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Tutorial of Book Terms
So you've read one of our catalogue descriptions and are wondering what it all really means. Let's explore this maze of book terminology together.

Here's a typical book description:

John Doe. THE BOOK OF DOGS. NY: 1925 1st ed. 335p; plates. A fine copy in very good dustjacket. $35

Well, the first thing you have is the author. Sometimes, a book has an editor. You can tell the editor because it reads "(ed)." after his name. If the name of the author is in brackets like this: [John Doe], this means the book was published anonymously but we have been able to uncover the author's name through bibliographic research.  

The title immediately follows the author/editor. Sometimes really long titles are shortened; this is most common on books over 200 years old which sometimes had REALLY long titles.  

Publication information is next. The example above is:

NY: 1925 1st ed.

The data before the colon tells us where the book is published. Most books are published in either New York (abbreviated NY) or London (abbreviated L). Other cities are written out. We also write out University Presses such as Wright State University since so many of them are in smaller towns rather than big cities.

The next info is the date the book was published. This is not always the year the book was written. In our example, the book was published in 1925. But if it was reprinted 10 years later, the description would read "NY: 1935 later printing".

After the date comes the information about what edition the book is. In the language of book collectors, A First Edition is the same as a First Edition, First Printing. A first edition, second printing is a second printing. Beware anyone who tries to sell you something as a first edition later printing; this is not traditional book collecting terminology! If no edition is stated, then the book is a later printing.  

Now we go onto the number of pages and info about the illustrations. In our example, the book has 335 pages and illustrated with plates.

So what's a plate?

A plate is an illustration on different paper than the text of the book. Usually, it's a thicker, glossy paper on which photographs reproduce better. Other terms includes "illus." (illustrations - on the same paper as the text), maps, or "frontis" (short for frontispiece - means the illustration opposite the title page).  

The hardest part comes next: the condition of the book and the dustjacket. This is more complex so we're going visual, folks.

Understanding Our Condition Terms
We try to describe books so people can get a good idea of how the book will look. First, we describe the book. Then, we describe the dustjacket (if present).

20th century books are the easiest to describe. Most of them will have their original dustjacket.

If the book has a dustjacket, the condition of the jacket is always noted separately from the book.

If the book does not have a dustjacket, we note the color of the cloth and the condition of the book. For example: "Green cloth. A fine copy." means a fine copy of the book without a dustjacket.

We use standard condition terms which grade our books on a sliding scale. These terms are those established over the decades by the rare book trade. DAMAGE IS ALWAYS NOTED. It is assumed that items are whole, complete and undamaged unless otherwise noted.

The top grade is FINE. A fine book is almost new. Any wear it has will be very minute. The dustjacket will have no chips and no tears over 1/8 inch long. We do not note whether the price has been clipped off EXCEPT on literary first editions published after 1960.

Next comes VERY GOOD. Very good means the book or jacket can show slight signs of use and wear but nothing that is really offensive or noticible.

Next comes GOOD. A good book is the average "used" book. There's no serious damage, waterstained pages, underlining, etc. The book looks like one that's been read and handled. You can read and handle it yourself but don't expect a book that looks new.

Here are two pictures of FINE condition books:

Note that the age of the book doesn't matter. There's no such thing as "fine for its age". We deal in absolutes here, folks. The first book above is from 1892 and the second is from 1936. In the second, both the book and its dustjacket are in fine condition.

The only thing we don't worry about is when the former owner NEATLY writes their name in the book or uses a discreet bookplate. Hey, people, don't forget that you're buying something that other people have owned before you.


Here are two VERY GOOD condition books:

Note that the spine of Vol. I is slightly sunfaded. This set of books is from 1906.

The second book is from 1885. Although there is some minor rubbing and edge wear, the book is clean and tight.


Here are two GOOD condition books:

Note the book looks a little used but that there is no damage. This item is from 1863.

The second book is from 1814. Notice the rubbing to the covers and the minor edgewear to the spine. There is no major damage but the book appears "used".

Now a book may be fine but its dustjacket may have a bit of wear.

Here are two FINE BOOK IN A VERY GOOD JACKET condition books:

In these two examples, the dustjackets show slight wear. Note the creases and tiny closed tears along the edges of each book.


Here are two examples of a FINE BOOK IN A GOOD JACKET:

Note the piece missing from the top of the front panel of the first book's dustjacket. In the second book, the dustjacket is missing the top of its spine.

The one thing we don't worry about is whether the dustjacket is price-clipped. Again, we consider this to be a minor issue.

Here are some pictures that illustrate other commonly used terms:

Pictorial Covers:
Used for books which usually never had a dustjacket and where a photo or picture is printed on the covers. Sometimes called a "picture cover". This picture to the left is a book from 1925 in very good condition.

Decorated Cloth:
A common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Typically used today only on special deluxe editions. The book to the left is from 1910 and is in near fine condition.

Full Leather:
A book which is completely bound in leather. The book to the left is from 1885 and is in fine condition.

Half Leather and Marbled Boards:
A book which has a leather spine and corners and covers which themselves are covered with marbled paper. Marbled paper is often used for the book's endpapers as well. The book to the left is from 1770 and is in fine condition.

This is the paper that is glued to the inside cover of the book and forms the inside cover and the first or last page. Endpapers are usually thicker than the paper in the rest of the book and are often illustrated with a map or picture. Usually, they are blank. On older books, they were often made from marbled paper.

Spines Ornately Decorated in Gilt:
To the left is a nice example of a leather bound book with deluxe illustrations cut into the leather and colored in gold (gilt). This book is from 1850 and is in fine condition.

Marbled Edges; Gilt Edges
On older books, the edges of the page are sometimes colored with either a marbled design or with gilt (gold).

Hand-Colored Plates:
Found on older books, this means the book contains illustrations which literally were colored by hand. This one-at-a-time technique creates beautiful artwork. Virtually never done today because of the time and expense involved. To the left is a hand-colored plate from 1812.

These are the brown spots sometimes found on older books. This is usually caused by a combination of material in the paper under certain climatic conditions.  

After the condition comes the price of the book. Prices are non-negotiable. Following the price sometimes is a description of the book's contents; essentially a capsule review of the item.

So now you know what we're talking about. So let's go back to tracking those books down!

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