Matt raises many interesting points that I’ve seen revisited several times in the past two decades. Among them:
1) Could or would the antiquarian book market every transition from the very subjective condition grading we now have to the seemingly more precise numeric condition grading schemes seen in the world of coin, baseball card, and comic book collecting?
2) Could or would antiquarian book buyers ever embrace a “slabbing” system that would effectively “protect” the integrity of a book’s condition by encasing the book entirely in some clear, permanently sealed container?
The general reaction from almost everyone who’s been in the book world for a while is, “That’s crazy — it’ll never happen.” They may be right. But then again, that was probably the reaction when the ideas were first introduced for those other collectibles. And the two questions are closely tied together, because without a way to preserve the condition, paying for and basing value on quasi-scientific grading is pointless. (“It was a 9.2, but then the spine faded a bit more and now it’s just a 8.6.”)
One of the most important elements, I think, is not how sound a condition grading system is, nor even how practical or sensible, but simply whether the market will adopt it. The market is driven by book buyers and what they want. But there are many different book buyers driving it. There are thousands of people who are willing to spend up to $100 on a book, and then there are a few dozen people who are willing to spend up to $100,000 on a book. And then there’s that breed of folks whose job is to buy books — acquisitions librarians. For this latter group, usually the books they buy have to be accessible to their constituency of students, patrons, or visiting scholars.
If a condition grading system were adopted by one spectrum of the market, would it transform the entire industry or remain confined to only certain types of books? Of the multi-million dollar private collections I’ve seen and been able to contribute to, it has always been important to those collectors to have their books on shelves, where they can take them down, hold them in their hands, and yes, open them up and show the pages and inscriptions to guests. Not too often, and not without care, of course. But frankly I’m surprised a purchaser of a $500,000 copy of the first Superman comic would NOT insist on being able to carefully look at the pages whenever she or he wanted. (Maybe she does, and only gets the comic book re-evaluated and sealed when she is ready to sell it?) I’ve spoken at length with the owner of one of the best private William Faulkner collections in the world, and the owner of the best private F. Scott Fitzgerald collection in the world, and the owner of the best private mystery book collection in the world — they ALL keep the books on easily accessible bookcases where they can take them down and look through them whenever they want (not just AT them, THROUGH them). These gentlemen would not be happy with their books in sealed containers.
Giving books a very specific condition grade WITHOUT sealing the book away to permanently preserve that condition would require a system with extremely explicit documentation of every aspect of the book, a considerable amount of labor when compared to simpler objects like a coin or a baseball card. And while there are many parallels between book condition issues and comic book condition issues, books tend to be much more complex objects, particularly regarding the binding of multiple signatures, and so have a wider variety of potential flaws.
While books and comic books are clearly close cousins in the collectible world, there is one area where the markets seem to diverge pretty strongly, or so I’m told. Most comic book collectors, as I understand it, don’t particularly want any writing in their comic books, even when written by the author or illustrator. For book collectors, it’s a different story. For a serious book collector there IS something out there better than an absolutely pristine copy — prime association copies or dedication copies. That is, copies of the book inscribed by the author to someone important, or ideally inscribed by the author to the person to whom the printed work is dedicated. The collector hopes that these have survived in fine condition, but as desired objects they tend to trump flawless condition copies in the marketplace. If one looks at auction catalogs and dealer catalogs as a mirror of the desires of the market, showing a photograph of the exterior of the book is a relatively recent phenomenon (sure, you can find exceptions, but in general…). By contrast, one tends to find older catalogs that do illustrate authorial inscriptions, title pages, and important illustrations and engravings. In other words, historically book collectors, though they wanted the object, have tended to value it for what is inside to a considerable degree. For many collectible books it’s the interior that wants to be on display. The concept of slabbing would have to fight an uphill battle.
I’ve been invited to evaluate various numeric book condition grading systems over the years. Books are prone to a large variety of wear: direct water damage, indirect water damage (humidity), direct sun damage, indirect light damage (have you ever seen a collection that was kept in the dark for four decades — it will redefine your conception of fine condition for a fifty year old book), binding stresses, tears, chips, insect damage, alterations made by owners such as writing and bookplates, and on and on. Each of these different types of condition issues can be found in a huge variety of degrees, and are not always prioritized the same way by different collectors or for different types of books. Which is worse, a centimeter size waterstain on forty pages of a book, or a 2″ tear on the rear panel of the dustjacket? Are we speaking of a prized 1920s major first edition of literature, or a valuable photography book? It’s a matter of personal taste, what is important to the individual collector, and what “makes sense” for the book in question. For some books an ownership signature is a flaw, while for others it is at worst a neutral or can be an important part of the book’s provenance (even when the owner is not an obviously important personage). And how much does an author signature or author inscription ADD to the grading? Then there are the myriad additional issues involving restoration and “accurately” grading the condition of a restored book with educated guesswork of what the book would look like if the restoration were reversed. I have seen proposed systems that go on a simple scale of 1 to 10, and others that give a complex numeric weight to every variety of flaw, where perfect copies total 155 points. The first system seemed no less broad than the current condition grades in common usage, while the second system seemed laughably anal — I couldn’t picture too many dealers adopting it, and certainly none of the dealers with the really valuable books.
I think there are some potentially strong market forces as work. People DO want to know that their first editions are authentic. And the wide disparity in book descriptions and condition evaluation IS frustrating to many collectors. Thus far, the first issue has largely been addressed by the increasing amount of book identification on the Internet. More people have the tools to identify first editions than in the past. Regarding differences in condition, while photos are only an additional tool in accurately conveying a book’s condition, they help a great deal. I personally would trust a decent photograph of a book more than some stranger’s telling me the book is either “very good,” or is a “128” on his personal scale of book perfection.