Judging A Book By Its Cover

last updated September 2005

I originally decided to write this piece to put on The Great Thompson Hunt after receiving several questions about the value of books. I am not a complete expert on book buying, but I know enough about the book trade that I can tell you some general things about buying gonzo books and how I approach buying gonzo. It seems that it is far too easy for people to be misled on eBay unfortunately.

There were two times when prices on gonzo books jumped - when the FLLV movie came out and when HST passed away. With renewed public interest in an author, comes renewed public interest in their works. Generally once an author has died, items will usually go up in value and stay there. An autographed or personally inscribed item also becomes very valuable. Take a quick look at Abebooks and look up Gone with the Wind some time. When HST passed away, eBay was flooded with all sorts of items, such as tacky memorial coasters and bootleg t-shirts. It can be a big gamble to assume that something will have value in the future, however - sometimes things are only worth what people are willing to pay for them.

There are some general rules of thumb when it comes to old books:

  • First editions and printings are valuable
  • First paperback editions can be valuable
  • Signed first editions are very valuable
  • Other signed books can be valuable

Here I should make a note about printings and editions. They are not the same things. Many times I see something like "Campaign Trail, third edition". This is somewhat misleading. A printing refers to just that - how many times a book has been printed. For instance, on the inside of one of my old Hell's Angels is a printing history - mine is from the 32nd printing of the paperback. It's not a 32nd edition.

An edition is a new or semi-new work that differs from the original. If you taken an economics, math or science class, you know this right away. The fifth edition of Math 9 is going to differ from the fourth, third, second and first edition. Perhaps the answers were wrong, there were typos, or new problems were added with each edition. If the text has not changed significantly, it is not an edition. Further, on the verso of the title page, you will notice a cataloguing note. Generally, the cataloguing note will also tell you what edition the book is, particularly if the book came out in the mid-seventies.

One gonzo example is Generation of Swine. The Vintage paperback can truly be called an edition, since it contains four more columns than the first edition. Another example is the book club edition of Hell's Angels. While the text didn't change, it is certainly not the first edition of Angels. That's another thing to ask when buying a hardcover Angels. If it was published in 1967, it is probably a book club edition. The original book was published in 1966.

I saw the silliest thing on eBay years ago - a 1981 paperback printing of Angels that went for $8US. Folks, this was the same dinky black cover paperback that has been floating around since the 70s, with different ads in the back with each printing. It can be easily found for $2 or $3 (US or Cdn) in any used bookstore. Add on the postage the winner would have to pay, and gee whiz, you might as well go out and buy the newer large size printing. The book was described as a "1981 edition". A 20 year old paperback, no matter how mint, is not going to be valuable, since it was not even the first paperback version.

The current exception are paperback copies of The Curse of Lono. The book is apparently going to be reprinted for the masses, so it may affect value of the older copies somewhat. Lono was only printed a few times in hardcover and paperback and was fairly scarce.

There are also many other highly collectible works by HST. Screwjack is a big one. The Simon & Schuster printing of Screwjack did not affect the price of the limited edition at all, by the way. Collectible chapbooks and other small-run items are also prized by collectors.

Condition, condition, condition - I cannot stress this enough! If you have a first edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it just happens to be missing its dustjacket and the first hundred or so pages are water-damaged - chances are, it's not worth more than $5US. If you think I'm joking, I'm not, someone actually tried to sell an item described like this once on ebay. There were no bidders.

Besides the smell problem of old and/or water-damaged items, several factors can reduce the value of the book you want to sell or buy. These include:

  • torn or missing dustjackets
  • loose or missing pages
  • bumped corners
  • flapping spines
  • library stamps and labels
  • food/water/other stains
  • dog eared pages

I don't know of anyone desperate enough to own a book described above, although it's good to have a trash copy that you can read without fear of ruining your others. I often hear complaints from people who say that first editions of FLLV - the highest I have seen is $5500US autographed - are too high. What people forget is that HST was not taken very seriously as a writer at the time, and not many people thought to put away their books for safekeeping. Chances are, many copies ended up like the water stained one, or even worse.

You can use these criteria to judge a book that you are considering buying or selling. Most booksellers are quite honest, and ask as many questions as you like - after all, it's your money!


  • dustjacket is in place, book has been read or lightly read


  • dustjacket is in place
  • book has been read somewhat
  • book still seems new and unread


  • if the book is old, the pages are still white or just starting to yellow
  • dustjacket is in place, but may be torn or a little crinkled
  • book has been read many times
  • spine may feel a little loose
  • corners may be worn


  • dog-eared, stained, aging or missing pages
  • ripped or non-existent dustjacket
  • spine is broken or cracked
  • corners are bumped or exposed
  • smells bad or has mold

Paperbacks and magazines are more prone to damage than hardcovers. I always make construction paper covers for mine, and I keep the mags in a Ziploc bag with a piece of acid free cardboard. Acid free is the key here - acid from paper will break down and either yellow or cause yellowing.

Bumped corners are also common on paperbacks, as well as spine stress. The glue used to hold the pages together eventually cracks or dries out.

Don't ever use one of those thick leather bookmarks in a book either. They can damage the spine and misalign pages over time. A cash register receipt will do the trick nicely.

It's also important to store your books properly. Get a bookend or two for your bookshelf - a leaning books puts stress on the spine and after a time, they may warp or the spine might become curved. A good example of bad bookkeeping is Andy Rooney's bookshelf :-) Do not wrap books in newsprint or newspaper for extended periods of time. Many a lovely book has been ruined by the acid from newsprint or the ink adhering to the book over time.

Keep them away from intense heat or cold or wetness; keep them high where your cat or kid won't pull them off the shelf. If your basement is prone to flooding, or there's a leaky spot in your room, keep them away from there too. Better yet, fix the leak. Don't hesitate to inquire about insurance for your collection as well. Probably one of the saddest stories I heard from one of my model horse collecting friends was when she lost her childhood collection from the 70s in a house fire :S They all melted :-(

By the way, here's a special note about Rolling Stone magazines. Generally, you do not want to pay too much for them. One person I bought some from described them as being meant to either be collected or read, but not both. I have some pretty ugly ones that I bought for about $5-$20US each. The nicest one I have is RS 118, which is still pristine, and was virtually unread for $35US. Uncut and unfolded sheets can be found - if you're willing to pay $125US for them :-0 RS was and still is made from pulpy paper. Unfortunately they were not made to last. Issues from the sixties and seventies tend to be yellow and the paper must be handled carefully as it is very brittle. Like a road map, once they are read, they are almost impossible to fold back nicely - the inner pages stick out and as such, they were exposed more to the elements and became ragged at the edges.

Old Playboys are much better. Rusty staples and spine stress seem to be a common complaint, but the quality of the paper is really high.

I always check two places for books, and you should too - you can pick up bargains and have an idea about what the price range is for a book. They are the ABAA and Abebooks. Alibris is also good. The ordering systems on these sites have gotten better, and taken the drudgery out of having to contact individual sellers. The sellers belonging to these groups are bonded and trustworthy. Plus, their sites are searchable.

I hope this article has given you an idea of what your collection might be worth, or what to look for when building your own collection. The book trade is prone to trends; after the FLLV movie came out, price skyrocketed. Everyone wants a piece of gonzo, but only a few can afford those. Most cities have one or two really good used bookstores - frequent them often. I was surprised when I popped into Wordsworth's Books one day and found that one lucky person could have bought a semi-complete gonzo collection (FLLV, Hell's Angels, The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine, Songs of the Doomed and Better Than Sex) in decent shape, plus three of the four biographies for about fifty dollars. Just try buying those brand new!