Book condition descriptions

Having just ham-fistedly done some diy plumbing, it put me to thinking about people who ham-fistedly sell books.

plumber boxer on rest breakMy late dog, a boxer, must have known a lot about plumbing and heating: when we bought our first house it was in need of plumbing and central heating throughout. This involved having a lot of floorboards up, the aforesaid boxer laying on the floor with his nose in the hole (he was in all day), while the plumber lay on the floor the other side attaching pipe to pipe, giving a blow-by-blow account of what he was doing (‘this pipe goes on here, it’s the central heating return pipe…’ and so on). If he were still alive, had an opposable thumb, and a good memory, he could put his knowledge to good use.

I could have done with his advice yesterday afternoon. I know next to nothing about plumbing, and I don’t find it that easy, more so when it’s in a restricted space with pipes in the way and it’s dark and hard to see; but also because I don’t like doing it, and it takes me umpteen times longer than it would a plumber.

But I don’t try and plumb other people’s houses – in the unlikely case of anyone asking me to I would tell them to employ a plumber, i.e. someone who knows what they are doing and will do it well. Hence I get irritated when I read badly written descriptions of books for sale on the internet. A couple of examples:

On a large bookselling site, someone is listing a first edition of H G Wells’ The History of Mr Polly, published by Penguin in 1946, with a description, in part: “this book is in very fine condition but has got a rubbed back edge on spine” [my italics]

1. It’s not a first edition. The first edition was in 1910, published by Nelson. It might be the first printing of the Penguin edition, but it’s not a first edition.

2. If it has a rubbed back edge, or just about anything else wrong with it, it’s not a Fine copy, let alone ‘Near Fine’. A fine book is not quite ‘as new’ – but I have bought new (i.e. not used) books before now that wouldn’t fit the definition of ‘as new’, either because of damage caused by packaging when shipped, or because of general shelfwear from sitting on a bookshop shelf for weeks or months. I’m not sure many books published 66 years ago are likely to be in Fine condition anyway.

Another: “Book Condition: Fine. Ex Library stock with usual markings. Some creasing to spine and edges.” Now, I won’t list an ex-library book as anything better than Good. Even if the book is unread and otherwise near fine, I will say it’s ‘good’ and describe it as ‘Ex-library book with usual stamps, etc, otherwise would be a near fine copy…’. If it’s got ink stamps and label remains stuck in it, then in my opinion it’s not even a very good copy, let alone a fine one.

Some years ago two colleagues, Mike Sims & Stephen Foster, compiled a glossary of bookselling terms, which is available here. Most booksellers don’t use many of these terms any more – I don’t, as most of the buyers are on sites like Amazon, and then you hit problems, for example, ‘good’ in bookselling terminology means ‘not very good’, but the glossary is a useful reference.

For general (as opposed to specific) ham-fistedness, how about this: “THIS IS AN AUTHOGRAPHED COPY (SINGED BY AUTHOR)” from a seller (who has several singed copies, but some of them only possibly singed by the author) who says “WE GUARANTEE A VERY SWIFT DELIVERY (USUALLY SAME DAY/NEXT DAY DISPATCH)” and describe themselves as “One of UK’s most reliable and committed bookseller”; their order completion rate on one listing website is 0-59% (i.e. if you order a book you have a less than 60% chance of getting it).

And here’s a seller’s meaningless trading terms, they read in their entirety thus: “xxxx may, in his discretion, change, supplement or amend these Terms and Conditions as they relate to your future use of the Web sites from time to time, for any reason, and without any prior notice or liability to you or any other person, by posting the modified Terms and Conditions on the Web sites. You may not change, supplement, or amend these Terms and Conditions in any manner. Each time you use the Web sites, you acknowledge and signify that you have read, understood, and agreed to be bound by these Terms and Conditions as they then read.” To sum up: you can’t change the terms and have to agree to not changing the terms, and you have to understand the terms, but they can change the terms (but then you wouldn’t have read the terms or understood the terms because they are different from the terms you did read).

Lastly, a quirk on the Penguin Books website: what would you class mystery plays as? On their website English Mystery Plays: a selection is in the category: Fiction (novels & short stories) »Detective/Mystery »c.e. 1400-1499. Why they’ve done that is a mystery to me.

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