When it comes to collecting books, condition is king. A very rare book with a list value of $5,000.00 quickly becomes a $5.00 book if the condition is wrong. Sellers (and collectors alike) use very specific terminology for describing book condition. Failing to understand that terminology could lead you to overspend on a hunk of book collecting junk. For instance… did you know that “Good” is bad? If not, read on….
Below are the terms and abbreviations used in describing book condition, adapted from The Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association. I like these because they are very specific and thorough. Different sellers may use slightly different criteria for each category. Regardless, in addition to the condition grade, the seller should always include specific details about the book and its flaws to justify the grade they’ve assigned it. If they don’t, ask for more information before buying!
VERY FINE or AS NEW (abbreviated “VF“): Very Fine means the book is in the same immaculate condition as when it emerged from the bindery. There are no defects or marks, and the dustjacket (if it was issued with one) must be perfect and without any tears. In short, it is a copy that is close to perfect in every respect. It should be noted that in the real world, Very Fine copies of old (antiquarian) books are relatively uncommon, and that most Antiquarian Booksellers use Fine as their highest condition grading. Current books, of course, may very well turn up in Very Fine condition from time to time. Occasionally a seller will use the term “Mint” to describe a Very Fine or As New copy.
FINE (abbreviated “F“): Fine is marginally less than perfect, and may designate a book that is still new, or a book that has been carefully read. The use of the term Fine (as compared to Near Fine or Very Good) often depends on when the book was published. A recent book should have no notable defects at all. But the dustjacket of a Fine older book may have a small closed tear, or be a little rubbed, even a bit worn at the edges. Such defects, if present, must be minor and should always be noted.
NEAR FINE (abbreviated “NF“): Somewhere between Very Good and Fine. The distinction is usually in the eye of the bookseller and involves minor defects (which must be described). Near Fine is generally meant to inform the customer that the book’s condition is excellent but “not quite Fine”. Some sellers do not use this category at all, which I think is a shame because it means that too many not-quite perfect books get erroneously lumped into the Fine category.
VERY GOOD (abbreviated “VG“): Very Good can describe a used book that shows shelf wear and visible signs of having been read. Its dustjacket may be rubbed, chipped, or even missing small pieces, but it should generally be clean and bright, depending on how old it is. The book should always be clean and tight. A very old book may show some foxing. The description of a Very Good book ought to include all notable flaws. This is generally considered the lowest possible grade in which a book is still collectible.
GOOD (abbreviated “G“): Good describes the average used and worn book that has all pages or leaves present. A Good book may be cocked, have loose joints, and be missing a dustjacket. Typically a Good book is a reading copy only and not highly collectible except in the cases of extremely rare books. Its value will be a fraction of a Fine copy, unless it is very scarce.
READING COPIES: A Reading Copy is a book described as being Ex-Library or as being in Fair or Poor condition. It is a book whose principle value is that the text is complete and legible, such that the book can still be read and enjoyed before it is thrown away. There are three descriptive categories that define the condition of Reading Copies — Fair, Poor, and Ex-Library:
FAIR: Fair is a worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title, etc. (which must be noted). The binding, spine, and dustjacket (if any) may also be worn or even torn & repaired. At this point internal marks may be acceptable, depending on their quantity and nature (pencil is more acceptable than ink or marker) and the scarcity of the book. Occasionally you will find a book that has marginal notations throughout, but the notations are by a famous person. In that case, the marks increase the value of the book.
POOR: Poor describes a book that is sufficiently worn that its only merit is as a Reading Copy because it does have the complete text, which must be legible. Any missing maps or plates should still be noted. This copy may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc. If your Poor book is a common title, the best thing to do is throw it away and buy a better one.
EX-LIBRARY: Ex-library books are notable because they have been defaced by librarians, who love to despoil them with labels, rubber stamps, card pockets, and even inked numbers and shellac on the spine. Sometimes you will find the most beautiful new and unread nonfiction book discarded by a library because no one ever checked it out! The uncirculated copies, while attractive to scholars, generally don’t have much value unless they are very scarce or were published in the 19th century and earlier.
BOOK CLUB EDITIONS: Book Club editions are notable because many of them use cheaper paper and bindings than the publisher or “trade” edition. The dustjackets are usually printed on cheaper paper as well. But some Book Clubs use the trade edition and simply add a different dustjacket. The one sure sign that a book is a Book Club edition is the lack of a price on the dustjacket flap. Then again, most University Presses and some specialty publishers don’t include printed prices, so this isn’t a hard and fast rule. It used to be thought that book with a small indented square, circle, or triangle on lower back cover was definitely a Book Club edition. Then it was revealed in Firsts Magazine that many valuable first trade editions (specifically those of James Michener) came from the publisher with these indentations in place!
BINDING COPY: Binding Copy describes a book in which the pages or leaves are complete but the binding is very bad, loose, or the covers entirely missing. One shouldn’t assume that a book has no value because its covers are falling off. A rare book or even a scarce book can be rebound and retain considerable or even greater value depending on age, scarcity and the quality of the rebinding.
ARC (Advanced Reading Copy): Sometimes called Uncorrected Proofs or Galleys, these books are sent out before publication to promote a book to reviewers and bookshops. They are usually bound as paperbacks in slick laminated covers, and sometimes in plain single-color cardstock. The back of the book generally carries information about the intended publication format, date, and so forth. There is a fair amount of debate about the ethics of selling ARCs. These are books that were distributed to reviewers for free in exchange for a book review. To turn around and sell them is… well… kind of a crappy thing to do. On the other hand, there are collectors who prize ARCs in particular because ARCs represent their favorite authors’ work in it’s “rawest” form, often with subtle mistakes or with subtle differences that didn’t make it into the first edition. It’s a touchy subject