Determining the Condition of a Collectible or Rare Book

In the World of Collecting Science Fiction and Fantasy hardcover books it’s all about Condition.

Valuing a book as a beautiful object implies that the condition of the volume is important. A pristine, like-new copy is far more pleasing than a volume that has been misused, battered, and abused. A dust jacket which is dirty, torn or sun-faded loses some of its aesthetic value much like a disfigured painting or a chipped statue.

All booksellers agree that the single most important factor in determining the value of a book is condition. Like any other item we collect; be it stamps, comic books or Polia Pillin ceramics, condition is the key to an object’s value. In the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy book collecting, all things being equal, a book, in order to possess the highest value, should be as close as possible to the condition it was in when first published.

Evaluating the condition of a new book is a fairly simple process but don’t assume that just because you’re buying a book newly on the market that it’s in “new” condition” All too often I have picked up a new SciFi or Fantasy book and found that it’s been damaged in shipping or mistreated by potential buyers or bookstore staff. A new condition book should be crisp and fresh without any discernible flaws. There should be no ware, rubbing, marks or blemishes on the corners or pages. The dust jacket, if there is one, should be bright with no chips, dents or tears. It should be in the same pristine state as when it first came out of the publisher’s warehouse.

Evaluating older books is a bit more difficult. There is, unfortunately, no standardized system for determining the condition of an older book. There are, however several standard categories of condition which is used by book collectors and dealers alike. Judicious collectors generally confine their acquisitions to the upper end of the condition spectrum, assuring that each book they choose to add to their collection is judged to be “very good”, “fine” or “as new/very fine”. Regrettably, due to the subjective nature of these ratings the terms have been applied with considerable variation by both collectors and dealers. Even the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America ( has little to say on the subject.

The condition of a particular addition to your collection is entirely a personal choice. Of course the general rule of thumb is always; get the best condition copy that you can afford, assuming it’s reasonably priced. Some collectors, however, prefer to keep all the volumes in their library up to a certain standard, for instance; “fine” condition and above. Others are willing to accept a copy in lesser condition with the expectation of finding a better copy later, or if they believe it may be a long time before they have an opportunity to find a copy in a better condition. There is no “right” answer just as there is no “best” author or theme for your collection.

A Word on Dust Jackets

In the early Twentieth Century two industries converged to change the nature of book collecting entirely. The advent of color lithography in the early 1900s coincided with the growing realization in the publishing industry that the plain dust jackets, originally developed simply as book protectors, were an excellent tool for advertising the book and its author. By the early 1920s dust jacket design evolved into a sophisticated sales tool for publishers. The cover of the jacket became a canvas for beautiful illustrations designed to attract potential buyers while the inner flaps and back of the jacket played host to reviews, notes about the author and advertisements for other titles from the publisher. By the middle of the century the dust jacket had become an integral part of the book itself. For any collector of modern hardcover books the most important element in determining value is the condition of the dust jacket. Practically speaking, a modern Science Fiction or Fantasy hardcover without its dust jacket is of little or no value.

Condition is arguably the single most important factor for determining the value of a book. Every beginning collector should take the time to understand the practical working definitions of condition before investing more than a little money acquiring items for their collection. I highly recommend visiting a reputable bookseller in your area, so that you can learn first hand what books in various conditions are supposed to look like. Talk with them, ask questions. Most people love to talk about what they love and book vendors are no exception. Attend an antiquarian book fair, if at all possible, where you can talk with collectors and sellers alike. A little knowledge can go a long way. By understanding how the condition of a book is determined you’ll go a long way in being able to determine its value. Before long you’ll be well on your way to building a treasured and valuable collection.

Alan Chudnow has been collecting books for over 30 years. He was one of the original partners in Dangerous Visions, a speculative fiction specialty bookstore in Sherman Oaks, California. Now sadly gone the way

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