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Grading Books
The Effects of Defects on a Book's Grade

by Thomas Lee

#110, 17 December 2007

In the pre-internet era, book dealers performed two invaluable but little recognized functions for serious book collectors: They culled copies that did not rise to the level of quality that collectors desired, and they noted defects if for no other reason than to foster repeat business through trust. In the age of "remote sales" things have changed. Full-time dealers still purchase the highest quality books that come on the market through channels that they have developed over time and, for the most part, they still accurately grade these books, but the books those same dealers didn't buy don't disappear into thrift shops. These books now appear on auction sites and other online venues, and sellers often do a poor job of describing condition. This presents a challenge for collectors, especially since they can't see the book they are considering purchasing.

In our 20th Century First Edition Fiction: A Price and Identification Guide we dedicate eight pages to a discussion of book grading. The overall grade of a book is determined by considering the two ways that a book's condition will deteriorate - through chronic use and abuse. On the chronic use side, a book starts out as an "As New" book. This does not mean perfect - it means "the way it was when it left the bookstore as a new book." After the book has been carefully read once or twice, the feel of the page edges isn't quite as crisp, and the spine, although still straight and tight, isn't quite as tight. This book is in "Fine" condition - a collector quality book. Through repeated readings, the condition drops down to "Very Good" and then to "Good." By the time a book descends to Good, it has been read many, many times; the spine is loose, pages are frayed, and the paper is faded. Very few collectors are interested in books that grade no better than Good. By definition, a Very Good book is a better than an average used book. Even from a distance, it is apparent that it has been used but not beaten up. A Very Good book might be of interest to a serious collector if it was rare or unobtainable at a better grade.

The impact of abuse on a book's grade is much more important than chronic wear. There are several types of abuse that will render a book virtually useless to a collector. Different collectors will tolerate different types of minor defects, but there are some defects that no collector will tolerate. These include water damage, torn or missing pages, and highlighting, underlining, or notes in the margins. The presence of any of these defects will immediately drop a book's grade to "Poor." Former lending library books are not collected either and even have a category all to themselves - "Ex-library." When describing any book, all of these defects must be mentioned.

In our price guide we discuss 23 less severe types of defects and the impact these have on the overall grade of a book. These defects can affect any and all parts of a book - the boards, the page edges, the spine, and the print block (i.e. the interior pages) and all serve to make the book less appealing. For example, the term "foxing" is used to describe a condition where spots resembling rust or mold appear on the page edges. Even the first sign of foxing must be mentioned if it is present. Mild foxing drops a book grade by at least one-half of a grade, and many collectors will not buy a book in this condition. Another example - the spine should be tight and at a 90-degree angle with the boards. If books have been stored incorrectly, this angle may change and a "slope" may develop. Depending on the degree of the slope, this defect may also rule out a book for a serious collector.

Next month we'll discuss the effect of grade on a books value.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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