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Standards for describing out-of-print books

By Richard Weatherford
Source: Interloc News, 1996

It has become a cliche in the out-of-print world, and it is still true: The three major factors in determining the value of a book are condition, condition, and condition.

Of course there are other factors, as the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auction in New York proved during the last week of April, but condition is still crucial.

In a bookstore, the buyer makes his/her own determination of condition. In a catalog, magazine advert, and in the Interloc online system, the seller must clearly and accurately define the condition of the item offered. The buyer must be able to get a clear mental picture of what the items looks like before making a decision to buy.

Even though describing condition is something of an art, there are still clear, practical standards that apply. These have been published in magazines and catalogs over and over, but we still think it is useful to review them here.

First, a description like “VG” is inadequate, particularly for books with some value. People who see a book listed for $65 described as “VG” immediately ask themselves, “What does that mean? What does it look like?” The result of this confusion is that, in most cases, the item with the minimum description is passed over for one with a clearer description, even if it is more expensive.


As New means that the book looks and feels as if it had never been read. There are no defects, and the dust jacket, if any, is perfect. Some dealers use the term Mint, which is derived from the coin world. Both mean that the item, even if it has been read, is still crisp and perfect.

Fine is nearly new even though it no longer has that crispness characteristic of new books. There can be no defects, no wear and tear to the dust jacket. One should avoid the temptation to enumerate several defects followed by the expression “else Fine.” This may be perceived as the sign of an amateur or, worse yet, someone who wants to trap the buyer into thinking the book is better than it actually is.

Very Good (VG) is the most commonly used term to describe books. It can, however, cover a multitude of sins. A book in Very Good condition shows some slight wear and may have a minor defect or two, but most people assume a book in Very Good condition to be clean and very presentable. To avoid problems, all defects should be described, and so should its merits.

Good is reserved for average used books with normal wear, scuffing, and bumping. Of course, as in every other case, all defects must be described, but a book in Good condition is not known as a collector copy. It is complete, sturdy, and acceptable.

Fair describes a book in obviously worn condition. The text is complete, though the book may lack all or part of an endpaper or flyleaf or dust jacket. As always, these or other defects must be noted in the description.

Poor (also, Reading Copy). Books in this condition have no merit other than for their reading text. They may be missing illustrations, plates, maps, even the title page, contents, index, etc. But the text is complete. The binding may be intact but is usually worn, soiled, and loose.

Secondary Considerations

If an item is an Ex-Library copy, also cited as Ex-Lib), it must be described as such. Libraries frequently mark, stamp, rebind, and otherwise deface books, and such copies are necessarily worth much less than those that have not been in library collections.

Book Club Editions must also be described, since book clubs usually issue cheaper editions than those sold by the original publishers. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but still book club editions must be identified.


The temptation with inexpensive books is to give them as brief and simple a description as possible. A simple “VG’ is enough, some believe. But put yourself in the place of the buyer. You want to describe the book to your customer. What if the actual condition of this book is as follows: “VG copy, slight bump to a couple of corners, dust jacket shows very light edge wear. Clean, bright copy.” Describing this to a customer is going to be a great deal safer. No one is disappointed.

Similarly, look at the following two descriptions of two very similar books in the $200 price range on the online system. One copy is described as: “NrFine.” The other copy is described as follows” This copy is bound in 1/4 white buckram spine and tips and 3/4 blue snake skin patterned leather. An especially fine copy with a tissue just jacket chipped at the spine.” Which copy would you buy?


At the New York workshop, one of the participants praised another Interloc user. “Given a choice, I always order her books. Her descriptions of condition are conservative so I always know I am going to get a better book than I expect to receive. Given a choice, even when her book is more expensive I will order hers. It is just much safer for me and for my customer.”

It is a fact. Good, honest, complete descriptions sell more books and get more repeat, satisfied customers. People who have provided more complete descriptions of their items have experienced a noticeable increase in sales.

It is always worth while to make records, and your descriptions, complete.