How to Describe the Condition of a Used Book
In used book selling and buying, better condition corresponds to greater demand corresponds to probably being able to sell at a higher price and faster, relative to a copy in worse condition. A potential customer reading an offer of a used book for sale wants an honest and clear description of its physical condition. This article enumerates frequently used terms for doing that and tells their customary meanings.
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.
The Importance of Condition in Buying or Selling Used Books
How big of a factor condition is in pricing a used book or in evaluating if a price is fair and reasonable depends upon whether it is a collectible title and edition. Whatever the title, about any one would rather have a fine copy than an unsightly, very worn copy. For collectors of modern literature, of illustrated books, of fine press books, and of various other book collecting areas of interest, condition makes a huge difference in how much they will pay for a book. If it is a book likely to attract a buyer interested in the usefulness or entertainment value of its content, with no association of it with a collecting interest, condition will be a somewhat less significant factor, though still a significant one. Again, booksellers, know your customers and what they desire, and, book hunters, make clear your wishes. As to the condition of a desired book, do you want any copy that is complete, sound, and inexpensive? Do you want a copy in the best condition that you can find and afford? Do you already have a copy in near fine condition and now only want one in very fine condition?
There is more demand for a book made of materials of better than usual quality, such as rag paper or acid-free paper, because it will take more time and use to worsen its condition.
Describing the Physical Condition of Used Books Is Subjective
The use of 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.
- Alibris Glossary of Book Terms
Alibris is an online site via which used book dealers sell their books. This glossary is how Alibris defines commonly used bookseller terms.
- Abebooks Book Condition Glossary
Another website where used book dealers sell their books is abebooks.com/ and here are its suggested definitions of book condition terms.
- List of used book conditions - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Here is Wikipedia's definitions of book condition terms,taken from the bygone booksellers' trade journal AB Bookman's Weekly.
- IOBA Book Condition Definitions
The Independent Online Booksellers Association is a trade association dedicated to promoting Internet bookselling by maintaining and promoting high ethical and professional standards for members. This link is to IOBA book condition definitions.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
When describing the condition of a used book, is it valid to do so with a remainder mark as being "Near Fine"?
Yes, I think so, provided you mention the remainder mark or say in the intro to a sales list that some of the books listed are remainders, perhaps with a bold R in the descriptions of those books. Also provided, of course, that the book IS otherwise near fine and that the remainder mark isn't exceptionally unsightly. Also, a lot depends on context. Few remaindered books belong in a sales lists of fine collectible books.
If someone folds the pages and underlines words inside of a book, will that maintain the condition of the book? Why or why not?
Such a book would be in worse condition than a book without those defects. If, for instance, the book were in otherwise good condition, I would mention that and the extent of the defects—perhaps saying something like: in good condition except for extensive ink underlining and many dog-eared page corners. That would imply that the book is intact, the pages are not torn, the binding is sound, and the book, in spite of the serious defects, is readable. When describing a used book, always note notable defects.
What is the term used to describe a book that is neither hardcover nor paperback, that is the size of a medium-sized hardcover book but with a cover made of heavy, slick paper?
That sounds to me like what is commonly called a "trade paperback" book, as distinct from a "mass market paperback" book. It is sometimes called a "softbound" book. A book with a paper cover that is a very stiff and somewhat thick, almost like cardboard, that is not covered by cloth might be described as "bound in boards". That term applies as well to a usual cloth over boards hardcover book but is used more often when the stiff covers are uncovered.