it takes time to learn the business.  You can also get lucky.

For example, Harry Potter books are all over the place.  If you happen to come across a first edition /first print of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in “as new” condition, it could be worth between $40,000 and $50,000 in today’s market!

This listing page from shows a sample price range for Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

Do those numbers make your treasure-hunting heart beat faster when you see used books selling everywhere? There can be serious gold in books, but you need to know the difference between the gold nuggets and fools’ gold.

Following is a beginner’s guide to prospecting.

First, the Reality

It’s frustrating to see old books automatically priced higher simply because they’re old, and even more frustrating when people pay those prices for the same reason.  Don’t go by age alone!

If a book was boring and uninformative in 1812, it still is.  When no one is looking for it, it has no market value.

Evaluating a second-hand book is a Three Part Process


  • Identifying the book – knowing the title is only half the story, (pardon the pun)
  • Determining the condition
  • Researching online


Knowing the title of a book doesn’t tell you which copy and printing you have, and that can make all the difference.  The value of a book will usually increase the closer it is to the author’s original thoughts, and go in this order:

second hand books and manuscripts


  • Original unedited manuscript – straight from the author
  • Galley Proofs – preliminary versions for review within the publishing house
  • Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) – pre-publication copies sent booksellers and reviewers
  • Dummy Editions – with limited text used as sample pieces to bookstores
  • First Edition/First Print
  • First Edition/Subsequent Prints
  • Second Edition/First Prints, and so on



The Copyright Page

At the front of the book on the copyright page is where you find the information you need.  You hope.

Not all publishing houses list the same things the same way, or even put in the same information.  Publishers aren’t always “on the same page”, (I just couldn’t help myself).  What is usually found:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Illustrator
  • Publisher
  • Copyright Date
  • Edition
  • Printing
  • Re-Printing Publication – Some publishers reprint a book from another publisher, with permission, and the reprint is sold at a reduced price.

The most confusing for beginners can be the printing information called “the number line”, or “publisher’s code”.

The only important number is the lowest, as that indicates the print run of that edition. Example: 392416785  Because the lowest number shown is 1, that indicates it was the first printing.

ISBN – International Standard Book Number

Arguably the best invention in publishing since Gutenberg invented the printing press, ISBN numbering was adopted in 1970.  Between 1970 – 2007 it was a 10-digit number, after 2007 it became a 13-digit number.

Every edition and variation of a book will have a different ISBN number.  Even a hardcover and softcover of the same edition will each have their own number.  Using this as a reference, when present, can save a lot of detective work:

Gone With The Wind – reprint puBlished in 2011 by Scribners

HARDCOVER:     ISBN-13:978-0684830681

SOFTCOVER:        ISBN-13: 978-1451635621

Judging a Book by Its Cover

This IS important when you research the value of a second-hand book. If a book was issued with a dust jacket or cover, the value is affected if it’s still present or missing.  The condition of the jacket also plays a role.

CONDITION, CONDITION, CONDITION!!   poor condition second hand books

The condition of a book can make all the difference in its monetary worth.  Even a book with a high market value can become worthless if it’s in poor condition, and just saying “It looks okay to me” isn’t enough.

There are different elements to consider in determining the condition of second-hand books from the presence of “foxing”, (microorganisms that look like tan dots), to creases in the spine. has a good general guide for condition categories.  Their site is for textbooks, but the same applies to all books.

The Final Step

Great job!  You know what copy of the book you have, and what condition it’s in.  Now what?  You search online.

Make sure when you find the book online that all the elements match to the one you have; same edition, print, publisher, and all those good things listed above.

The most popular search site is, that began life selling nothing but books.  You can either search by the ISBN or title.  If you need to narrow it down, go to the advanced search where you can filter by publisher, date, edition and more.

Amazon has a free app, and it also allows you to scan the barcode if one is present.  Have you ever seen someone scanning books in a store?  Now you know what they’re doing.

Keep in mind that with multiple copies available, you will be seeing the range of asking prices, not the actual market value from the sold price.

Other places to search include  Abe Books, Alibris, Biblio, and even eBay.  One of my favorites is Book Finder because it merges information from other sites, and you can easily compare prices from all different sellers.

Coming Soon:  Where to find all those golden nuggets called second-hand books

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