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How to read rare book condition descriptions


Publishers and booksellers have built a specialized vocabulary over the years to consistently describe to perspective customers what to expect to see when the book is delivered.

Used and rare books have a long, venerable history of being bought and sold at distance.  Publishers and booksellers have built a specialized vocabulary over the years to consistently describe to perspective customers what to expect to see when the book is delivered. 

That vocabulary is still very much in use, and still conveys vital details regarding characteristics and features of the book, as well as small flaws and damage that a photo might not easily describe.  The complete list of terms a bookseller might use is considerable.  A comprehensive list of terms and their meanings is availble in our glossary.

Book condition grades

The physical condition of the book and dust jacket (if there is a dust jacket) are each given a single condition grade.  The most common standard book condition descriptions from best to worst are:

As New (abbreviated A.N.)  This is an unused, unread, clean and flawless copy of the book.

Fine, (abbreviated F) Fine is very close to As New in condition, except that the book may have been been previously opened or carefully read.

Very Good  (abbreviated  VG)  This is a book that shows signs of prevoius ownership and use, but it's still very nice copy.  If there are any flaws or defects such as the former owner's name (FON) or the former owner's initials (FOI)  , they need to be specifically noted.

Good (abbreviated G)  Possibly the most confusing book condition for the layman.  A good condtion book will show significant wear including the potential for tears in the dust jacket, wear on the edges of the wraps or boards as well as the textblock.  Specific issues should still be noted.  A good condition book should still have all pages and a fully intact cover.

Fair  is a book with noticable wear.  Some non-essential pages such as the Front Free End Paper(FFEP) or Rear Free End Paper (RFEP) may possilby be missing but the entire text and all plates should be still present.   A Fair condition book isn't typically considered collectible condition (except in cases where scarcity is such a factor that a better copy isn't commonly avaialble).  Fair condition books are still servicable reading copies.

Poor   A book with significant wear and faults. A poor condition book is still a reading copy with the full text still readable. Any missing pages must be specifically noted.

Reading Copy   A reading copy is typically a book with whose condition does not merit it to be collectible.  A reading copy of a book is still perfectly useable for reading.   A collector may well have both a collectible copy of a favorite work to cherish and display, and a reading copy of that same title to read or loan out to others, preserving the more valuable one from wear or loss.

Binding Copy:  A binding copy is the complete text of the book (unless specfically otherwise note) but the condition of the binding, if in fact there still is one, is signficantly degraded or damaged as to require the book to be entirely rebound to be servicable.

Ex Library:  In traditional book description guidelines, this is a book condition unto itself.  The statement that the book was removed from library circulation historically indicated that the book had no collectible value due to certain standard practices of libraries such as ink stamps asserting ownership and uniquely durable tape binding the dust jacket to the rest of the book.  That old standard has relaxed some over the years.

Non-traditional condition descriptions that occasionally come up:

Mint:  This would be comparable to As New condition.  Mint is not a traditional book condition for the simple reason that books are not minted.  The condition terminology is sometimes brought to the book trade by sellers who are more familiar with non-book items.

Acceptable:  This is the catch-all, non-descriptive description that is typically applied by large volume sellers to very inexpensive reading copies. There very little guarantee of quality conveyed by this condition.  The closest standard book condition would most likely be reading copy.

The condition of the book is listed first, followed by the dust jacket condition with a slash separating the two measures, EG: VG/G meaning a book in very good condition with a good condition dust jacket).  If the book was originally published with a dust jacket, the absence of that jacket might be described by a dash EG: VG/- meaning a book in very good condition with a missing dust jacket).

When a book is described as 'new', it isn't actually a promise of a perfect copy.  A new book is a book previously not circulated to a buyer. Although a new book is typically free of any faults or defects, "new" is not actually a description of condition as a new book may possibly display shelf wear from the shop or distributor supplying it or printing errors or defects from publishing that were not detected. The actual specifics of a new book may be hard for a bookseller to state or predict as they may be shipping one of any number of copies of the title to fill the order. This, as opposed to As New which describes a used book that is determined to be free of any faults or wear.


Else Fine:

Almost all of the standard book conditions can be slightly modified by a + or - if the book seems slightly better or worse than the standard might describe.  When a book almost perfectly fits a high condition grade, sellers may use a bit of art to fit it into that grade by giving specific information on the issue that contradicts the condition, as in 'A very small tear in the rear free end paper, else fine."  When used judiciously, that can help let buyers know that the book is really quite nice other than one or maybe two particular peccadilloes.  Over liberal use of that convention has lead to an old joke shared by booksellers, of a paragraph of descriptions of dirt and damage of every imaginable type followed by the words 'else Fine'.

In almost all cases, a professional seller will take great pains to describe flaws and faults with a book.  Most professionals would prefer to err on the side of underselling a book's merits than end up with a disappointed buyer.  That can result in the seemingly paradoxical situation where a the copy of a book with the largest number of flaws ensuring the highest level of professionalism and very possibly a nicer copy of the title than terse descriptions that may be glossing over important details by ommission.


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