First learn the terminology. There are standard terms for the parts of a book,
as well as the more common types of damage. A couple of good reference books
are John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors, and Glaister's Encyclopedia of the
There are some good glossaries on the web as well, although none are as
complete as the above books. See right sidebar for a list of web links.
Once you know what the parts of the book are, you can begin to describe its
condition. In the United States, the standard for many years has been that of
the now defunct AB Bookman Weekly (an antiquarian book trade magazine).
Be aware though, that practices have changed somewhat in the last few years
particularly in the description of modern first editions. AB Bookman standards
assume that you are describing both the book and the jacket in a single grade.
Currently most dealers describe the book and dust jacket separately thus: F/VG
which would indicate
a book in fine condition with a very good condition dust jacket. Also note that
a simple letter code is not sufficient as a description. You mustspecificallydescribe each defect that has resulted in a grade less than fine.
Try the Independent Online Booksellers Association standards
for a somewhat updated view.
Here are the most common codes:
Here's a short list of don'ts:
- AN - As New. This is blindingly perfect. Almost never happens. Most books don't
actually make it into a new bookstore in this condition.
- F - Fine. Sorta normal perfect. No flaws of any kind. No, not even teeny ones.
- NF - Near Fine. Well, ok, maybe real teeny flaws here. Like the gloss on the
dust jacket is a bit off.
- VG - Very Good. Pretty darned nice. Might have one or two very small flaws. A
bit of rubbing on the jacket. Light shelfwear maybe. But nothing that would
actually qualify as a major defect.
- G - Good. A nice solid copy. This is what you would normally expect in a
secondhand book. Might have a few defects, but certainly nothing missing, no
- Fair - (no letter code here, ya gotta spell it out). Probably a pretty nasty
looking copy. Likely has quite a few defects, tears, dampstains, weak binding
etc. But it is complete.
- Poor - Shoulda gone in the trash.
- XLib - Ex Library copy. This just means that it has been in a library. Will
have library markings. The condition should be described as well. But XLibmustalways be noted as it's a very serious flaw.
- Don't say "pretty good for it's age".
- Don't say "else fine". Either it is or it isn't.
- Don't copy someone else's bibliographic description word for word.
While condition is likely the most important part of the description, there are
also standard methods of describing the collation and particularities of a
book. Descriptive bibliography is a big subject, and requires quite a bit of
study. Two good beginning texts on descriptive bibliography are Fredson Bowers' Principles of Bibliographical Description and Philip Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography
For a really good education in describing books, find some respected dealers
catalogues, and read their descriptions. For best results, get one of the
recommended books listed in the right sidebar and use it to help you decode
everything that you don't understand.