To facilitate sales of books via mail (and now online), standard terms (with abbreviations) are used by booksellers and read by book buyers. This system works best when the same terms and applications of them are used. A common tool for the book trade was Antiquarian Bookman Weekly (AB Weekly), a magazine of want lists and sale lists and articles about book collecting. Each issue contained a summary of their descriptions and definitions of a grading term. This list was first proposed in 1949 and although the magazine went out of business in the early 2000s, it remains a standard used by those in the trade and collecting.
- As New is self-explanatory. It means that the book is in the state that it should have been in when it left the publisher. This is the equivalent of Mint condition in numismatics.
- Fine (F or FN) is As New but allowing for the normal effects of time on an unused book that has been protected. A fine book shows no damage.
- Very Good (VG) describes a book that is worn but untorn. For many collectors this is the minimum acceptable condition for all but the rarest items. Any defects must be noted.
- Good (G) describes the condition of an average used worn book that is complete. Any defects must be noted.
- Fair shows wear and tear but all the text pages and illustrations or maps are present. It may lack endpapers, half-title, and even the title page. All defects must be noted.
- Poor describes a book that has the complete text but is so damaged that it is only of interest to a buyer who seeks a reading copy. If the damage renders the text illegible then the book is not even poor.
- Ex-library copies must always be designated as such no matter what the condition of the book.
- Book Club copies must always be designated as such no matter what the condition of the book.
- Binding Copy describes a book in which the pages or leaves are perfect, but the binding is very bad, loose, off or non-existent.
Other than “As New” which is meant to indicate a brand new book but sold other than direct from the publisher, the highest grade is “Fine.” There is no “Mint” or “Very Fine” in book grading. Such terms are used in coins and comic books.
Sellers will routinely use + and – characters with a grade to indicate that it is a little better or below the grade named. For example VG+ is “a little better than very good.”
Collectible grade for books usually is VG or better. Some scarce or very fragile books may still be desirable at lower grades.
The book and dust jacket are graded separately. A grade of Fn/VG+ means that the book is in Fine condition and the dust jacket is VG+. It is common for a jacket to have more wear than the book.
Age of the book is never a reason to change the condition. Thus “good for its age” is the mark of an amateur cataloger, especially whey they are only using the copyright date as a means of assessing the age of the book and not other evidence indicating a later printing.
Still, terms like the ones from AB Weekly are only good when you have a common frame of reference of what a Fine, Very Good, or Good means. Firsts Magazine had a series of articles photographing the same book in different condition grades to illustrate what was meant by each term.
One way to look at this is in a scale of 1 to 10 where “10” is a “Fine” book that is a perfect, like-new book that has not been handled by a child. A “Very Good” would be an 8. A “Good” would be a 6. Anything less is a reading copy (if complete).
In terms of value, there is a relationship between condition and value. One way to consider it would be if a “10” (Fn) was worth $100, an “8” (VG) might be $50, and a “6” (G) might be very hard to sell even at $25.
Dust jackets (q.v.) are separate factors to the value.