Book Grading for Dummies or Mummies?

by Craig Stark

#8, 29 December 2003

If comic books aren't your thing, it's possible that you might not be aware of a fairly recent and controversial development that may ultimately affect how books themselves are bought and sold. We're referring to the growth and expanding influence of the Comics Guaranty Company (CGC), a professional, independent grading concern that has, in a few short years, become the grading service of choice for comic book dealers and collectors everywhere.

Third party grading services are nothing new, of course. PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator), for example, has been grading baseball and other collectible cards for years. It's a highly respected service, and PSA cards consistently sell for higher amounts than non-graded cards. These kinds of services are an especially valuable tool for online transactions, which are so often fraught with uncertainties about condition.

Seemingly, CGC satisfies a similar need for a standardized grading of comic books. The system is relatively simple. Items are graded on a scale of 1 to 10 and additionally assigned a descriptive term that, with the exception of "mint," closely parallels commonly accepted book grading terms - i.e., fine, very good, etc. If additional descriptive information is applicable, it's also included. Each item is then sealed in a tamper-proof holder and - wait. Sealed in a holder? Permanently? Yes, and if the book is ever removed from this holder, certification is instantly rendered null and void. No small matter given that fees start at $29 per item.

PSA also seals items in holders with the same restrictions, but the difference is significant. A baseball card has only two sides, and both can be viewed clearly. A comic book is, well, a book, and if it's sealed in a holder, only the front and back covers are visible. The book itself becomes inaccessible.

That this procedure is necessary to preserve the certification - that is, to prevent further damage or alteration to the graded book, not to mention exchanging it with a different copy - isn't in dispute. What is in question is whether or not third-party grading can be sensibly applied to objects which are subsequently diminished in use by the process itself. It's one thing to preserve the condition of an item; it's quite another render it permanently inaccessible.

If this seems like a relatively inconsequential issue, consider this not at all unlikely possibility: a third party grading service for books. Values for collectible Modern First Editions - especially those which date back only a few years (so-called Hyper-Moderns) - are hugely, almost utterly dependent on condition, and a single grading point might mean a difference of hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Is this where we'd like to go? Pursuing a system that would permanently embalm our books?

Certainly there is serious demand for a system, any system, that could even approach standardizing the grading process and result in some sort of reliable certification, but if achieving this comes at the expense of rendering our books something less than books as useful, enjoyable objects, this would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed. In one sense such an approach might be accurately classified as value-enhancing in that it could well increase the price a buyer would pay, but in a more important sense, it diminishes the value of the very thing we're trying to protect.

Is there an alternative? We're going to attempt to answer this question in the coming weeks in a new series on book grading. Look for Part I in the January 5 BookThinker.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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