Determining the Condition of Rare Sci-Fi Book

Vintage Stamp with Jules Verne image

Before a price can be set on a rare book, it’s first important to know things like whether or not it was a first print edition, the version of the dust jacket used and whether or not it has been signed by the author, as the aforementioned factors help determine its value.

Take for example a first print edition of George Orwell’s “1984” dystopian sci-fi classic. First editions of the book with the proper book jackets have sold for over $8,200. Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” first edition copies that were autographed by the author himself have sold for $7,500.

Yes, rare sci-fi books can sell for big bucks if all the stars align properly. But aside from print editions and dust jackets, there’s one other big factor that greatly impacts the sale price of a rare book – its condition.

Condition

There are typically eight different categories of conditions used to describe books. They are as follows, from best to worst condition.

  • As new: Pristine condition. Never opened or read.
  • Fine: No damage to the book, but it has been opened and read.
  • Very good: Minor signs of wear.
  • Good: Describes an average worn book.
  • Fair: Text pages are worn, as is the binding and jacket.
  • Poor: A worn book that is often characterized by stains, scuffs, loose binding and pages.
  • Binding copy: Poor binding.
  • Reading copy: Describes a condition where the book is OK to read, but in poor structural shape.

Factors

While the condition categories are one thing, it’s how to get to those categories that’s the real task at hand. Here’s a closer look at some of the ways that retailers determine the condition of a rare book:

  • Binding: The binding is a term used to describe the cover of the book around the book block. When a book is brand new, the binding will be tight, almost in a way as if the book doesn’t want to stay open as you turn the pages. However, as the book is used and read, the binding will gradually loosen. Generally speaking, the tighter the binding, the more valuable the book is, as a tighter binding indicates less use.
  • Discoloration: Discoloration can arise for a variety of reasons. For instance, a book can become discolored if it’s exposed to light or direct sunlight for elongated periods of time. It can also become “dampstained,” or discolored when it’s stained by a piece of food or drink. A brown spotting on pages caused by a chemical reaction is also a common discoloration, but typically only in older 19th century editions.
  • Structural damage: Even simply the constant removal and placement of a book from its shelf can lead to what’s known as “shelf wear.” Chips in the dust jacket or along the book’s edges can also impact the condition of the book. Additionally, small wormholes may be present in some books, which are caused by bookworms.
  • Other variables: Finally, there are several other factors that need to be considered when weighing a book’s condition and value. For instance, has the book undergone any sort of repair? Older books are often re-backed, re-cased and re-jointed if they’ve been damaged but can still be salvaged in some way, however this impacts the condition. It’s not even unusual for certain rare works to be made up of one or more damaged copies.

Determining the value of a rare sci-fi book isn’t easy–it consists of a great deal of attention to detail, as well as analysis of the book itself. Combine that physical analysis with the other information we mentioned in the opening, and you may be handling a rare treasure.

  • Andrew Harner

    Dan, thank you for the informative article!