Book Terminology

Help with Basic Book Collecting Terminology

Unraveling the confusion behind five commonly used terms in book collecting.

Have you ever met a word that you understood in context, only to wonder later, as you recall that mot juste, if you’d use it yourself? Is it part of your personal world of words? Could you call upon it to make a point? It happens to us all the time, those “let’s look it up” moments that remind us how no day is quite complete until we’ve learned more about something we thought we already knew.

Surely noting the choice and meaning of words in books is one of reading’s pleasures. But what of the words that describe books, not their content but their rank and status as objects, artifacts, treasures? Once again, we know what the words mean, at least in a general sense, but do we know their meaning relative to books as books?

ABC for Book Collectos by John Carter is a must-have for any book collector!
A must-have for any book collector!

We may be drawn to a book by its subject matter, our admiration for or curiosity about an author, the interest-piquing effect of a review or reference encountered along our reader’s way. But these factors can’t help us unless all we want to do is read it, in which case a copy described as adequate for that purpose may suffice. When the book is to take its place in a collection with structure or goals, then we need to know more.

Some of the terms most often used to describe books can be misunderstood or misapplied. The prevalence of these words makes a better understanding of them crucial, for their proper use can make the difference between a successful sale and happy purchase or regret and return for credit or refund. In short: disappointment. We all know what that means without looking it up!

Dictionaries will define the words but usually without explaining their usage in the realm of books. It’s not the word, after all, that matters to us, but how it’s used, and by all concerned in describing a book for sale and deciding whether to acquire it. To be sure that dealers and collectors are on the same page, reference to such instructive tomes as John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors is invaluable, as well as Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions and related publications.  Or, for a more comprehensive list, check out Biblio’s glossary of book collecting terminology.

Here, then, are five terms often used and some of their meanings.

Antiquarian: For richness of imprecision, this lovely word tops more than the alphabetical list. It refers to old and rare books (how old is old, and what exactly constitutes rare?) and the seller thereof (many organizations use the word to define their membership). Its use guarantees little, however, except that such books won’t be found at your local chain store. Antiquarian books may be simply secondhand, the finest surviving examples of something known to exist in only three copies worldwide of which the present offering is the first on the market since the death of Lincoln, or anything in between. Beware of the term as a price-raiser. We hope, and sometimes believe, that “antiquarian” connotes a good intention: fine books of less commonplace vintage and variety, well handled and accurately and fairly described by dealers and cherished by collectors.

Antique: In strict book terms, “antique” refers most often to original bindings, and its use in descriptions of bindings that are contemporary but look like originals is not kosher , but unfortunately common. In short, “antique” can be used to describe the appearance, not age, as one might expect. If bindings are your thing as a collector, take time to investigate all the terms used and ask dealers how they perceive them. Remember that in “old-style calf,” the word style says more about the age and authenticity than “old” implies. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful replicas, as long as you know that’s what they are.

Collectible: Anything is collectible if a collector collects it (with apologies for the lexicographical abuse). Among bibliophiles, the focus can be value, scarcity, subject matter, a beloved author or illustrator. The first part of the fun is that it’s up to you as the collector to decide what belongs in your collection. The second part of the fun is the motivated hunt. Terms such as “a collector’s copy” in a dealer’s description suggest that the book’s condition makes it an especially worthy purchase.

First edition: A book that has not previously appeared, bound as an independent entity, is what this well-worn terms tells us. But the earlier a book, the more convoluted the term and its adjuncts become: impression, issue, and state are just three of the additional considerations. Contemporary first editions may be easy to identify; most publishers include information about a book’s edition and printing, sometimes straightforwardly, usually on the verso of the title page. Is owning a first edition important? That’s up to you. A case can be made for some second editions, especially in nonfiction, if updated content is what you want. Beware of some of the reprint houses’ editions that may be marked as firsts; these books may be well produced and bargain-priced, but true first editions they are not. See more about book club editions (BCE).

Out of print: What are we missing, we asked ourselves, while taking a fresh look at these words? We consulted a passel of British and American dictionaries issued between the 1920s and 1990s, and only the Oxford English Dictionary defined it. (Why? Would inclusion affect the edition’s lifespan?) Out of print means that a book is no longer available from the publisher. If there are plans to reprint it, the book is simply out of stock. Wait patiently! Or shop around, for there are used copies awaiting discovery on the Internet or in your nearest old book emporium, and they’re all looking for new homes.


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