Investing is usually a matter of judgment as well as calculation. What will do well, and what will do best over the period you envisage? Investing in books — or art of any kind — includes this element, but it also includes intrinsic interest, pleasure, taste.
A good book dealer at the top of the trade will offer advice about choices and help you to find rare volumes, but unless you have a passion for a particular field and a willingness to learn more about it, the exercise will feel rather barren. You can take a punt on anything from archaeology to adverting, Dr Jekyll to Dr Seuss. There are classic works in every field. Recently I met a farmer who collects books about pigs, right back to the 17th century.
If you enjoy a modern writer and can afford to be patient, find the finest copies you can of his or her earliest books, in dust-jackets. With the smallest print-runs, these books will be the hardest to find. A full set of Ian McEwans would be £2000-£3000 now, though the later ones are common (and he signs them on an industrial scale).
Building a set is satisfying, but before you embark on James Bond it’s as well to know that a near mint copy of the first edition of the first Bond novel,Casino Royale(1953), in the all-important dust-jacket, could cost you up to £40,000. Everyone has heard of Bond, of course, but even with all the films, do you consider these novels to have as much cultural importance as this suggests, and therefore as much investment potential? They have been expensive now for decades, and it is too late to invest, I would say — though I wish I had in 1990. Avoid what everyone has heard of (Harry Potter, Tolkein, Le Carré) and look for something you think everyonewill have heard of in a few years’ time.
Keep an eye out for signed copies, and learn to decode inscriptions such as “For Moo . . .” or “To Joe, who was invaluable”. Who are these people? The author’s wife? His editor or agent? On the second day of a bookfair a few years ago, I took down a copy of Poems of Rural Life by the wonderful Victorian, William Barnes, collected together at the very end of his life — a handsome copy for the fair price of £80. Although dozens of dealers were at the fair, not one had stopped to wonder what “To Dear Isabel / With her Father’s fond love / 8 July 1879 / W.B.” might mean. Googling Barnes told me that Isabel was one of Barnes’s daughters, and then I noticed that beneath the lines of the shaky hand were three pencil rules to keep his writing straight in old age. What’s the book truly worth? What someone will pay for it? I would guess perhaps five or eight times what I paid. No doubt the Dorset County Museum, which Barnes helped to found, would like it, and one day I may make a gift of it. That may negate the investment, but the book gives me pleasure as often as I look at it.
At this level, books can be remarkably cheap compared to, say, pictures (try buying an original by a painter your friends have heard of). But the top end of the trade offers a bewildering range of expensive items to compare. At London’s Antiquarian Book Fair in late May, a single cabinet displayed Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse alongside an exquisitely painted manuscript page (about 31/2 in x 21/2 in), with the gold leaf and the reds and blues of the angels and fruit all as pristine as the artist left them in the 14th century. I could have had seven such leaves for the same price as a copy of Harold Pinter’s playThe Birthday Party inscribed to his wife, which was bullishly priced, to say the least, at £30,000.