AB Bookman's Weekly, which ceased publication in 1999, was for decades the Bible of the antiquarian book trade. Included in every issue AB Bookman's after 1949 was a set of criteria for grading the condition of used books. AB's definitions of "Very Fine" (or "As New"), "Fine", "Very Good, "Good", "Fair", and so forth have become pretty much the industy standard. One should keep these descriptions in mind when buying old books, or when bringing in books for appraisal or sale.
We have edited and expanded these definitions a little and welcome suggestions for further improvement. We have also added definitions for "Rare", "Scarce", "Uncommon", and "Common". Considering how many inexperienced internet sellers are calling even the most common books "rare", these definitions are of special interest.
For the reader and collector new to catalog and internet book descriptions, here are a few terms (and their abbreviations) in common use with which you should be familiar:
Dust Jacket (sometimes dustjacket, dust cover, or "wrapper". Often abbreviated "DJ") ~ The dust jacket is a paper cover, often colorfully illustrated, that is wrapped around the book itself. Originally designed to protect the book, the dust jacket quickly became a means of attracting attention and then an item of interest among collectors. The dust jacket of a collectible book is often placed inside a transparent cover (sometimes called a "Brodart", so-named for Arthur Brody, the man who invented it.)
Boards. This term refers to the covers (front and back) of a hardcover book, specifically the heavy cardboard which is in turn covered with cloth and or colored paper, and (usually in older books) various types of leather. The term "boards" derives from the early days of printing, when books were bound in leather-covered wood. The term Hardcover is often abbreviated "HC".
Paperback (sometimes called Softcover, Trade Paperback, or simply "Wraps".) A book bound with a paper cover, usually less expensive than a hard bound or hardcover book. The usual abbreviations are "PB" and "TPB", with TPB designating sizes from 5"x8" and up. (There are exceptions, such as Penguin paperbacks, which are smaller than 5x8 but are still called Trade Paperbacks.)
TERMS DESCRIBING BOOK CONDITION
VERY FINE or AS NEW (abbreviated "VF") ~ Very Fine means the book is in the same immaculate condition as when it emerged from the bindery. There are no defects or marks, and the dustjacket (if it was issued with one) must be perfect and without any tears. In short, it is a copy that is close to perfect in every respect. It should be noted that in the real world, Very Fine books are relatively uncommon, and that most Antiquarian Booksellers use Fine as their highest condition grading.
(The term "As New", when it is used, is really an informal grading category, as are the colloquial terms "Mint" and "Gift Quality".)
FINE (abbreviated "F") ~ Fine is marginally less than perfect, and may designate a book that is still new, or a book that has been carefully read. The use of the term Fine (as compared to Near Fine or Very Good) often depends on when the book was published. A recent book should have no notable defects at all. But the dustjacket of a Fine older book may have a small closed tear, or be a little rubbed, even a bit worn at the edges. Such defects, if present, must be minor and should always be noted.
(Note also that a book may be new and unread, but it may have aged on the shelf to the point of being considered Near Fine or even Very Good. Similarly a unique 200-year-old book might be viewed as "Fine", while a recent book in the exact same condition could only be described as "Very Good".)
NEAR FINE (abbreviated "NF") ~ Somewhere between Very Good and Fine. The distinction is usually in the eye of the bookseller and involves minor defects (which must be described). Near Fine is generally meant to inform the customer that the book's condition is excellent but "not quite Fine".
VERY GOOD (abbreviated "VG") ~ Very Good can describe a used book that shows shelfwear and visible signs of having been read. Its dustjacket may be rubbed, chipped, or even missing small pieces, but it should generally be clean and bright, depending on how old it is. The book should always be clean and tight, and the overall appearance should be of a desirable copy. A very old book may show some foxing. The description of a Very Good book ought to include all notable flaws.
GOOD (abbreviated "G") ~ Good describes the average used and worn book that has all pages or leaves present. A Good book may be cocked, have loose joints, and be missing a dustjacket. But it must be complete, clean, and worth keeping. Its value will be a fraction of a Fine copy, unless it is very scarce.
READING COPY ~ A Reading Copy is a book whose principle value is that the text is complete and legible, such that the book can still be read and enjoyed before it is thrown away. There are three descriptive categories that define the condition of Reading Copies -- Fair, Poor, and Ex-Library:
FAIR ~ Fair is a worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title, etc. (which must be noted). The binding, spine, and dustjacket (if any) may also be worn or even torn & repaired. At this point internal marks may be acceptable, depending on their quantity and nature (pencil is more acceptable than ink or marker) and the scarcity of the book. Occasionally you will find a book that has marginal notations throughout, but the notations are by a famous person. In that case, the marks increase the value of the book.
POOR ~ Poor describes a book that is sufficiently worn that its only merit is as a Reading Copy because it does have the complete text, which must be legible. Any missing maps or plates should still be noted. This copy may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc. If your Poor book is a common title, the best thing to do is throw it away and buy a better one.
EX-LIBRARY ~ Ex-library books are notable because they have been defaced by librarians, who love to despoil them with labels, rubber stamps, card pockets, and even inked numbers and shellac on the spine. Sometimes you will find the most beautiful new and unread nonfiction book discarded by a library because no one ever checked it out! The uncirculated copies, while attractive to scholars, generally don't have much value unless they are very scarce or were published in the 19th century and earlier.
BOOK CLUB EDITIONS ~ Book Club editions are notable because many of them use cheaper paper and bindings than the publisher or "trade" edition. The dustjackets are usually printed on cheaper paper as well. But some Book Clubs use the trade edition and simply add a different dustjacket. The one sure sign that a book is a Book Club edition is the lack of a price on the dustjacket flap. Then again, most University Presses and some specialty publishers don't include printed prices, so this isn't a hard and fast rule. It used to be thought that a book with a small indented square, circle, or triangle on lower back cover was definitely a Book Club edition. Then it was revealed in Firsts Magazine that many valuable first trade editions (specifically those of James Michener) came from the publisher with these indentations in place!
BINDING COPY ~ Binding Copy describes a book in which the pages or leaves are complete but the binding is very bad, loose, or the covers entirely missing. One shouldn't assume that a book has no value because its covers are falling off. A rare book or even a scarce book can be rebound and retain considerable or even greater value depending on age, scarcity and the quality of the rebinding.
ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) ~ Sometimes called Uncorrected Proofs, these books are sent out before publication to promote a book to reviewers and bookshops. They are usually bound as paperbacks in slick laminated covers, and sometimes in plain single-color cardstock. The back of the book generally carries information about the intended publication format, date, and so forth.
COLLECTIBLE: In addition to condition, there are several unique attributes that can make a book collectible. They include First Edition (first printing); Illustrator (especially in the case of children's books); Signed (and/or inscribed) by author or illustrator; Association (inscribed by the author to another author or well-known person); Provenance (e.g. bookplate of famous person, or handed down from the library of some famous person; Laid-in items and ephemera (especially holograph or signed letters); Binding (e.g. leather, decorated, foredge painting); Edition (especially Limited Edition, but also Revised or Updated Editions or the problematic "First Thus"); and Relative Scarcity (see below).
ADDENDUM: A book with a dustjacket will quite often be described with separate designations for book and dustjacket, as in "F/VG", where F (Fine) is the condition of the book itself, and "VG" (Very Good) is the condition of the dustjacket. In all cases, the lack of a dustjacket should be noted if the book was issued with one. Pictorial or Decorated boards should also be noted. When in doubt in writing a book's description, "Good" or "Very Good" usually works, along with a brief description of physical condition, textual soundness, and edition.
COMMON ~ A common book is exactly what it sounds like -- thousands of copies are available and easily purchased. Quite often a common book was once a bestseller. Sometimes it was simply overproduced and then dumped on the remainder market. Common books aren't to be completely scorned, however. Often the demand for fine or better copies of a once-popular book is still strong.
UNCOMMON ~ An uncommon book is one that used to be difficult to find, although in today's market most of the copies available can be easily located and purchased. Condition is a big factor in the value of uncommon books, as is current demand for the title. A book may be uncommon, but if nobody cares about it anymore, it is of little value.
SCARCE ~ A scarce book is one of which an unknown number of copies exist, but which turns up from time to time. You can generally tell if a book is scarce by looking it up on AbeBooks.com. If there are four or fewer copies being offered for sale on ABE, the book can be considered scarce.
RARE ~ A rare book is one of which very few copies still exist, and which is almost never found outside libraries or existing collections. Occasionally rare books do turn up "in the wild", and when they are recognized they end up at auctions where they fetch considerable sums. (Some booksellers consider a book "rare" if they find a copy every five or ten years. Others would call this frequency "very scarce". In any case, such "semi-rare" books can fetch high prices, depending on the current market.)
A WORD TO THE WISE
Readers and collectors should keep in mind that the above descriptions are a general guide to book grading. The condition of each book is in a very real sense unique, and the best and most accurate determination can be given by an experienced bookseller who is holding your unique copy in his hands. You are therefore urged to consult with him or her regarding the condition (and value) of your collectible books.