There is a well-established standard for describing the condition of books, which has been extended to apply to maps and prints as well. The basic grades are:
Fine: In virtually new condition. (The term “mint” is sometimes used for modern books which are in the same state as when they came from the printer. In the case of books a hundred or more years old this would be inappropriate, and “fine” does not mean “mint”.)
Very good: Slight wear.
Good: With average general wear.
Fair, poor, etc.: Not good. At this level the buyer needs to see and examine the book to determine what the bookseller means.
Indeed, all these grades are subjective to some degree, and in most cases are qualified by descriptions of good or bad points. All defects should be noted, but it is human nature to seek out and emphasize the virtues of an item. To quote from The Husbandman’s Manual:
“Now I am going amidst a World of Temptations. I am going to Buy and Sell, an hazardous Employment, and in which it is hard for a Man to maintain his Innocence” … When I buy, I am apt to depreciate and vilify my Neighbour’s Goods; and when I sell, I am apt to commend and extol my own; both, God knows, very often against my own Conscience.”
Experience of the individual bookseller’s standards is the best guide. Beware of descriptions such as the meaningless “acceptable”, or “in very good condition for its age” – (a term which has also been applied to several of the older members of the trade). For these reasons, my policy is to provide photographs or scans of all items, and to aim to cite and describe all defects. If a general assessment of condition is not stated, it can be assumed that the book or print is in at least very good condition. Further information about the state of any item is available on request.
Condition may be relevant to the use of a book, to its aesthetic quality, or to its scarcity. Some old books are frequently found in good condition, some rarely. A fine copy of a book from the latter category is thus a rare item.