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How to Describe the Condition of a Used Book

Updated on November 20, 2016
B. Leekley profile image

Brian learned book selling from his parents and ran the family used book business from 1977 to 2005, the typewriters to the Internet years.

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Gutenberg Bible, Lenox Copy, New York Public Library, 2009
Gutenberg Bible, Lenox Copy, New York Public Library, 2009 | Source

Glossary of Used Book Condition Terms

For generations used book dealers and collectors have described the physical condition of a used book using certain terms, as follows:

Mint : When a book has just been flawlessly printed and flawlessly bound and has not yet been handled, it is in mint or pristine condition. When describing a used book, "mint" is an ideal condition and very rarely a reality. In the more than a quarter of a century before retiring that I was an antiquarian bookseller, I described tens of thousands of used books, and I described only two of them as mint .

Very Fine or As New: The book can readily pass as being brand new.

Fine : If it were shelved in a new books store, it would still pass as a new book, but it is in less brand new condition than a very fine / as new book.

Very Good (VG) or Near Fine : Describes a used book that is almost but not quite in fine condition. It would not quite pass muster as a new book in a shop dealing in new books. The book might have a lightly bumped cover corner or might have slight shelf wear. The dust jacket might be a bit rubbed along its edges and might have a few tiny edge chips.

Good Plus : Describes a used book that is at the high end of Good but not quite Very Good / Near Fine . (Used book dealers who use Near Fine might use Very Good in this sense.)

Good : Describes a used book that is complete, sound, and clean, with moderate signs of wear. The book may look somewhat shelfworn and may have bumped corners. Some pages may be dog-eared. A paperback book may have cover creases.The dust jacket may have more than tiny but still moderate edge chips or may have a bit faded spine. If there is a short, closed tear mended on the inside of the dj with archival tape, this should be mentioned.

Fair : This describes a used book with serious physical condition flaws but still complete and holding together. It may, for instance, have stains, or a split spine, or the binding may be cocked or starting to come loose. The dust jacket may have long tears or deep chips or may be stained or soiled.

Poor : Describes a book that is falling apart. Pages and portions of pages may be missing. The book may be damaged by, for instance, water, smoke, fire, animal bites, insects, or mishandling. The dust jacket is tattered or has large chips missing or has been scratched or scribbled on.

The dust jacket is customarily described separately, as in, "Fine in fine dj". "Lacks dj" is noted if it is. Best to mention if a hardcover book never had a dust jacket, as in, "Good condition. Without dust jacket as issued." (The "dust jacket" is also called the "dust wrapper", but don't confuse that with "wrappers" or "wraps", which refers to the covers of chapbooks, sheetmusic, pamphlets, and such,) In my book dealing days, I never described a book as anything better than very good if it lacked the dust jacket.

Else : This is used to make clear that a book has a fault but that the book is predominantly in better condition than the fault suggests. Example: "Small smudge on page 93, else fine ." Those who overuse or misuse else appear ridiculous, as in, "Pages water stained throughout, many pages dog-eared, extensive ink underlining, else very good ." (In that example I would replace ", else very good." with ". Fair.")

Collector's Condition: Generally speaking, the closer a book is to its original when published condition, the more it will appeal to a collector. A book in collector's condition is in at least fine condition -- or at worst is at the high end of very good , with no notable faults. The implication is that a book collector will not likely find a copy in significantly better condition. The opposite is reader's copy , which see.

Reader's copy: Often a book collector will in time own two copies of a books in the same edition and impression, one in collector's condition that is kept safely stored and brought out infrequently to show off, and the other with flaws and signs of wear that make it unsuitable for a collection. It is the copy that the collector reads for pleasure and does not mind letting about anyone handle. When seen in a catalog, reader's copy implies that one should buy that copy to read, not to collect, because it is somewhat worn or has flaws.

Binding copy Refers to a book whose cover and binding are in poor condition or lacking but whose pages are intact, so that it is a candidate for rebinding.

Working library: This is a group of books accumulated by their owner for their practical content. A writer is likely to have a working library of books on grammar, rhetoric, getting published, and techniques of writing. A baseball fan is likely to have a working library of books about baseball. And so on according to profession and interests. While a book collector wanting to preserve a significant book in as close to possible and affordable to its original condition will be choosy about condition, a customer buying to add to his or her working library will usually be satisfied with good or better condition.

For its age: This is a phrase sometimes used by inexperienced used booksellers and by some antique dealers, as in, "It's in very good condition for its age." When a seller thus describes a very worn, at best fair condition, book that is scarcely more than 100 years old, if that, remember the photo above of a beautiful copy of the Gutenberg Bible, taken more than 500 years after the book was printed and bound. Traditionally, antiquarian book dealers describe the physical condition of a used book by the same standards, whatever its age, and they avoid using this phrase.

With All Faults or w.a.f.: This phrase is used in auction catalogs. It's a caution to examine the book before the auction to see its physical condition for yourself.

Describing the Physical Condition of Used Books Is Subjective

The use of these words describing the general physical condition of a used book is subjective. A book that to a person looks Fine one day might to that very same person look at best Good Plus another day. One's judgement, for example, is different after looking at many very fine books than after looking at many merely good condition books.

The best a used book dealer can do is be as consistent as possible when cataloging, listing, or quoting books, so that customers know what to expect.

My usual practice was to describe a book as being in slightly worse condition than it actually was, so that a customer buying by mail from me was pleasantly surprised upon receiving it. (I also had the policy that the customer was the judge of whether a book was as I described it.) I did the opposite when I was the one buying by mail, expecting a book described as Fine to be at best Very Good and so on. That way I didn't waste time quibbling and was usually pleased by the copy I received. I learned by experience which dealers tended to overstate and which to understate a book's condition.

The terms I have been discussing apply only to the general condition of a book. Any notable faults should be individually described. Some of the frequently encountered notable faults are price clipped, remainder mark, bumped corner, former owner's name in ink, faded spine, and ex library, and there are many more.

Because book descriptions are subjective and because condition is a major factor in determining the value of a book – the worse the condition, the less the demand – as a general rule a used book dealer will not offer a purchase price, and a book appraiser will refuse to appraise a book, sight unseen.

Evaluating Condition


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      After I retired from my job about ten years ago I sold books on line until an illness interfered.It was instructive and I might be inclined to try it again except for the problem of finding good sell-able books.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 5 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      dahoglund, I agree finding sell-able books is hard these days -- meaning books one can make money on buying and selling. I used to be able to buy desirable books at resale shops and estate sales and such and triple or better my money when I resold them. Nowadays thanks to the Internet global market, people sell their own books, for a smitten if common. Only scarce and uncommon books are worth dealing in, and I don't have the capital for that. Or one must buy and sell in volume or meet a niche demand. Pick the brains of the book dealers in your area to learn what is working these days.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Kay Badder 4 years ago from USA

      I've sold old books and always wondered if I described them as I should. Thanks for an excellent hub on the subject. I agree that good sell-able books are hard to find unless you are only going to get a pittance for your profit.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Thanks for commenting, Barbara Kay. It's been quite a few years since I last found a "sleeper" -- a used book worth much more than the seller realized. As for describing books you sell, the main thing is to be consistent, so that your repeat customers know what you mean by the standard terms.

    • Deltachord profile image

      Deltachord 3 years ago from United States

      Interesting information for us book lovers.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Thanks, Deltachord. \

    • Colin Neville 2 years ago

      Very comprehensive article. These descriptions, matched with a photograph of the book, are doubly important when selling on line. I am surprised at the number of dealers who don't bother to put photographs of the books they are advertising on ABE, particularly when there are others of a similar price for sale. I sell fine press books, which must be at least VG+, as collectors of these books are very particular, rightly so, about condition.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Colin, I agree about the importance of photos. The written description should be thorough enough to stand alone, and photos further clarify the condition. Back when I was book dealing I'd offer collectible books on eBay and I'd always show 12 photos of each book, as they recommend. That way I could show the bibliographic details and the general condition and also close-ups of any defects -- or if none, I'd show illustrations or some other appealing feature. And about fine press books with defects, I ended up with many of those in my "personal collection" of unsaleable books. Eventually they went to the Salvation Army. For instance, my father, a book dealer before me, himself collected books designed by Carl Purington Rollins. After my dad died, my mother brought me into the business. We intended to eventually offer the Rollins collection as a collection, but it was among the books caught in a basement flood from a caved-in sewer down the street. So goes book dealing and collecting.

    • Colin Neville 2 years ago


    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      This is great info for anyone who is in or starting in the business, I get confused sometimes with the different jargon so this is really useful.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thorough and informative Hub for those interested in buying and selling books! Enjoyed the Hub B. Leekley ! Shared and voted up!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      It has been a decade since I retired from my antiquarian book business. I expect that the professionals are still using the traditional terminology, such as members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association [of the United Kingdom] and of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Thanks, ajwrites57. Glad you've found it useful.

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glenis Rix 18 months ago from UK

      Very helpful article. I recently found at stash of books in my father's attic and am marketing a few of them, so the terms that are used to assess the condition of a book will be useful. Thanks.

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glenis Rix 18 months ago from UK

      I found this hub very useful as I have recently started to sell some inherited books online. I have posted a link to it on my own hub.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 18 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      You are welcome, Glenis. I wish you success selling those books.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 18 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Thank you very much, Glenis, for the link.

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