I helped in the 1960s in my parents' used book business. It specialized in mail-order scholarly and collectible books. I owned it 1978-2005.
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.
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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
Question: When describing the condition of a used book, is it valid to do so with a remainder mark as being "Near Fine"?
Answer: 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.
Question: What are cracked hinges on a book?
Answer: Search Google Images on anatomy of a book. Some of the images will show the hinges of a book. Where a hardbound book's front or back cover meets the spine is the hinge. It is the pivot on which a cover opens and closes. In a hardcover book, the cloth or other material covering the boards and forming in part the backstrip has a hollow groove look. That's the hinge. Inside of a hardcover book, front and back, half of a sheet of somewhat stiff and strong paper is pasted to the cover and to the inner hinge of the backstrip. This paper is called the front or back endsheet. The half of it thus pasted is called the pastedown endsheet. The other half is called the free endsheet. A book has a cracked or broken hinge when its front or back endsheet has one or more small or large tear or break along where the pastedown and free endsheets meet along the book's front or back hinge. If an endsheet is completely broken apart, then the book's cover is detached. Less commonly, the cover itself is visibly broken, split, cracked, or torn (whatever such term seems most fitting to the describer) along its hinge. For examples, search Google Images on book spine OR cover broken OR split OR cracked OR torn. In my description of such a defect as a cracked hinge, I would include a measurement in inches or centimeters and would show the defect in a photo. Minor instances can be mended (though not like new) with book paste applied with a toothpick.
Question: 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?
Answer: 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.
Question: If someone folds the pages and underlines words inside of a book, will that maintain the condition of the book? Why or why not?
Answer: 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.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 24, 2020:
Luke, if I were still book dealing and had a book in that condition, I would describe the condition, "Name in ink covered by correction fluid [or white-out] on inside the front cover. Else very good." (Or I might say else good or else fair or else poor, depending on what the condition of the book otherwise is. I wouldn't describe its condition as anything better than else very good, and I would describe it thus only if the book were otherwise in fine condition or close to it.)
If it were a hardcover book, instead of "inside of the front cover" I would say, "on the front endsheet", or "on the front free endsheet", or "on the front pastedown endsheet". Or, if the defect were elsewhere, I'd specify the page.
Such a defect usually would make a copy unacceptable to a book collector except as a reading copy. An exception would be a title and edition rare enough to make the possibility of finding—or affording—a fine or better copy without a notable defect in the not too distant future remote. When pricing or appraising a book with such a defect, compare it with copies of the same edition in comparable condition.
Personally, I think that whited-out writing on the endsheet or on the inside of the cover is an even worse defect than just the writing, whether it's a former owner's name, or a gift inscription, or a comment, or whatever.
What if the whited-out writing is the signature, with or without an inscription, of the author or someone else who helped create the book, such as the editor, illustrator, or designer? I can't imagine anyone doing that. The effect would depend on how collectible the signature is. If the signature is that of an author no one collects, then the fact that the signature is the author's would be of negligible significance and the main factor would be that the book has the white-out defect. If the author's (or illustrator's or whatever) signature is collectible, then I suppose if it were scarce enough and enough in demand and if the signature were visible under the white-out, a collector at an auction might be willing to bid somewhat higher than for an ordinary copy (although lower than for an undefective signed copy). I wonder if there ever has been such a situation.
LukeDL on July 17, 2020:
This is great info, thank you! How badly would something like correction fluid on the inside cover effect the condition quality? For instance; covering up the name of a previous owner. I have collectors books in varying degree, and some have Wite-Out on the inside cover; in one case on page 1, a dedication beside an autograph is covered with Wite-Out. In general, and as a separate inquiry, how would a signed (author, editor, illustrator, etc) book be effected? Thank you again, I hope you are still following this!
Luke on July 17, 2020:
How does correction fluid, on the inside cover, effect condition? Thank you.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 31, 2019:
When a book received is not as it was described and you mind, you are well within your rights to return it for a refund, I think.
Prefer to give your business to used book dealers who consistently describe their books accurately, or even as being in slightly worse condition than they actually are—fine if pristine, very good if fine, good plus if very good, etc.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on October 26, 2019:
I've purchased books listed as fine that should have been listed as poor. At least they were readable. I appreciate this information. Thanks.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on April 06, 2018:
Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on March 24, 2018:
These descriptive categories are important for book sellers to know. I wish I had read this article when I used to sell used books on eBay. I'll imagine you saw some interesting titles during your career. Thanks for the clarification on describing used books.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on March 02, 2018:
Thanks, Bill. That practical how-to hub has been my least unpopular. I hope and expect to write another before long—perhaps how to price or appraise a used book. It's been over a dozen years since I retired from book dealing. The basic principles stay the same, like, "One person's junk is another's treasure."
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 01, 2018:
I found one I hadn't read and, of course, it was highly interesting. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 10, 2017:
I'm adding Duckworth Mark to my customized Glossary of Book Collectors' and Booksellers' Glossary of Terms.
Ducktight on July 06, 2017:
Thanks so much for your quick reply. I'm surprised that someone hasn't coined a proper word for it. They certainly happen often enough, both large and small. Maybe I should claim the name and from now henceforth it will be called a Duckworth Mark :)
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 06, 2017:
Oops, in my reply to Ducktight I wrote Duckworth by mistake.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 06, 2017:
As best I know, Duckworth, there is no particular word or phrase that describes that situation. If I had such a book in stock and were quoting or listing it for sale, I would describe the dust jacket much as you did-- perhaps something like, "Impression of writing on dust jacket. Apparently someone once wrote on a piece of paper resting on the book." ('Impression' popped into my mind. I'm not sure it is the mot juste.)
I would try to avoid acquiring such a book for resale. A defective book is hard to sell and takes extra time to describe.
Ducktight on July 05, 2017:
Hey, thanks for the very useful article. I am wondering how to describe the type of dent one would get if a book were used as a surface to write a letter on. Usually the mark I am thinking of is on shiny covers and it doesn't break the skin of the cover but it leaves a sort of embossed mark.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 26, 2015:
Thank you very much, Glenis, for the link.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 26, 2015:
You are welcome, Glenis. I wish you success selling those books.
Glen Rix from UK on July 18, 2015:
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.
Glen Rix from UK on July 16, 2015:
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.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on January 03, 2015:
Thanks, ajwrites57. Glad you've found it useful.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on January 03, 2015:
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.
AJ Long from Pennsylvania on January 01, 2015:
Thorough and informative Hub for those interested in buying and selling books! Enjoyed the Hub B. Leekley ! Shared and voted up!
Nell Rose from England on December 12, 2014:
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.
Colin Neville on March 31, 2014:
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on March 31, 2014:
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 on March 25, 2014:
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.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on February 21, 2013:
Thanks, Deltachord. \
Deltachord from United States on February 21, 2013:
Interesting information for us book lovers.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on June 11, 2012:
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.
Barbara Badder from USA on June 10, 2012:
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.
Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on November 26, 2011:
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.
Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 26, 2011:
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.