RARE BOOK TERMS

UNDERSTANDING RARE BOOK DESCRIPTIONS

WE DO OUR BEST TO DESCRIBE EACH BOOK’S CONDITION AS ACCURATELY AS POSSIBLE, AND PROVIDE HIGH-RESOLUTION PHOTOGRAPHS TO ASSIST IN MAKING PURCHASING DECISIONS.

We take pride in the precision and detail of our cataloguing, which conforms to the best industry standards regarding the description of rare books. Here’s an introduction for new customers or those unfamiliar with rare book cataloguing. It has always been important to us to give our customers an honest and clear description of the physical condition of our books. This article enumerates frequently used terms for doing that and tells their customary meanings. This section will help you in the future to unravel the puzzling language you may have found in the description of certain items.

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Title and Author

The title of the book is presented exactly as it is on the title page (including unusual or antiquated spellings), rather than the way it appears on the dust jacket or the upper cover of the book. Long titles with additional information are carried through to the beginning of the physical description where they appear in italics. Any information in [square brackets] is not present in the book but was added by us based on bibliographical research. For instance, in the case of an anonymously published work we may add the author’s name in brackets, or if the date is not printed in the book we include that in brackets. Text in (round brackets) indicates extra information that we think is useful. A good example is a book inscribed by the author to a famous person. In that case we would add the famous person’s name in round brackets before the author’s name. In the case of an untitled work such as a photo album we might include the subject of the album in round brackets.

Overview

These notes are the fun and less formal part of the description. We begin by stating the edition and other important information such as whether the book is signed or specially bound. Publication history or provenance (ownership history) might be discussed, and important inscriptions and signatures are explained. The works are set within their intellectual, scientific, literary, and social context, so you know why they’re important and considered collectible. We may also point out a book’s rarity, relying on historic publication data as well as the number of copies in libraries or at auction in recent years.

Physical Description

This section, located under the tab “Details & Condition” on the book’s stock page, explains the physical features of the book and can be broken down into the following categories which always occur in the same order.

  • Publication details:
    This includes the place of publication followed by the publisher’s name and the date in the following format – Location: Publisher, Date. Any information in round or square brackets was not printed in the book but was added by us (see above for more details on the use of brackets).
  • Format and binding:
    The format is the formal term for a book’s size and shape, most often octavo, quarto, or folio. It is followed by a description of the binding, starting with the binding material and then describing the appearance of the spine and boards; any lettering or decorations on the binding or edges of the text block; and the type of endpapers. The binding’s age and whether it is original or contemporary with the book’s publication is noted. If the spine has been rebacked or replaced it will be mentioned here, but other condition notes are included later in the description.
  • Illustrations:
    We give a full count of plates (illustrations that are printed separately from the text) and if possible state what process was used to print them. When engravings are included within the text in Victorian or modern books we usually don’t give a full count but simply state that they occur.
  • Miscellaneous:
    We mention the presence of errata slips, binder’s tickets, and publisher’s ads.
  • Reader additions:
    The presence of bookplates, ownership inscriptions, and marginalia is noted.
  • Condition report:
    We describe specific faults and then give each book a formal rating – see this page for a detailed breakdown of our ratings. We also welcome email or phone enquiries about specific books and are happy to take additional photos.
  • Bibliography:
    If the book is mentioned in a bibliography we give the reference here in shortened form.

RARE BOOK CONDITION RATINGS

Each of our detailed condition report describe a book’s individual flaws and also gives an overall rating such as “fine” or “very good”. Different booksellers may use these rating terms in slightly different ways, so here’s a breakdown of what each one means when you see it in our cataloguing.

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Fine

The highest rating we give a book. For late-19th and 20th-century books, fine means that the copy is in essentially the same condition as it was when first printed, including the dust jacket if it was published with one. (If a book is missing its jacket but otherwise perfect we describe it as excellent rather than fine.) This rating is rarely applied to books published prior to the 19th century, and is then used more leniently — a copy can have certain minor flaws and still be considered fine, but it does need to be a superb example of its type. Fine can also be used to describe rebound books when the contents are still in superb condition and the binding is of high quality in materials and craftsmanship.

Excellent

A copy with only one or two minor flaws, such as light rubbing at the extremities of the covers, ownership signature, faded spine panel, or slight toning of the leaves. A copy that is in perfect condition but missing the jacket can also be rated as excellent.

Very Good

Very good copies will tend to look more “read” than excellent copies. They might have one or two significant flaws (such as a short tear to a leaf, mild dampstain over a small area, or spotting to some leaves), or several minor flaws. A book that looks nice because it has significant restoration may also be described as very good.

Good

A good copy may be acceptable as a reading copy, but is in a condition not generally suitable for collecting unless the work is particularly rare or features an uncommon inscription. We almost never offer copies in good condition.

Poor

The lowest rating applied to books, for copies that may not even be in a suitable condition for reading. We would only offer a book in poor condition if it was both extremely important and of the utmost rarity.

FIRST EDITION, PRINTING, IMPRESSION AND ISSUE DESCRIPTION

The term edition refers to a group of books printed at the same time from the same setting of type, and the first edition comprises the first copies of a book to be printed and appear on the market at the same time. During the hand-press era in Europe and North America, roughly 1450-1850, books were printed with movable type. Each letter of the text corresponded to an individual piece of metal type, hundreds of which were placed together in a wooden frame called the “forme” to create what was essentially a giant stamp of one or more pages of the text.
Metal type was expensive and printers had a limited supply, so they could only print a few different sheets at any given time and the type would be redistributed once they had enough copies of a particular sheet. The image below, made for Diderot’s Encyclopédie in the late 18th century, depicts typesetters at work. The compositors select individual pieces of type from large wooden trays and place them into their composing sticks as lines of text. Nearby, another employee hammers the type securely into the forme for printing. Above them, printed sheets are drying. The lower half of the page illustrates individual pieces of type and type spacers; type grouped into a line in a composing stick; and several lines of type as they would appear in the forme. Over the course of weeks or months all the sheets for the book would be printed, with the author usually making corrections throughout the process. The completed sheets were then gathered together and distributed to booksellers. All the copies printed together comprise a distinct edition of the work. The limitations of letterpress technology meant that a second or third printing could never be taken from the same setting of type, so each edition was a completely different entity from its predecessors, produced from an entirely new setting of type.
Occasionally you might see a bookseller describe multiple states of a pre-19th century text. This term refers to corrections made during the printing process. An error made by the typesetter might not be noticed and corrected until a number of sheets had already been printed. It was too expensive to throw those pages out and start over, so they were used anyway, creating two states of the text. States are useful to historians and bibliographers who want to understand a book’s publication history, but they usually have little or no effect on a book’s value to collectors, since all the states would have appeared on the market at the same time. (Priority is the term used to describe the order in which copies appeared on the market. Thus there is usually no priority between different states.)

In the middle of the 19th century the printing industry began to change rapidly, and new technologies meant that publishers could make copies of sheets of type and store them in case there was demand for the book at a later date. The image below shows the creation of a mould for a stereotype. A sheet of movable type was covered with plaster or rubber to create a mould that could be stored for months or years. When more copies were needed the mould was used to create the stereotype, a solid metal printing plate. Printers could now produce multiple printings from the same setting of type, and late-19th and 20th century books are often described with both their edition and printing noted. Only the first printing is considered the true first edition of a book — we will never describe a later printing as the “first edition, fifth printing”, we would simply call it the “fifth printing”. Likewise, if we describe a book as a first edition we mean “first edition, first printing”. The term impression means exactly the same thing as printing, but is used more often by the British and international book trade, while printing is associated with books published in the United States. By the end of the 19th century printing technology had changed so much that publishers no longer had to wait until an entire edition was printed before sending copies to market. If an error in the text, binding, or dust jacket was noted part of the way through a press run, the incorrect copies might have already reached bookshops by the time the correction was made. This results in separate issues that are part of the same printing but that appear on the market at slightly different times. Unlike states, issue points can contribute to the market value of a book because collectors are often interested in priority, the order in which copies became available to the public.