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      SCHOOL: Rating the Book

I owe a large debt of gratitude to Patricia and Allen Ahearn for both their fine books, but especially Book Collecting. For those of you who have always wondered what the various parts of the books are, or what on earth is meant by terms such as "bastard title, "duodecimo", "dos-a-dos", "gathering", etc. I cannot stress enough the value of books like the Ahearn's Book Collecting or Carter's ABCs of Book Collecting.

Today's lesson is not, however, about the parts of the book. It is about condition and describing condition. It is an attempt to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the "rating game" in book collecting and to come to some commonality of understanding in what is meant by VG/fair...

On page 91 in Book Collecting, under the heading "Condition isn't everything -- it's the only thing" the Ahearns state, "The condition of a first edition or any collectible book is the major determinant of its value...There is no doubt that certain collectors might pay two or perhaps even three times [the retail price for a very good copy] for an absolutely mint copy of a book."

Further in the same section, they state, "Many people believe that if a book is twenty or thirty years old, it is in very good condition if the covers are still attached, and if the book is one hundred years old, one should not downgrade it just because the covers are no longer attached. ('What do you expect, it's one hundred years old!') We're sympathetic with their confusion, but we're not interested in buying their books."

I could not agree more with these observations. And because of this I find condition description to be the most important part of any presentation of a rare, scarce, used, or o-p book for sale.

I have striven to remove subjective terms as much as possible. For example, the Ahearns describe fine as "showing slight signs of age..." What are slight signs of age? Your slight might be my moderate.

Without further explication, here are my suggestions for rating. These apply equally to book and dust jacket, which I believe should be rated separately; i.e., fine/VG. Also, if a book is ex-library that should always be stated. I do not believe that ex-lib in and of itself greatly devalues a book. What decreases the value of an ex-lib book is stamps, embossing, labels, and other condition problems.

Fine: No defects. No tears or chips in the dust jacket. No bumps, rubs, sunning, foxing. A book and/or dust jacket free of flaws.

Very Good (VG): Signs of age and use without defects. For example, rubbed bottom edges from putting on and off the bookshelf. No tears, chips, splits, stains, etc. Sometimes I will rate a book VG when it has an owner's inscription if the inscription is discrete and small, and the book is otherwise in very good condition. However, I would not do so with a collectible as opposed to a "desirable" book. I make this distinction when referring to material wanted for its utility rather than the book being wanted for investment or "collectibility".

Good (G): A book that shows normal wear and aging. Subjective terms, these... To me, normal wear and aging means some slight soiling on edges and corners; a very little bit of chipping on the edges of a dust jacket. Perhaps a crease (a very small crease) in the back or on the edges of the fold-overs of the dust jacket. If there is a bookplate in an otherwise nice book, I will give this rating. If the book is ex-lib with numbers written on the spine, or perhaps a discrete library stamp on ffep or embossed with a library mark in one or two places, I will give it a G rating. No tears. No marginalia or underlining. Perhaps a dedication inscription of previous owner's inscription and/or stamp.

Fair: I reserve the (F) for Fine. Fair I always spell out. Fair is a rating I give to a book which is still held together; it still has all its parts and they are all attached. However, if there are tears, splits in the spine, pieces missing from the dust jacket, stains (water or otherwise), underlining, marginalia -- any major defect that goes beyond rubbing or bumping connected with years of use -- I give the book and/or jacket a fair rating.

Poor: Poor is a book that is partially disbound; missing pieces from the spine; badly soiled. If it is missing maps, plates, title page, etc. but otherwise is material important enough to have continuing value, I still rate the book as poor.

From time to time I have books which I do not rate. Instead I describe the condition as fully and completely as I can, noting all defects, mars, etc. I am likely to use this technique when I have material which is old or when I am uncertain regarding the actual value of the material over the value of the bound volume itself. If I am uncertain what rating to give the book, I don't. I simply describe it as completely as possible.

Now it's your turn. I will comments, additions, corrections.


Here is a description of condition given to us from a collector who buys quite a few books from many different people. This list is based on what she actually gets; not what the dealers claim. Based on my own experiences I cannot really disagree with her descriptions.

Dustjacket Book Comment
F+ F+ Same as new; mint
F F Probably read, but still crisp and clean. Looks new. DJ has no defects.
NF NF Book still clean and tight, but perhaps edges show very slight shelfwear. DJ may have very slight wear at edges.
VG+ VG+ Book & dj have minor signs of wear, such as rubbing along edges, slight smudging on pages, but still pretty clean. DJ may have small tears.
VG VG Book & dj have some defects, and look definitely "used." DJ may have open tears or chips along folds or edges.
VG- VG- Same as above, but with worse defects such as tears that cut into the dj's title. Book pages may have closed tears.
G+ G+ A book w/major defects but which is still holding together. A dj that is mostly there.
G G A book & dj that are starting to fall apart.
G- G- A book & dj that are barely held together. Reading copies only.


Staunton Book Review

Colleagues, a short comment and a question:

When buying and selling books over 100 years old, one often encounters and applies a binary grading system, such as F/VG, that describes the _covers_ and the _contents_ respectively (NOT the book and dust jacket). While no one who reads a description carefully would be confused by this difference in usage, it's an important one to note and continue, because many old books are bought as much for their covers as their contents and the boards and contents of old books vary as much as do the books and dust jackets of much newer ones.

And my question: when did publishers first begin wrapping their books in dust jackets? Did the practice begin first in Europe (I've seen late 19th c. Baedekers with "plain brown" dust jackets) and then immigrate to North America? I assume the practice post-dates the wide-spread usage of lithography, if only because dust jackets in many instances seem to be "detached" versions of the pictorial, often brightly colored covers of many late 19th c. text books.

Cheers, Chris Watters

I believe the first dustwrapper was issued in 1834. Upon which, its owner probably balled it up and threw it away. :)

Mark Wilden

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Last Updated: January 28, 1997
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