The Essentials of Book Collecting

An Essay in Parts

by Robert F. Lucas

Part   1 - Introduction
Part   2 - Importance of priority relative to book collecting
Part   3 - Jargon - Reading a catalog description
Part   4 - Jargon - Condition and its importance
Part   5 - Bibliographies and other useful references
Part   6 - Rarity & scarcity and supply & demand
Part   7 - Ephemera - what is it and is it part of book collecting
Part   8 - Understanding book values & pricing
Part   9 - Some physical aspects of the book - bindings & paper
Part 10 - Book illustrations - variety of & illustrators
Part 11 - Investing in Antiquarian Books

Part 4 - Jargon - Condition and its importance

"Condition is important to book collectors" is probably an understatement! When considering the addition of a book to your collection — you must consider condition of the book. A good adage to follow would be to "always choose the best condition copy that you can afford" with two important "ifs": if the copy is reasonably priced and if you cannot expect to find a better copy then you must decide whether to settle for a copy in lesser condition.

If you decide to settle for a volume in less than desirable condition, it is normally with the hopes of upgrading when you have the opportunity to purchase a better copy. This is a personal decision, some collectors would prefer to not have a book in their collection if the condition does not meet their standards, and other collectors prefer to have a copy of the book even in lesser condition because they believe that it may be a long time before they have an opportunity to locate a very good or fine copy.

What constitutes a very good copy or a fine copy? Defining categories of condition is a subjective business and applying the categories to rate a specific book is even more subjective. Over the years there have been attempts to establish what one might call a "uniform code" of definitions of condition which would be acceptable to all. However, due to the subjective nature such categories or ratings have been applied with considerable variation by very new booksellers versus those in the business for decades, by collectors of modern first editions versus collectors of local histories and genealogies, by a knowledgeable collector offering duplicates for sale versus someone who found a carton of dusty books in the attic — it is possible to define categories of condition, but difficult and really impossible to "enforce" a standard application of the categories.

Probably the best avenue to follow when describing the condition of a book is to list all of the obvious problems, defects and signs of wear and also to provide your impression of the overall condition. When reading book descriptions one should pay attention to the listed details of condition and to regard an overall condition term such as "good", "very good". or "fine" as the general impression of the bookseller, which may or may not coincide with your general impression of the same volume. Often you may find the volume to be in better condition than you expected, other times in lesser condition. Virtually all booksellers want you to be pleased with the book(s) you purchase and hope that you remain a customer and for that reason prefer that you return the book(s) for a refund if you are not happy with the condition.

Most of us have seen descriptions of book condition which read like — "scattered foxing, rubbing at corners and extremities of spine, weak hinge, otherwise very good condition" or "dust jacket with minor chips, rear free endpaper lacking, signature on title page but really much better condition than it sounds". If you don't want a book with a weak hinge or a book with a missing endpaper, do not order the book — if the book is one for which you have been searching for ten years and this may be your only chance to purchase it, you probably should tolerate the damaged hinge or missing end paper — it is a personal decision.

Traditionally, book condition relates to the age of the book. A fine copy of a 1980 modern first edition is expected to be near perfect versus a fine copy of an 1840 traveler's guide to the Western United States which will have very minor wear or perhaps very minor foxing or very minor soil or very minor rubbing on the covers — minor blemishes due to the expected handling of the book for approximately 160 years.

Some types of books are much more difficult to find in fine condition — those that normally receive considerable usage as opposed to being read once or a few times — cookbooks and children's books come to mind. If you collect 19th and 18th century cookbooks, you may have difficulty finding fine copies and may have to to settle for very good copies of the more common titles and good copies of the scarce or rare titles. And you will probably have to pay a premium should you have the opportunity to purchase a fine copy of a rare 19th century cookbook.

We will make an attempt to define some commonly used categories of condition for those of you who are new to book collecting — to give you a general concept of what to expect when reading descriptions of condition. If you have been involved in book collecting or bookselling for some time, you will probably disagree with the definitions, having developed your own concepts over the years — we ask that you bear with us as we attempt these definitions.

Some booksellers, and we are among them, choose to use intermediate categories such as "very good to fine" or "good to very good", when they believe that such categories are warranted. When a book is better than very good but not quite fine (in the case of a 19th century book perhaps a little too much rubbing on the cloth) we use the VG to Fine designation. When a book is better than good condition, but is not quite very good (perhaps has moderate foxing or a small amount of very minor dampstain) we rate it as G to VG.

In summary, you should pay close attention to the listed details or specifics of wear and/or defects in a book description and you should realize that the overall rating of condition is the opinion of the bookseller or other individual writing the description. In most cases books are returnable for a refund when you believe they are not as described — and many booksellers allow the return of a book should you be dissatisfied with the condition for any reason, read each booksellers "terms" or "policy" statement prior to ordering to see if and when returns are allowed.

As a beginning book collector you should strive to collect books of very good or fine condition. There may be some bargains among the very worn books, but you should probably avoid the worn bargains unless you know the book is very scarce or rare. In general do not purchase books or pamphlets which are missing pages or portions of text, unless you have a personal reason for doing so — a book missing the top third of pages 102-103 will never have much value. And in general it is a poor idea to purchase odd volumes (not complete set) of a set, thinking that you will be able to find the missing volumes at a later date — it seldom happens.

For practice deciphering the description of book conditions, you are invited to visit our web site and read the descriptions at http://www.lucasbooks.com/emily.html or http://www.lucasbooks.com/books.html (hopefully we practice what we preach more often than not) or visit the many on-line catalogues listed on the ABAA page.


Part   1 - Introduction
Part   2 - Importance of priority relative to book collecting
Part   3 - Jargon - Reading a catalog description
Part   4 - Jargon - Condition and its importance
Part   5 - Bibliographies and other useful references
Part   6 - Rarity & scarcity and supply & demand
Part   7 - Ephemera - what is it and is it part of book collecting
Part   8 - Understanding book values & pricing
Part   9 - Some physical aspects of the book - bindings & paper
Part 10 - Book illustrations - variety of & illustrators
Part 11 - Investing in Antiquarian Books

Books and Book Collecting