Condition Isn't Everything- It's the Only Thing
Vince Lombardi was talking about football, but book collectors could well rephrase his famous quote. The condition of a first edition or any collectible book is the major determinant of its value. There is no doubt that certain collectors might pay two or perhaps even three times this amount for an absolutely mint copy of a book.
First-edition collectors are by nature very hard to please. They would like each of their first editions to look new, and they will pay for such copies. The reverse is also true - a book in poor condition is very difficult to sell. Books valued at $100 in fine condition are practically valueless in very poor condition. If the book is rare, it will of course have some value whatever its condition, but only a fraction of what it would be worth if it were a fine to mint copy.
One thing that should be remembered, in spite of the Lombardi restatement, is that lesser copies (unless they are really dogs) will probably increase in value at the same rate as fine copies, except that the starting base is significantly lower.
Unless one is a book collector, dealer, or book scout, it is difficult to understand how to describe the condition of a book. Even within this group there can be wide differences of opinion, which only confirms the fact that condition descriptions are somewhat subjective.
Many people believe that if a book is twenty or thirty years old, it is in very good condition if the covers are still attached, and if the book is one hundred years old, one should not downgrade it just because the covers are no longer attached ("What do you expect, it's one hundred years old!"). We're sympathetic with their confusion, but we're not interested in buying their books.
The following general gradings are used by book dealers:
VERY FINE/NEW: As new, unread.
FINE: Close to new, showing slight signs of age but without any defects.
VERY GOOD: A used book that shows some sign of wear but still has no defects.
GOOD: A book that shows normal wear and aging, still complete and with no major defects.
FAIR: A worn and used copy, probably with cover tears and other defects.
READING COPY: A poor copy with text complete but not much else.
As a guide to condition we have included pictures of the book and dustwrapper of Charles Fort's first book, The Outcast Manufacturers, which was published in 1909, just to show what a ninety-five-year-old book can look like.
We were called by a family who had been left a copy of Thomas Paine's famous pamphlet published in January of 1776, in which he appealed to the common man to declare his independence. This is a rare and fragile item, having been handed out in the streets during winter, and few have survived intact. Needless to say, we were very excited about the possibility of acquiring this pamphlet. Sad to say, the copy was missing the very last page, on which there was a half page of text. We advised the family to consign it to an auction house. It fetched $8,500 at auction, and later sold with a facsimile page and some cover restoration for about $20,000. Had it been complete, it would probably have sold for $75,000 to $100,000 at the time.