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The subjective world of book grading

What's the difference between 'very good' and 'near fine', and why can't books be graded more accurately, like comics?


This genuine eBay listing describes this as 'Used, very good, jacket a little damaged'


If you’re new to book collecting (or even if you’re not), you’ll know that the value a book commands is nearly always related to its overall condition – and usually that means the condition of a book’s dust jacket.

 

And yet (understandably), many people continue to be perplexed by how many booksellers ‘grade’ their items.

 

Why? Because for want of a better word, it’s mostly a completely subjective assessment that can often bear little resemblance to reality.

 

I’ve seen plenty of Bond books that are extremely generously described – to the extent of them being completely misleading.


Books are often advertised as being in ‘good condition’ when – if, you were to look at them objectively – you would probably decide they are not in good condition at all. Their jackets might be dog-eared, ripped, stained, chipped, browned, sun-damaged – or all of the above (believe me, I’ve seen it all).

 

One of the worst ways I’ve seen books described is that they are in ‘excellent condition for its age’. Note the extra ‘for its age’ caveat being used to downgrade the fact that this book is actually in poor condition, but because it’s 60 years old and in poor condition, that suddenly elevates it into being in good condition (for its age).

 

This liberal use of loose language can often be spotted if there are enough photographs for a buyer to either agree/disagree with the seller's assertions.


But the sad truth is that other sellers on other platforms will often use phrases like ‘lovely condition’ (it’s very hard to pin-point what this actually means), or ‘excellent’ (again, subjective) without sufficient accompanying pictures. And this will – in many cases – lead to significant disappointment when the book that is bought ultimately arrives.

 

Books aren’t comics, cards or banknotes

 

All this subjectivity with books is a world away from how other paper objects are sold.


In the arena of banknotes, baseball cards or comics, for example, there is a very strict grading system.



Comics are graded according to a strict 10-point system, independently done so, by bodies such as the Comic Book Certification Service.

 

In this extremely regimented system, the difference between a ‘very fine’ comic (rated 7.5) compared to a ‘Near mint +’  (9.6 rated one), is huge (see the full breakdown of how the grading works here.

 

The difference can add thousands of pounds to the cost of that comic. Even a regular comic bought for $50 can be graded and suddenly be worth $500, but ostensibly most casual buyers would read near fine and very fine as being very similar.

 

Why can’t books use a similar system?

 

In their system of grading, comic books are differentiated according to things like stress marks to the spines; vividness of colours; the presence of creases/folds to pages; tanning; overall discolouration; surface scratches; how well secured the pages are; whether corners are square and sharp, etc.

 

These are all condition points that can be applied to books.

 

So, quite rightly, many have questioned why such a similar system can’t be applied to rare books.

 

After all, if the owner of a comic can definitively say their rare comic is a 9.5 rather than a 7.9 (or some other score), then that’s something that can’t be argued with, and its condition is gauged according to a fair playing field.

 

Of course, an argument often cited for why books can't be judged this way, is that books are too mass-produced, and the cost of verification is prohibitive. However, I would argue the same could be said for comics.

 

Indeed, verification is only usually sought by comic book collectors if they have very rare examples to start with - examples that they definitively want a trusted opinion on. In theory this train of thought could be applied to books.

 

So why hasn’t it taken off?

 

I would argue there are a few reasons:

 

Collectors like to 'handle' their books: The moment a comic is officially graded, it’s sealed up forever in a Perspex protective sleeve. This is referred to amongst collectors as being ‘slabbed’. I would argue book most collectors still like to handle (and dare I say it, actually ‘read’) their rare books.


A book grade would only be relevant at that moment in time: If a book were to be graded, how long would that assessment last for? Books naturally age, even when stored out of direct light or handled minimally. So would a book graded as being in ‘X’ condition one year still carry that same grade two, three, four years later? It seems to me, that any grading would also need some sort of ‘expiry date’ or a requirement that it needs be re-graded every ‘X’ years. This would start to get costly.


Books are more complex items: To me, there’s so much more complexity to a book. Its jacket might be excellent (perhaps a better one has already been swapped on - a common practice), but the boards might be of radically different condition - ie they might be leaning, bumped, scuffed, not square, have split gutters etc.. And that’s not including the condition of the inner pages – which arguably require a whole additional level of classification. Often in books, you might have foxing, but only to the end papers rather than the whole book. How would this be judged?


Cost: Booksellers just wouldn’t have the resources to grade every book (or even just the very rare ones) they sell – even if a grading body existed.

 

Where do we stand then?

 

It seems like buyers will still need to be alert to over-zealous descriptions, and try to buy from sellers that use standardized descriptors, or those that match their photographs.

 

The problem is that standardized terms are more functional, and many sellers argue they reduce some of the razzmatazz that they might want to impart for a book. These terms can even de-energise or under-sell a book’s status, because the descriptors feel bland. So that’s why many sellers will still continue to embellish.

 

The question, is when is a description jaunty but accurate, and when does it cross the line and veer towards misrepresentation?

 

Luckily, terms like Mint, As-New, Fine, Near Fine, Good, Average, Fair and Poor are usually good enough to classify a book.

 

But even here you will see variations.


Amazon uses this scale:

  • Used – Like New

  • Used – Very Good

  • Used – Good

  • Used – Acceptable


But what does ‘acceptable’ really mean. ‘Acceptable’ to one could be ‘poor’ to another.


Abe Books uses this breakdown:

  • As New

  • Fine (F or FN)

  • Very Good (VG)

  • Good (G)

  • Fair

  • Poor

  • Binding Copy

  • Reading Copy


It’s slightly more nuanced, but what really is the difference between ‘fair’ and ‘good’ for example?

 

Alibris uses this:

  • New or Very Fine—a book in a pristine condition

  • Fine (F or FN)—close to new, but not quite

  • Near Fine (NRF)—a few small flaws are detectable

  • Very Good (VG)—a sound and collectible copy with some visible flaws present

  • Good (G)—not collectible but otherwise perfectly readable

  • Fair (F)—a worn book with complete text and pages but something lacking, with defects

  • Poor (P)—a very worn book


However, could you really say what’s different between ‘very good’ and ‘near fine’ or Fine’ and ‘As-new’?

 

 

Because we only aim to sell the very best books, we like to think we avoid some of these problems – typically listing books as very good, near fine or fine.

 

We’re excited about our books, and do enthuse about them – but we do not, we believe, exaggerate.

 

We are members of the Booksellers Association, which has its own code of ethics.

 

We also pride ourselves by showing many more pictures than many other sellers do – giving buyers the opportunity to see for themselves our books’ condition.

 

We don’t believe in caveat emptor – that it’s down to buyers-only to be aware.


We believe in responsibly and ethically describing our books.

 

But, remember - Bond can sometimes break the rule!

 

What is worth saying however, is that with James Bond books, I do feel there is an exception that is worth explaining.

 

Several of the titles are well-known for having jackets that degrade particularly worse than others – notably Diamonds Are Forever (with its predominantly black inked jacket design), and From Russia With Love – a book that almost always suffers paper damage due to it being of particularly brittle paper stock. Moonraker also suffers particular browning due to its ‘flame’ design.

 

For these books, I believe it ‘is’ acceptable to re-gauge jacket condition against these known condition points – meaning a jacket that might ordinarily be described as average would be ‘good’ for this particular title.

 

Where we sell books that meet this criteria, we will explain this.

 

What do you think?

 

We welcome your comments below….

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