Normally we might regard stealing books as a fairly low-level crime: even as a not altogether unacceptable means of spreading the reading habit. “[Theft] is part and parcel of what it is to be a bookseller – a certain percentage of books will wander off, and over time you know what they’ll be,” says James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones, as reported by The Guardian. However earlier this month there was an unusual book heist from a Thetford warehouse. The Norfolk Police described these books as “not the sort of thing you see every day”. The haul included first editions of The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Can this Harry Potter book really be worth £40,000 as BBC.com asserts? Who puts these prices on books? Harry Potter was such a publishing phenomenon that one would assume that second hand copies would be a drug on the market. It can’t be that rare can it?

Well, it turns out that it can be. Wikipedia tells us  “In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Philosopher’s Stone with an initial print-run of 500 copies in hardback, 300 of which were distributed to libraries” so the book is actually quite rare, and, given popular fervor, such a price might actually be realistic. “Her original name, ‘Joanne Rowling’, can be found in small print on the copyright page of this first British edition. (The 1998 first American edition would remove reference to ‘Joanne’ completely.) The short initial print run was standard for first novels . . . Examples from this initial print run have sold for as much as $33,460 in a 2007 Heritage Auction.”

One might like to argue with the assertion that 500 copies was standard for first novels in the 1990s. If you added another zero, I might not object. If the hardback came out simultaneously with a paperback edition, (the table of dates in the Wikipedia article appears actually to be for the US Scholastic edition) then a short run of the hardback might have been done if the publisher had wanted the paperback to be the primary edition. Maybe if they were doing a few hardbacks just to supply the library market, 500 might have not been too out of the way. I don’t think that Bloomsbury was focussed on the paperback though. They may have just done 500 as a sort of prepublication test, though this seems unusual and in need of some explanation. One would assume that information about this would be available somewhere, but I’m not able to find it in any reasonable timeframe. We have of course to remember that hindsight always distorts. The book was by no means guaranteed to be a publishing sensation. The public had to weigh in for that to come about. Bloomsbury however look like they were being strangely cautious. They can hardly be assumed to have been intending to fuel the second-hand market twenty years on. Obviously everyone woke up to reality quite quickly after publication and reprints in quantities way north of 500 were quickly done. For example a copy from the 22nd printing of the book is available second hand at £48. So in order to fund your retirement you’ll need one of these 500 1st edition 1st printing copies with the J. K. expanded to Joanne.

The resale value of your books is governed by rarity (and condition). Biblio.com has a simple site where you can see what current offerings are for this or that book. Bear in mind that the prices delivered are the prices people are being asked to pay, not the amount a dealer will offer you. That will be a good deal less: book dealers need to make a profit too.