An Introduction to Book Grading

by Craig Stark

#9, 5 January 2004

Order Out of Chaos: A Proposal

The book collector's equivalent of "location, location, location" is "condition, condition, condition." Though many more books are purchased for content than collectibility, to collectors not much else matters but condition. Consequently, value differentials between collectible books in fine and poor condition may be huge, sometimes on the order of 10 or 20 or more to 1.

Condition matters to non-collectors as well, but expectations are typically more relaxed, though no matter what purpose it's put to, nobody wants a dirty, beat-up book. Also, if condition issues affect content (or reading utility) - for example, if there's excessive highlighting, underlining, etc., or if a page is missing - values will suffer accordingly.

The point is, to one degree or another, condition is important to everybody, and a seller's ability to accurately describe a book's condition has perhaps never been as important as it is now. With each passing year, more and more books are bought and sold online - that is, sight-unseen. Furthermore, collectors, especially those who focus on Modern First Editions (and more to the point, Hyper-Moderns), have developed increasingly higher standards as prices, in turn, have soared.

There's a strange irony, however. At the very time we've developed an urgent need for a coherent and universal grading system, what we're in fact encountering are grading practices that are increasingly all over the map, some of them at best haphazard and inconsistent, some altogether misleading.

Some booksellers use systems that are plainly outdated. For years, AB Bookman's system was the industry standard. In the context of today's market, however, it provides so little guidance in grading a book's dust jacket - a significant deficiency at a time when dust jackets often account for well over half the value of books - that it's become obsolescent, if not obsolete. Some sellers invent their own systems, many of which are loosely based on dated systems. Other sellers use no system at all - that is, they more or less wing it, describe what they see informally, and far too often ambiguously.

For reasons discussed in last week's BookThinker Update, I don't believe that the best solution for this problem is third-party grading. What booksellers need, in my opinion, is a do-it-yourself, well-articulated system based on current practices in the book trade - and of course, assuming that one can be found or devised, there must be consensus in using it.

Some of you may be aware that Firsts magazine, beginning with the February, 1998, issue and continuing through several issues, proposed and detailed a new grading system based on present day practice in the antiquarian book trade. The "Firsts Quick Reference Guide to Grading Books," which refers to and condenses the information contained in the original articles, has been published in all subsequent issues. The text of this system appears below:

First's Quick Reference Guide
To Grading Books

Within the general descriptions below there is latitude for individual differences in grading standards. Part of the process of becoming an informed collector is learning how various professional booksellers grade their offerings.

Very Fine (VF)

The highest grade given to any copy, very fine is a term that describes a crisp fresh copy and it admits no flaws. Any copy with even a minor blemish must not be graded very fine; therefore, there is no "else very fine" grade. Please note that some sellers use the terms "mint" or "as new" in place of "very fine." While we feel that "very fine" is more precise, there is nothing improper in the use of those terms in description.

Fine (F)

A copy that is without visible flaws, but one that may lack the pristine crispness of a very fine copy. Many antiquarian dealers quite properly never give a book a grade higher than fine. A book that is graded "fine" has had excellent and loving care. Any minor blemish in the book or the dust wrapper must be noted in the description.

Very Good (VG)

The most common grade given to a collectable copy, very good means exactly what it says. A very good copy is no longer fresh; it has been handled and shows some signs of wear, but it is still sound and appealing. Flaws such as ownership signatures, bookplates and remainder marks must be noted in the description, along with rubbing, chips and tears, and price-clipping in dust wrappers, where applicable.

Good (G)

To quote one of our favorite booksellers, "Good ain't good." Good is the lowest grade given to a collectable copy. The book has been used and abused, but it is whole. There may be one major flaw, like dampstaining or a cracked hinge, that keeps it from a higher grade, or there may be an accumulation of minor problems. A dust wrapper may have some design elements lost, but it must not be fragmentary. A term used for a copy hovering on the brink of uncollectability is "fair" for a weak "good."

Uncollected Conditions

A copy must not be given a collectable grade if it is not whole either in the binding or in the text, or if it has been abused to the point that it is no longer sound or attractive. A frequently seen example of an uncollectable book is an ex-library copy, with such common blemishes as pockets glued to - or torn off - the endpapers, abundant rubber-stamping and pasted-down lending sheets. An ex-library copy, while not collectable, may be an acceptable reading copy. However, when its aesthetic appeal or structural integrity is lost, a book is no longer collectable.

Please note that except for the very fine condition, many booksellers use steps in between grades, such as "near fine," "very good plus" or "very good minus." Some dealers also grade the books and the dust wrappers separately; this, too, is acceptable practice.

Reproduced with the permission of Firsts Magazine, Inc.

Having examined dozens of grading systems in the past few weeks, I've come to the conclusion that this is as good a system as I've seen anywhere. The fact that it is already in use should help spawn more interest in time. That it was developed by a respected and well-known book collecting publication should give it some legs - an important consideration since this any system will only become viable if there's widespread agreement among booksellers to adopt it.

I have a proposal:

Learn this system and use it. State that you're using it in all fixed-priced and auction listings and include a link to the full text of this guide for those who need clarification. The more this is done, the more likely this system will gain currency and begin to create order out of the existing chaos.

Meanwhile, at BookThink, we'll try to do what we can to help things along, beginning today with a series of articles on book grading. Basic principles of grading will be discussed, including the identification and evaluation of defects, the actual grading process, and, as it applies, a more detailed discussion of First's system. On this topic in particular we would appreciate any input, pro or con, in BookThink's Forum.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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