Good morning bookies! It’s a hot morning in Memphis after a very surprising but welcome thunderstorm last night; the grass has grown six inches in six hours, I think. I was up at 3 am letting Sadie out, which is very unusual. Sadie is our Pharaoh Hound-mix rescue with the bum leg who is probably the sweetest dog we have ever owned, but for some reason she really had to go outside at 3 am. For obvious reasons that was the preferred alternative among my choices.
Anyway, I was thinking about the proliferation of book descriptions out there on the web these days and how bizarre some of them are, what they mean, what I think they mean, and what they should mean. I decided a ready reference list for my bookies might be useful in helping them judge exactly what condition a book they are interested in might actually be, since so many ‘dealers’ currently out there have no idea what they are doing. An example of my own experience is that a few years ago I bought a box full of John Ringo first editions on Ebay, including the very hard to find Gust Front. The books were described as ‘Like New.’ In fact, however, half of them were ex-library and the others were, at best, Very Good. I was POed. The guy wound up giving me most of my money back and I kept the books, telling him that I considered it fraud, but I really think the guy was some doofus with no idea what he was doing. This list is for you, then, the bookie, the customer who buys books because you love them and expect the ‘dealer’ to be just that, a professional dealer.
Keep in mind, these are not necessarily the terms I use. The ones I do use I will put in bold red letters. So, without further ado, the list:
Brand new– Straight off a bookstore shelf. Might be in publisher’s shrink wrap. Zero flaws. Has not been read, or even leafed through to any great extent. Brand new is not a term I use often, but others seem to use it more than it warrants.
Like new, or as new– Slightly different than Brand new in my mind. Maybe a cover doesn’t lay quite flat, or some other very minor difference, but still a bright, unread and pristine copy.
Very Fine – I do not use this term, but to my mind it is synonymous with ‘Like New’.
Fine – A traditional term that means a book without flaws, the jacket is bright, the spine is straight, the corners are not bent. It may have been read once, carefully, but the reading did no damage and left no marks. This has traditionally been considered the highest collectible grade, although ‘Like New’ and ‘Brand New’ would obviously be at least as nice. Copies in any of the grades Fine or above should command a premium price.
Near Fine – Not long ago, this term was not used by established sellers, and it requires a short explanation as to why not. In the days before the internet, the used book business was a fairly small knot of dedicated people, many of whom knew each other. Book searching was a big part of that business, and within such a relatively small community there was a high degree of mutual understanding. The term Near Fine was not used at all because it was not needed. With the advent of the internet, however, it came into common use.
Near Fine means a nice book that would be Fine if not for one small flaw. In a jacket, perhaps there is some light shelfwear (the rubbing that occurs when a book comes in contact with a hard surface, usually another book on a shelf), maybe there is some light soiling. It’s a very attractive copy, just not quite Fine.
Very Good – The book has been read and shows it. There’s no terrible flaw, the front free endpaper has not been cut out, for example, or the spine is not broken, but neither does the book resemble a Fine copy. Although still a collectible copy, it would not be mistaken for pristine.
Good – Now we come to what is easily the most abused term on the internet. Let’s concentrate first on what Good actually means to booksellers. Simply put, and to borrow the definition of others, “Good ain’t Good.” A ‘Good’ copy is one that is heavily used and shows it. The boards might be worn through in places, there could be a severe spine lean, or it could have heavy water damage. Major flaws are present. It is considered a collectible grade only in the case of ultra-rare books. Find a ‘Good’ condition Shakespeare First Folio while rummaging about in someone’s attic and it will have value. Otherwise, it means a pretty well beat up book, although it may be suited for a reading or research copy.
However, the term ‘Good’ is used quite often by all sorts of hobby sellers these days, and it’s how you can tell someone who knows what they are doing from someone who does not. If, by ‘Good’, the dealer means their copy is a nice one, then you automatically know they are an amateur who has no experience or aptitude for grading books. Maybe their ‘Good’ copy is actually ‘Fine’. Or maybe it’s actually ‘Good’, which ain’t good. Either way, when you see this be dubious of the seller’s ability to accurately convey the condition of a book. Mostly you see this on Amazon and Ebay, where the people don’t know what they are doing.
For example, a few weeks ago I went to a house where the lady had a garage full of books. Boxes and boxes of books. She had bought some inventory from a used bookstore that went out of business and decided she wanted to be a book dealer. The ones in the garage were what was left over after she culled them. I checked them anyway, and found some very nice, very expensive books that she had no idea were valuable, because she had no idea what she was doing. Sure, this benefitted me, and I was glad for it, but it illustrates the larger point that this woman could not even cull her own inventory, so how could she properly describe a book on the internet? More than once I have seen a title that I wanted at a very good price, only to back off when it was described as ‘Good.’ Either the dealer had no idea what ‘Good’ meant, in which case they didn’t know what they were doing and I could not trust their judgment, or the book really was a ‘Good’ copy, in which case I didn’t want it.
Fair – Time was, you almost never saw a book described as ‘Fair’, because in bookseller jargon ‘Fair’ means ‘beat to a pulp.’ A ‘Fair’ copy may literally be falling apart. Lately, though, I have seen more of these. All I can tell you is, caveat emptor. A ‘Fair’ book may still be useful for research, or because of some odd association. I recently sold a ‘Fair’ copy of a rare Marine Corps title that was worn out by a recruiting station, but those notes and stamps are what made it valuable to the purchaser. So there is a place for such books, but don’t be mislead. Know what you are buying. ‘Fair’ is not a collectible grade.
Poor – If you need me to tell you what this means, there is probably no point in doing so. But for the sake of completeness, a ‘Poor’ copy is even worse than a ‘Fair’ copy, completely destroyed and good for little except lining your garden before you put down compost. I can’t remember ever listing a ‘Poor’ copy.
Ex-Library – This one is tough. An ex-library copy is considered not a collectible grade, by definition. And yet, to some degree I disagree. I have seen some XLs that were never read and were awfully nice. If you collected a given author, say, Robert Crais, and you turned up a nice ex-library copy of Lullaby Town, it would really look nice on a shelf until you could find (or afford) a collectible copy. Yet ex-library copies still have the card pocket, or stamps or other things libraries put in books. Yuck. However, one value in an ex-library copy of a collectible book is the jacket. Very often, the jackets are in nice shape, and if you can get those stickers they insist on putting everywhere off without damage, you can then marry that jacket to another copy that might be collectible but without a jacket.
For instance, I have a copy of Jon Jackson’s hard-to-find first novel, The Diehard, without a jacket. If I could find an XL with a nice jacket, I could then clean that jacket and marry it to my copy. (Note: whenever this is done it must be noted. That is, if the jacket is a substitute. That would read something like this: ‘Fine copy married to Near Fine Jacket.’ If the jacket is not the correct state for the book, that, too, must be noted. That might read: ‘Fine first state copy married to Near Fine second state jacket.’ If you don’t understand ‘states’, we’ll get to that in future blog entries.)
Whew! Hope that helps people. In Part 2 we’ll examine the knuckleheadedness present in today’s bloated internet book buying scene.