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It's easy to understand why online buying has become so popular in the 21st century: Simple to order, delivered to your door - often at no cost, retailers with strong return policies and a highly competitive online marketplace, are just some of the reasons. This is all well and good if you want to buy a new book, not least because you can justifiably have an expectation that any new publication will be in mint condition. However, second hand books are a different story:

  • Not all second-hand booksellers are professional in how they describe their books. Indeed, the popularity of online marketplaces has allowed the amateur to flourish
  • Opinions relating to the condition of second hand books can vary widely, even among experienced sellers
  • It's often not practical to describe every facet of a second-hand book - can we really expect a seller to spend hours working on descriptions for books which might only sell for a few pounds?

Online marketplaces are popular with book collectors, sites such as Ebay and Amazon. So too are auction platforms which host regular sales held by thousands of auctioneers around the world. If you find a book you'd like for your collection from such sources, and assuming you can't view it in person, there are certain things you can look for and do to protect yourself against disappointment.

The old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" was never truer. If we accept it is unreasonable for a bookseller to describe every facet of a second-hand book (condition, contents, author notes etc) then we should always look for books described with lots of photos.

The book I will use to explain what to look for is an Edwardian publication from the Religious Tract Society, a fictional story: Cyril's Quest or O'er Vale and Hill in the Land of the Inca by Annie Gray. This is a relatively cheap book, £10-£15 in good condition, but it is ideal for our purposes.

Cyril's Quest or O'er Vale and Hill in the Land of the Inca by Annie Gray

The photograph of the cover of this book shows quite bright colours, which is good, but it also shows some very light corner wear and some slight fading close to the top edge. This cover gives us the title too, and the author. There is an illustration typical of the Edwardian era, which gives us good cause to expect this book is of some age. We can also see the book is bound in red cloth covered boards.

Many books, particularly in the twentieth century and beyond, were published with dust jackets. The example I am using was not. However, if you're considering a book with a dust jacket it will be helpful if you can see both the jacket and the cover of the book (without its jacket). Where a dust jacket is present the condition of it is frequently more important than the book itself. This is especially so of modern first editions. The dust jacket can also include a synopsis of the book and brief biographical notes for the author, each of which is useful information for the buyer.

Some online sellers show only a single photograph of their books. This is often the case when the seller is inexperienced, but also many auction houses show only one photograph. This may be because they have so many lots in a sale that it is impractical to take multiple photographs of them all, but from the buyer's point of view a single photograph can be very deceptive.

Opened out and place faced down we can see the sunning to the spine

This second photograph of Cyril's Quest reveals the spine is quite faded, often described as "sunned". This occurs when a book is stored upright, with the spine on view, on a bookshelf which receives direct sunlight. There was no real indication from the photo of the front cover that the spine is sunned: Hence the importance of seeing more than one photograph.

We can see a further illustration on the spine, a repeat of the title and author, and the initials "R.T.S." These initials tell us the book was published by the Religious Tract Society.

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Inscriptions can often be found on the front free endpaper

Looking inside the cover we see a four-line hand written inscription on the front free endpaper. A lot of book collectors prefer their books not to be inscribed, but the inscription does give us some useful information about the history of this book: It was given to "Frank Satchell" by the "Sandford Sunday School" at Christmas, in 1923. The date is important. Although this book was likely published some years earlier, there are no other dates available, so we at least get an idea of when it was published. Many older books do not show a publication date.

The front free endpaper also shows heavy foxing which was not apparent when we looked at the two earlier photographs. When foxing is present it is often heaviest on the front and back endpapers.

The title page often shows details which weren't apparent on the cover

The title page shows some toning but lacks the foxing seen on the front free endpaper. It shows the title again which is now accompanied by a sub-title. The author's name is also repeated, along with the title of another book written by her: May, A Succourer of Many. The title page further tells us there are coloured and other illustrations and confirms the publisher and the publisher's address.

Many books have more detailed credits on the reverse of the title page which may include a publication date, edition and details of the printer. This one does not. It's an important page when it's present, particularly if you're looking for a first edition. If a seller does not include this page among the photographs, when there is such a page, ask for a photo.

If a book shows signs of foxing it can be helpful to see if the print remains legible

The first numbered page (in this case page 7) shows the opening words of the story. In this book you can see the tale end of the contents on the facing page. It's not generally necessary to see the contents list of a fictional book, but it can be helpful if the book covers a non-fiction subject (contents of non fiction books, particularly academic ones, can extend over several pages). This is true also of any list of illustrations, although the book pictured does not have this.

From the photograph above we can see more foxing, though not as heavy as it was on the front free endpaper. Some books have foxing throughout but in many cases it is just the opening and ending pages.

Try to get a feel for the condition of any illustrations in a book

Many of the pages in this book are relatively free from foxing, except at the extremities (see below). The page facing this illustration has some heavier foxing to its borders. This is often the case with pages facing illustrations so it can be helpful, if we know a book is illustrated, to see an illustrated page and its facing page together. Illustrations themselves frequently escape the foxing process (due to the different type of paper they are printed on), but it is prudent to look closely at them - just in case.

The extremities of a book can give you a strong impression of what to expect inside

This photograph reveals very slight bowing to the covers and also the edge (extremities) foxing mentioned earlier. Such edge foxing is often a good indication of what we can expect to see inside the book. Foxing is usually caused by humidity levels and can often be accompanied by distortion in the boards.

It's a good idea to try to see a photograph of the page edges, as these can be quite revealing.

The condition of the binding of a book is important, but not always easily visible

The final photograph here shows more foxing but is included because it also reveals something else. It shows the binding of the book is still strong. If you open a book in the middle, or near enough, and lay it flat, the pages will either rise up like a fan or they will lie flat. This may not seem important but if the pages lie flat it tells you there may be a weakness to the binding.

Before the first photograph on this page I told you the title, sub-title, author and publisher of this book. Everything else you have learned about it has come from the photographs: These are the key to buying second-hand books online.

  • Always look closely at the detail of any photographs
  • If there's a written description, compare what it tells you with what you can see in the photos, and look for the things which may not be mentioned
  • Never be afraid to ask sellers for additional photographs or to expand on descriptions
  • Not everyone is a great photographer (myself included). If photographs are poorly lit, over exposed or blurred, ask to see some more

Online buying has been prominant in our recent past and the present. It will be even more so in the future. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the more you can see of the second-hand book you want to buy, then the more of a feel you'll have for it, and the less of a risk you'll be taking.