How to Find the Value of Old Books

Determining Book Condition

Grading the physical condition of an old book is an extremely subjective process usually left to professional book appraisers. Professional appraisers have examined thousands of books and have the experience to weigh the dozens of subtle criteria that differentiate "fine" from "very good." But if you want to get a rough idea of your book's condition -- and its relative value on the rare book market -- here are the basics.

The highest grade for a book's physical condition is "as new." This is a book that hasn't even been opened. It's been stored in impeccable conditions and shows absolutely no signs of wear or use. Note that bibliophiles don't like to use the word "mint," since serious collectors reserve the term for grading money, not books [source: Pappas].

A book in "fine" condition is complete and shows little to no wear. For some booksellers, a grading of "fine" equals "handled, but flawless" [source: Gozdecki]. Be careful, though: The overuse of the term "fine" in online bookselling circles has caused some grumbling.

Many "fine" books would more accurately qualify as "very good," which means a complete book with very minor defects. "Good" describes the average condition of an older book -- some signs of wear and minor damage, perhaps to the dust jacket.

A book is deemed "fair" if it's complete, but the damage to the dust jacket or edges of the pages is more evident. The lowest grade for an old book is "poor" or "reading copy." This is a book with significant damage that would only be worth selling if it includes rare signatures, inscriptions or was owned by a famous person. Lacking any special circumstances, any book missing pages is worthless [source: RBMS].

Here are some common terms used to describe the condition of old books:

  • Bookworm damage -- A problem in only the very earliest books; moths or larvae burrow through pages and bindings
  • Dampstain -- A tan or gray stain due to water damage. It doesn't lower the value of otherwise rare books.
  • Foxing -- Certain older types of printing paper include impurities like iron that can oxidize under humid conditions and leave rusty brown stains.
  • Inscription --A handwritten, signed note from the author or another famous person. If the inscription designates the book as a gift, then it's called a "presentation inscription."
  • Rebound --If the original binding is damaged, an old book may be re-sewn into a new binding. In most cases, this lowers the value of the book considerably.
  • Started -- Refers to sections of bound pages (called signatures) beginning to pull away from the binding
  • Shaken -- Refers to signatures that have pulled loose from the binding

[source: ABAA]

If you think your old book is "fine," then it's time to seek out a professional opinion. In the next section, we'll discuss book appraisers.