Do you have a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone? Is it in mint condition? Is it signed by J. K. Rowling? Then you have a most valuable asset. It is worth at least $15,000 and would sit well in a library of collectable books. But investing in books requires some strategic thinking and background research. It also involves a good sense of what books are collectable if you are thinking of buying them for their extrinsic monetary value.
So, in addition to stories of wizardly adventures, what tomes are collectable? A fertile area is Australian exploration - books, but documents and maps, too. "Exploration is still doing really well," said Janet Muir, of Robert Muir Old and Rare Books in Nedlands, home to 60,000 volumes.
"With Australiana, on the east coast it's explorers such as James Cook. But we are looking at early explorers such as William de Vlaming and Francisco Pelsaert. Then the land explorers, such as George Gray, John Forrest, David Carnegie. All those sorts of books are still very collectible - and very hard to find. They maintain their value and increase in time."
The diaries, journals and letters of the WA pioneers, such as George Fletcher Moore, are also highly sought after. Then there are the early books documenting Aboriginal society. "Australian militaria is also very, very collectable. Books on regiments, battalions, and so on," Ms Muir said.
Early maps of various Antarctic expeditions, as well as those of the WA coast and hinterland, have intrinsic historical interest, in addition to their commercial worth. For example, recently an 1857 ink and pencil map of the Avon district, from Toodyay to York, was snapped up for $4000. "It takes a lot of research. Maps vary from year to year. Even Australian borders, they changed over several years," Ms Muir said.
So what accrues in value on the literary side of the ledger? "Modern first editions," she said. In WA , Tim Winton is a good investment. "He holds his value. He is very popular. And there are people like Hugh Edwards, too."
But the collectability of a book is not just a function of the author. It also relates to the number of editions, as well as the numbers in those editions. Some collectors only collect first editions, or first edition hardbacks, or the first edition of a limited or deluxe edition.
Robert Muir rattles off a long list of books in which it is worth investing: "Fine books - condition is everything - good-looking books on universal subjects. Exploration, top-end mining books, definitive texts on certain subjects - art, architecture - good references, fine examples of a particular genre. Books on specific topics."
Limited editions volumes can be a good bet, too. "A book published in a limited edition - say 500 to 750 - will rise in value by 30 to 50 per cent almost immediately once it has gone out of print," he says.
However, he also offers a note of caution. "There is a bit of an issue with the word 'investment' in books. Certainly in WA there are only a handful of antiquarian dealers. If you are buying from one of those, to see a profit on your investment you'd be looking at some time. Or you'd have to go to a global market via the internet . . .You'd be hard-pressed to get your money back immediately."
Realising a dividend in reselling a book is also a function of time. At the high end of the market, usually five years. But if a publisher decides to republish what was originally, say, a limited edition, it can have implications. "It can be a bit hit and miss - a bit like any investment really," Mr Muir said.
But a warning if you want to invest in books for your super fund. Ms Muir said: "With books and with art . . . you really need to put them into a safe place for safe-keeping. And every two years . . . you get an updated valuation for your books."
David McGill of Serendipity Books in West Leederville takes another angle. "Our advice has always been not to invest in books for monetary gain," he said. "Collect books because you are interested in a particular subject. Or because you love books . . .
"But to actually make money on them, you have to be either very skilled, or very lucky.
"In many cases there would be a greater return putting the money in a high-interest bank account."
To actually make money on them (books), you
have to be either very skilled, or very lucky. "David McGill, Serendipity Books, West Leederville