Book-buying 101: What does ‘good’ mean?

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I sell books both online (www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sortby=0&vci=51238921) and in our brick and mortar bookstore, inside the Charleston Antique Mall in Las Vegas.

For the seller, selling Online is a much better deal — which is why I reluctantly predict the free-standing “used and collectible” bookstore will be a thing of the past in about another decade, outside a few large cities, a few pleasant rural communities that draw seasonal tourists in the specific hunt for “antiques,” and the mega-campus towns (Berkeley and Cambridge, Boulder and Chicago -– along with Bologna and Paris and Oxford and that other Cambridge, I presume.)

But -– aside from brand new titles — this shift creates considerable hardships, hazards, and a general decrease in the quality of the experience for book buyers.

Bookselling through a store no longer “pencils out.” The overhead to keep the place open, lighted, heated or air conditioned -– not to mention insurance, utilities, and keeping all your local municipal “inspectors” happy -– is absurd, given the glacial “velocity” at which the stock moves. Any bookseller can tell you it takes literally years to sell most books.

And all that time you have to either watch your stock like a hawk -– while trying to man the cash register -– eight hours or more a day, six days or more a week –- or pay someone else to do it.

“Employees”? In these days of the economy-crippling benefits mandate, practice hiccuping the word the way Maynard G. Krebs used to say “Work?”

Since they haven’t a clue how to handle a fragile old book or document, the browsers gradually cut the value of your stock in half simply by dropping it on the floor, shoving it back on the shelf with the dust jackets wadded up like packing material, or chipping fragile wraps and jackets of books they have no intention of buying, simply by sliding them in and out of your plastic bags and wrappers. (This goes triple for comic books.)

Back when you could regularly count on selling $50 books -– and occasional $300 books — to collectors, this “boutique model” was at least a “break-even” hobby, with a profitable month or two at Christmas-time.

But unless your store sits directly on some major tourist artery, today you’ll be stuck trying to sell to a cross-section of those who live within 10 or 20 miles, at most (in urban areas, make that five to seven miles.) By and large, these browsers see little reason to spend more than $12 for a book -– assuming they ever read anything but romance paperbacks, anyway. In fact, believing they’re in a “thrift shop,” they consider $4 far more reasonable, shaking their heads and re-shelving anything priced much higher. If they can read the same words in a battered paperback, or download them for a few dollars Online, why pay more?

Actually, there’s an answer to that. In 1979 Ray Bradbury discovered his publisher, Ballantine Books, was circulating supposedly “unexpurgated” copies of his 1953 book-burning science-fiction novel “Fahrenheit 451” in which they had censored the words “hell”, “damn”, and “abortion”; modified 75 passages, and changed two episodes, turning a drunk into a “sick man” in one, while cleaning fluff out of a human navel became “cleaning ears” in the other. In fact, by 1973 Ballantine was publishing only the censored version.

But in today’s cyber-world, are the values assigned “true first printings” a speculative bubble? Do collectors run the risk that someday the bottom may fall out, as it’s largely done with stamp collecting? Yes. If gazing upon and occasionally pulling down and reading a book from such a collection — a book that may have been handled by the author himself — makes you happy, who cares? But should we assume “These things are guaranteed to appreciate”?

Shakespeare First Folios and presentation copies signed by Charles Dickens: probably. First editions of one of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romances? Not so much. Frankly, I think the artifacts of the Post-War Baby Boom -– Beatles and Grateful Dead albums and 1966 Marvel comic books and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” -– have peaked. Over the next decade, all those hoarded treasures will come back on the market, hunting for a dwindling number of collectors to whom they have any nostalgia value. Prices for the rarest pieces in the finest, museum-quality condition may hold up. The rest won’t.

Already, in this Age of the Kindle and the Internet, the “thrift-shop pricing” expected by too many browsers leaves no room for enough markup to keep open the doors of most brick-and-mortar used bookstores. The market speaks, and what the customers have decreed is that eventually their only source of books (other than the Internet) will be thrift stores and yard sales, where searching for anything in particular can be virtually hopeless.

As sales volume falls, in desperation the bookseller starts to do markdowns — which means laboriously re-pricing each and every single book, with a pencil, as if these were the 1850s.

You wonder why the only used book store left in town will no longer buy your hardcover castoffs? Customer pressure is turning them into “paperback exchanges” — the last step before the “For Lease” sign goes up.

CYBER-HAZARDS

Now compare selling online. No one touches, damages, or steals your stock. Periodic markdowns can be accomplished with a few keystrokes. No one has to “man the cash register” -– books can literally sell while you’re asleep or eating dinner. And to whom? That’s the best part: Buyers from Alaska to Florida to Berlin to Barcelona -– people who may have been looking for your specific book for years, but who would never be likely to walk in your door — can spot your offering within minutes after you post it Online. They order by credit card; their cards either clear or they don’t; if they don’t the book pops right back up online for the next customer.

But as I said, this Brave New Cyberworld presents the buyer with some problems.

First, in a bookstore or old-fashioned library (the kind with stacks, instead of people waiting in line to use borrowed computers), while looking for one book you could find a half-dozen others, sitting on the same shelf, that you never knew existed. That’s far less likely to happen Online.

But now add the fact that many Online “bulk sellers” let some computerized scanner “describe” their books, so that every jacketless 1970 book-club edition of “The Great Gatsby” gets listed as “Scribner’s 1925,” and every battered paperback copy of “Frankenstein” gets listed as “published 1818.” Many a novice buyer, unaware that they can and should return such mis-labeled crap for a full refund (plus return postage) doesn’t bother; he or she just sighs and gives up.

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(A few recurrent examples: A “Constable 1992” edition of R.D. Wingfield’s “Inspector Jack Frost” mystery “Night Frost” can be a valuable book. But the bulk sellers in the U.K., while allowing their computers to list the book that way, will usually send you a “Book Club Associates” reprint in a totally different “TV-tie-in” jacket, worth less than 20 bucks at best — a book for which the reprint publisher apparently failed to obtain a new and separate scannable “International Standard Book Number.” And while a 1938 edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” in dust jacket, in fine condition, could probably buy you a new car, the books so listed by the British bulk sellers are almost always brand new reprints. They’ve merely allowed their mis-programmed computers to enter the original copyright date under “date of publication” — despite the fact the book in question probably has an obvious post-1970 scannable bar code on the back! Just now I’m looking at an Online listing for a copy of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” listed as “published 1816” and offered at the suspiciously low price at $13 — though sellers have been known to price such offerings much higher, believe me! A closer look reveals this “1816” edition was published by Pantheon. Yet the current owners of Pantheon inform us “Pantheon’s founder, Kurt Wolff, was born in Germany in 1887. He emigrated to the United States in 1941 and began publishing major works in translation.” So chances that Mr. Wolff actually published this particular copy in 1816 appear rather slim. Watch for phrases like “may have underlining” or “may be ex-library.” No human being has examined such volumes.)

But most shockingly — well, I was shocked — buyers now forced to shop online don’t seem to have the slightest idea how to interpret a bookseller’s (even an honest and competent bookseller’s) description of his or her wares.

I’m not going to tell you how to identify a first printing. It’s complicated, since every publisher is different. The book you want is Zempel & Verkler’s “First Editions: A Guide to Identification.” Out-of-date copies of this guide (better than nothing) can be found for $15. A post-2000 Fourth Edition will run you $75 to $100. It won’t answer every question, but you need it if you’re serious about buying or selling collectible books.

Unless you’re familiar with a seller or his or her credentials, don’t believe his or her “first edition” is a first printing unless he tells you how he knows, or unless you know for sure there were no second printings or book club editions from that publisher in that year. (Even then, many sellers will get the date and even the publisher wrong, because they don’t even look, allowing our friend the badly programmed robot to “fill in the blanks.” I’ve even had them advertise hardcover first editions and send me paperback reprints.) Look for something specific and non-generic, like “First printing stated; number line complete 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. . . .”

Second or third — or 18th — printings can be worth less than half as much. Sometimes, way less. No problem if you want a reading copy. But if the price from a clueless seller isn’t much different, why not buy a collectible book that’s more likely to hold its value?

LEARN THE SEVEN GRADES

Jacketless books that originally came with jackets can be worth less than half -– sometimes nothing at all. Ex-library copies are generally worthless unless they’re copies of books that otherwise cost more than $200, in which case they might be worth 10 or 20 percent. (If the dust jacket is well preserved under a Mylar protector, that’s where most of the value is likely to lie.) Book club editions are generally worthless, though (again) a book club edition of a book that otherwise can’t be found for under $200 might be worth 20 percent.

Online sellers offering truly rare books for less than $100 in perfect condition may not be lying, exactly –- it’s far more likely they’re peddling a modern facsimile reprint, from Easton Press or the “First Edition Library” in Shelton, Connecticut. Although they always claim ignorance, you wonder why they weren’t asking $3,000.

But what surprises me most is that many buyers don’t seem to understand basic grading for condition. Because I try to price at about two-thirds of market — and then do regular markdowns — my copies are often the cheapest among comparable books online, so several times a year I’ll hear from someone wanting to buy one of my comparatively low-priced books –- say, an early, illustrated U.S. edition of a Jules Verne classic — graded “good only,” as a gift.

I try to avoid the phrase “Are you nuts?” Instead, I start by asking if they know what “good” means.

Here, briefly, a slightly iconoclastic guide to the seven standard grades most often used by competent sellers in describing a used book. (Others may quibble with my definitions, as they please. It’s what makes the world go ’round. Comments welcome.)

Please note that books and their paper jackets (when present) are generally graded separately, and the jacket is often (usually) worth more than the book. Thus, a book graded VG/G is a “very good” book in a “good” jacket -– very common. The grade G/F, on the other hand, should set off alarm bells. How can a book have been battered down to “good” condition,” while wearing around its exterior a “fine” dust jacket? The most common answers are a) it’s a battered, ex-library book, but the jacket was protected in a mylar protector, or b) we (the sellers) have wrapped this old book in a lovely new photocopied facsimile jacket, which is essentially worthless.

The seven grades:

AS NEW UNREAD

It’s not “new,” because you’re not Barnes & Noble. An inconspicuous PON (Previous Owner’s Name) written to the free front endpaper (first blank page) may even be acceptable, as long as it’s mentioned. But this book, as should be obvious from the description, has not been read. It’s about perfect, and when you try to open the boards (the covers of a hardbound book) you meet resistance before you get them to 90 degrees. (Please don’t force them — or your book will no longer be “as new unread.”) An unread paperback will show no reading creases along or near the spine. It will appear glossy and new -– even if it’s 70 years old. Handle it carefully when looking inside for the publisher’s information, or it won’t be “unread” for long.

FINE

“Fine” is the highest grade most sellers will assign. The book may have been carefully read, but it has no visible flaws, such as stains or underlining. (A price-clipped dust jacket may be acceptable, along with the aforementioned PON, but they have to be mentioned.) Lay such a book on your desk or table, hold the book three-quarters of the way open with one hand, then take your hand away. A “fine” book should slam its own text block and boards closed.

“VERY FINE”

Beats me. Presumably this means “’Fine,’ but we’re charging an extra 50 percent because we wear neckties and tweed jackets with nifty suede elbow patches.”

NEAR FINE

Between “fine” and “very good.” It’s common (and perfectly legitimate) to find a book described as “fine in a near-fine jacket” That generally means the jacket has some light rumpling to top and bottom of spine, but no tears.

VERY GOOD

Place the book on your desk or table, hold the book three-quarters of the way open with one hand, then take your hand away. Whereas a “fine” book should slam its own text block and boards closed, the “very good” book will close its own text block but not its boards, which will remain lying open. Why? The binding has loosened a bit, through use. (Large, heavy quartos — coffee table books — may be an exception. They may not have been able to close their heavy text blocks even when new.) A “very good” book can have some minor bangs or visible edge rubbing. A “very good” dust jacket can have one or two small closed tears. (The terms really means “close-able tears” – in other words, not a tear with triangular chunk missing; that’s a “chip,” which reduces a dust jacket to “good.”) Some white may be showing (from rub) to corners of the boards and/or the jacket. “Very good” books are closer to “fine” than they are to “good.” It’s easy to find “very good” books that are less than 70 years old, harder (but by no means impossible) to find them from before World War Two. But beware sellers who claim a book is (whatever grade) “considering its age.” Grades do not change with age. The fact that a “fine” book from 1830 is hard to find does not mean it’s legitimate to call a “good” book from 1830 “fine, considering its age.” It’s still “good,” or (to add emphasis) “good only.”

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GOOD

In practice, the gap between “good” and “very good” is probably the widest on this scale. “Good” books, as the old saying goes, “aren’t very good.” They’re complete and legible, not full of nasty mildew or massively chewed by rodents or bugs. Other than that, don’t expect such a book to win any beauty contests. If what you get is merely a “Plain Jane,” you’re doing well. These are “reading copies,” not collectible copies — not suitable as gifts except to a knowledgeable collector who you know has been unable to find any better copy of a sought-after book. Garage-sale books are typically “good.” Opened to any given page, they just lie there, looking tired. A “good” paperback is likely to be well-read. Flaws should be detailed, but beware understatement -– especially if the seller offers no scans or photos. “Boards rubbed” can mean they look like they were used for several seasons as a hockey puck. “Binding shaken” can mean the thing is still holding together, but not symmetrically, and not very firmly. Boards can be dented or stained. (Circular “beverage stains” are common.) Passages can be underlined or doodled. Page margins can be “tide-marked” or “dampstained” — though not so badly as to obscure the text. “Good” dustjackets can have small pieces missing, though no more than a single letter of the title or a word or two of other text should be missing. “Good” may be the best you can expect for certain hard-to-find books that are more than 100 years old, but they should generally be priced less than a third of a “fine” copy -– assuming any such copy exists.

ACCEPTABLE

There is no such grade, for obvious reasons. “Acceptable” to whom, and for what use or purpose? This word generally occurs in listings which have been “imported” from Amazon -– where sellers are not encouraged to offer full, useful descriptions. And it almost always occurs with no further clarification. Thus, what it means is “No human being has looked at this book; you’re on your own.” I suppose, in some alternative universe, an “acceptable” book might lie somewhere between “crummy” and “nice,” while falling far short of “awesome.” But do we really need such an ad hoc, alternative, “anybody’s guess” grading scale? Especially charming is a listing which grades a book “acceptable,” adding no further description whatsoever, and then cheerfully adds “We guarantee all our books to be as described.” (What?) While an “acceptable” book might turn out to be fine or unread, the buyer in self-defense is left with little choice but to assume it’s “fair.”

FAIR

The text of a “fair” book must be complete, but it may be missing dust jacket, blank endpapers, or even the half-title and other preliminary pages. I mean: someone may have torn them out. Boards can be bent, warped, or partially torn. A lending library history is common. A “fair” dust jacket will generally look like one of those attempts to glue together a piece of ancient pottery even though several major chunks were missing. It can also feature spider-webbing –- look like it’s been crumpled up and then badly ironed back into shape. Pages can be noticeably water-damaged or age-browned, though they should not crumble away at a touch. This is the classic “reading copy.”

POOR

A “poor” book is a mess. Chances are it’s not all there, and if the covers aren’t detached from the text block entirely, they can be hanging by a thread. Ink stains, mildew and the depredations of bugs and rodents abound in all their glory. You may want to freeze them for a couple of weeks, to make sure nothing new hatches out. Most “poor” books are thrown away, or stored in the attic with a piece of string tied around them, as mementos of grandma’s school days. They can still have some value, however, if they’re the remnants of an important or valuable book, from which pages or plates (full-page illustrations, tipped in on glossy stock) can be salvaged and cannibalized to make a complete copy. This is called “book-breaking” -– an acceptable practice to rescue usable portions of a deceased book, though an abomination (in the view of most lovers of old books) when done to illustrated books which remained in otherwise nice condition, on the grounds that the illustrations are worth more than the book itself, once they’re cut out and framed. “Poor” books are also sometimes sold as “binding copies,” meaning you’re expected to haul them to a professional bookbinder and get them rebound (minimum cost, $100 to $200 — acceptable for the family Bible, not so smart if you’re planning to re-sell your finished product for 70 bucks.)

These, then, are the seven grades of a used book: As new unread; fine; near fine; very good, good, fair, and poor. With the exception of true rarities, generally more than 100 years old, books must be at least “very good” to be deemed “collectible.” Of course, no one can stop sellers from insisting they have a book that’s “good-minus” or “very-good-plus-plus,” doubling or tripling the number of grades, ad infinitum.

This should get you started. It’s still not as much fun as spending a few hours in a used bookstore. But those guys you see out in the street, sweeping up the elephant droppings? They mean “The parade’s gone by.”

Happy hunting.

— V.S.

3 Comments to “Book-buying 101: What does ‘good’ mean?”

  1. Leslie Fish Says:

    The brick-and-mortar used-and-new bookstore can survive if, like Bookman’s here in Phoenix, it also becomes a coffee-shop and therefore a local community center.

    –Leslie <

  2. MamaLiberty Says:

    I’m in a bit of a muddle here. Since I’m not a collector, and so don’t really care about all the little details, as long as I can read the story I’m happy. I have a room full of books, mostly reference things, and another bookshelf in the bedroom stuffed with fiction of one kind or another. My tastes in fiction have changed drastically over the last few years, and I don’t read many of them anymore, but I have no desire to get rid of them.

    What that means is that, besides very real budget restraints, I just don’t have much room for any more physical books! I love the feel of real books, but more and more am buying e-books for my tablet reader. I can store thousands of books in a small space, and finding the one I want or browsing through them is simple. They also don’t need to be dusted. 🙂

    Eventually, someone will develop a reader that is easier to use, and more like a physical book. Best of both worlds. I’ll be looking for it.

  3. Vin Says:

    Hi, Leslie: Serving coffee and pastry — as well as guitar players, book-signings, esoteric magazine racks, and literary discussion groups — are all worth a try, and I certainly wish them well. It doesn’t seem to have made the difference for Border’s, though.

    — Vin

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