In classical times, there were great libraries and an established book trade but much of this was lost with the decline of the Roman Empire.  By the 7th and 8th centuries, it was only in the monasteries on the fringes of the old Roman world, in Ireland and in the Byzantine Empire, that the art of book making survived. But the illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, which these monasteries produced are among the most beautiful books ever made.

Over the next five hundred years, as monasticism spread throughout Europe, so too did the production of manuscripts. These were mostly books, such as musical and liturgical texts, made for the monks own use but some, including the famous Bedford Hours (ca 1423) were also made for wealthy patrons. Even after the introduction of printing, hand-made manuscripts continued to be produced and remained a significant part of book making until the late 17th century.

These manuscripts were generally made of vellum, paper being unknown in Europe before the 12th century. Paper did not become common for book making the the 15th century. 

Printing with movable type began with Johann Gutenburg in 1439. Books had previously been printed from carved woodblocks; Gutenburg’s invention made it posssible to edit text and greatly increased the speed at which multiple copies of a work could be produced. Very little of Gutenburg’s work has survived with the only complete book definitely attributable to him being the “36-line Bible” of 1457, which remains on of the most beautiful books ever made. By 1480, more than 100 towns had printing presses. By 1500, Venice alone ahad 150 printing presses.

William Caxton. the first English printer, produced the first book printed in English, Recuyellof the Historyes of Troye, in 1474 while working in Cologne. He produced the first book printed in England, Dictes and Sayengis of the Philosophers, two years later. The first American printing press was set up in 1639 with the oldest existing American book being the Bay Psalm Book produced in 1640. The first Australian printing press was established in 1795, only seven years after the first settlers arrived.

Early printed books from the fifteenth century are called “incunabula”. They look very similar to manuscripts on which the type was modelled.

In the early years of printing, theological texts predominated, but historical, scientific and fictional works gradually become more important. 

Great private book collections began to be assembled from as early as 1550. Some of these became the foundation of national libraries – the British Library began with the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1571 to 1631) and the French Bibliotheque Nationale began with the collection of Charles V.

Little changed in the technology of book-making until the early 19th century, when the whole process became mechanised. This allowed enormous cost reductions which, in turn, led to greatly increased numbers of books being produced. In the 1820s, England was producing about 850 titles a year; by 1835, the number had jumped to 2530 and by 1880, it reached 9,000. Before 1830, most new fiction was sold in three volumes at 31s 6d; by 1853, fiction reprints could be purchased for as little as 1s 6d. 

In 1837 in Leipzig, Christian Tauchnitz began producing cheap paperback pirated reprints of English books. Tauchnitz’ company eventually produced over 5,000 titles but agreed not to sell them in England or the British Empire. Low-cost, mass-produced paperbacks were not produced in England for almost another century when Allen Lane began the Penguin series. 

Books become valuable when they are rare; and, in essence, “rare” simply means that demand exceeds supply. Books which are likely to be in high demand include early texts of important literary or historical works, early reports of scientific discoveries or inventions, books with illustrations by a fine artist or significant examples of developments in the craft of printing. Books likely to be short supply include those of which only a limited number of copies were printed because their importance was not immediately recognised, costly printing or binding techniques were used or the book was suppressed. First editions of books by well-known authors often meet both criteria of being in demand yet in short supply. Sometimes a particularly copy of a book will become rare because of and inscription or its association with a previous illustrious owner.

During the process of its creation, a book evolves through several forms. To understand of value of the various forms in which a book may appear, you need to have some idea of the process of creating a book and the terminology used to describe it.

The author first creates a manuscript or typescript: the two terms are used interchangeably but literally a “manuscript” is hand-written and a “typescript” is typed. To distinguish the two, the term “holograph manuscript” is sometimes used for the handwritten version.

If the author types the book, there may be a top copy, called a ribbon copy, and one or more carbon copies. Ribbon copies are more rare, and therefore valuable, than carbon copies.

There may also be photocopies of the author’s manuscript. As there may be very many of these, they are far less valuable than carbon copies. The same applies if the author has used a computer or word processor to write the book. As there may be many computer printouts of a book, they have less value than carbon copies.

After the book has gone to the printer, galleys (or galley proofs) may be printed. These are long sheets, generally containing about three pages of type, printed on one side. They are used by the author and publisher for final corrections. Very few galleys are produced, making them relatively scarce and valuable.

The next step is the production of proofs. These are plainly printed, softbound copies of the book which are given to reviewers, “blurb” writers, large wholesale buyers and the like. Often there will be significant differences between the proof and the book that is finally published. Sometimes booksellers wrongly describe proofs as “galleys”. Galleys are scarcer and more valuable.

Sometimes a bound manuscript is issued instead of, or in addition to, proofs. This is the same as a proof except that it is a direct reproduction of the manuscript, reduced in size, rather than typeset.

Next, folded and gathered sheets (“f and g’s”) are produced. These are the sheets of the finished book, loosely held together, sometimes in a dustjacket or proof dustjacket. Only a few of these are produced for the publisher’s internal use.

Advance reading copies may then be issued. These are softbound prepublication copies of the book with finished artwork and a glossy cover. They are used for promotional purposes.

Review copies or advance review copies are then produced. These are the finished version of the book with additional promotional material, such as the author’s biography, added.

A salesman’s dummy may also be produced. This is a copy of the book, bound to look like the finished article, but with only a few sample pages printed.

Finally, the trade edition is published. This is the edition sold in bookshops, as distinct from any special editions, such as for book clubs.

The first printing of the trade edition is called the first edition. A large proportion of this goes to libraries, making first editions relatively scarce.

Often when a book is being printed, small errors such as a missing comma or a spelling mistake will be noticed. Sometimes the printer will stop the presses and correct the correct the error. The slightly different versions of the book that this produces are called “states”. The first state is usually the most valuable.