Book Collecting Guide

How to Read Bookseller Descriptions and Conditions

So you have decided to become a book collector. Congratulations!

There are few things as engrossing, as educational or as pleasurable as a fine book collection. And unlike some other types of collecting (rare coins, historical artifacts, oil paintings), book collecting is open to those with modest incomes as well as the very wealthy.

It is true that a first printing of William Faulkner’s The Marble Faun or Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree will cost thousands of dollars but there are many collectible authors and collectible subjects where adding a book to your collection can cost less than dinner at a decent restaurant.

So, if you have decided to become a book collector, I expect that you have decided on the subject or author for your collection. You may well have some books for this collection on your shelves already. Now you want to add to your collection and like many book buyers today you are buying your books online.

This can pose some problems. You know that with books their CONDITION matters. It matters a lot. When we buy our books in a bookstore, in an antiquarian bookshop, we can pick up the book, sniff it to make sure there is no odor, look at the condition of the binding, check for any marks or stains, etc. But you can not do those things online. Even if a bookseller includes an image with their listing, that image tells you nothing about the interior pages.

Booksellers include ’descriptions of condition’ in their listings but for those new to book collecting, things like “AN,” “G+” or “EP” can be confusing. When buying online you need to understand this bookseller ’shorthand’ - a shorthand that was invented when booksellers listed books in weekly magazines and paid by the line for their ads. To keep costs down, they invented a ’bookseller shorthand.’ And although we no longer ’pay by the word’ to list books, those abbreviations are still used by most booksellers.

So, here is your ’cheat sheet’ for making sense of the abbreviations and words used to describe books listed on Biblio. Read the list carefully or print it out and memorize it. You need to know these terms when buying for your collection if and when you are buying a book that you can not hold in your hands to inspect.

Remember that condition is to books as location is to real estate property. As a collector you always want to buy the best condition that you can afford.

Most modern books were issued with dust jackets/dust wrappers (detachable paper covers around the book itself). Booksellers always list the condition of the dust jacket after the condition of the book. For example, AN/VG tells you that the book itself is in AS NEW condition and the dust jacket is VERY GOOD.

Here are accepted abbreviations used to describe BOOK and DUST JACKETS alike by professional booksellers.

  • As New (AN): describes a book that is in the same perfect condition as when it was issued by the printer. There are no flaws. None at all. This book or dust jacket is in pristine condition, just as it came from the publisher. The book is tight. It has not been read or its pages turned. AN is the highest grade possible for a book or dust jacket.

  • Fine (F): describes a book or dust jacket that is not quite as crisp as an AN book. Many new books sold in large bookshops are in Fine condition and not As New because the books have been out on the shelves and have been picked up and handled by prospective buyers. In fact, some books sold in mega stores may have dust jackets only in VG (Very Good) condition. If there is any flaw to a book or dj labeled Fine (F), the bookseller needs to describe it. (Eg. DJ - Slightest edge wear bottom edge.) If the book has a remainder mark (a mark, usually on the bottom edge, placed by a publisher selling off books at a discount) that must be stated. As a collector you want to avoid books with remainder marks.

  • Very Good (VG): describes a book that does show some small signs of wear - but no tears - on either binding or paper.

  • Good (G): describes the average used book that has all pages or leaves present.

  • Fair: describes a worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title page, etc. (Such missing pieces must be noted in the description). The binding, jacket (if any) may also be worn.

  • Poor: describes a book that is sufficiently worn, to the point that its only merit is as a Reading Copy because it HAS the complete text. (The text must be legible.) Any missing maps or plates should still be noted. A book or dust jacket listed as Poor (P) may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and the book may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc.

Practical application

When you search for a book on Biblio, you may find it listed as AN/VG - This means the book is in As New condition but the dust jacket has some light sign of wear.

Usually you will find books are in better condition than their dust jackets - although there are rare instances when readers will remove a dust jacket when they read a book so as to keep the jacket in perfect condition. Then you might see VG/AN in a description.

A word about book sizes

You may find a book description begins with some numbers and letters. Example: 4to or 8vo. These indicate the size of the book being listed. These too come out of the history of the trade and they derive from the size of the paper used to make the book.

Think of a large daily newspaper such as the New York Times. If you pull the cover page away from the rest of the paper you will have the front and last page of that day’s paper. Folded so just the front page shows is the size called Folio.

Now fold the paper from top to bottom. If you cut the edges, you would have FOUR pages or Quarto - often abbreviated 4to.

Fold it again and you get EIGHT pages or an Octavo 8vo. Keep folding and the pages get smaller and smaller. 16mo, 32mo, 64 mo. That last is pretty small! Some people memorize these sizes; others just imagine folding a copy of a large newspaper until they get the size that would give them the cited number of pages.

You might find it useful to print out or book mark this page until you are thoroughly familiar with these terms and abbreviations. And any time you find a book listed in less than AN/AN condition, always feel free to contact the seller about the books defects if they are not listed in the description.

As a collector you want to buy your books in the best condition you can afford. You need to be informed about any flaws or wear before you order. And most booksellers are more than happy to answer your inquiries about condition because they recognize the limits of the written word and they want to avoid having books returned because a buyer assumed a book was in better condition than their description warranted.

That’s it. Enjoy building your collection. And remember the 3 keys to a great book collection: Condition, Condition, Condition.

Have fun!

The goal of book collecting is to express your love of books. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do that.