Bookstore Speak: Words of the Trade

Bookstore Speak:

Words of the Trade

By Louis Gereaux

All booksellers of used books will have at one time or another come across the word dog-eared.  What does that word mean anyway, and where did it come from?  Dog eared pages are less common in today’s fast turn around of used books. Many used book are almost new.  It might be that more readers are using the bookmarks we stick in our books for sale, who knows?  But the term dog eared means a turned down corner of a book page.  The term originated in the trade because these turned down pages look like the ears of dogs which do not stick up.

This antiquated termdog-eared is no longer used that much in online book descriptions as a result of mass listings, but it should be there.  If for no other reason, there have to be books on the market which have turned down page corners. As opposed to the term binding tightthis is a term that has survived and thrived in online bookselling.  Why switch the order of the words when one means to say the book has a tight binding? That is the original book selling term though, and binding tight is a phrase used to make a strong positive impression on the potential buyer.  It says this is a book which will not fall apart when you receive it – the worst fear of most used book purchasers site unseen.

I had an experience once with the phrase book has been affected by dampness.  I heard this was a phrase to impress a potential buyer of a book that got wet.  What a fiasco that turned out to be.  Avoid that phrase!  There comes a point in every book’s life that it should be tossed out, as much as the purveyors of used books hate to admit it and take that necessary action.  One possibility for those books which you do not believe that you can sell is to send them to Book Destruction dot com. What a hideous name for this process, but if you are at your wits end and want to recycle the books properly, this is one source where you know they will do the final deed the right way.  The company is located in Ohio. Whatever you do, don’t burn your poor quality books – the covers and binding glue are not made for small scale destruction that way.

Another term, you should already be familiar with is bestseller. This word has become so ubiquitous across many industries, but originally came into use in 1895 when the American version of the London based magazine, Bookman, published a list of best selling books with only six titles on it. How times change! At this time, the N.Y. Times Bestseller list does not include books sold online, but that should probably be changing in the near future if they hope to maintain relevance.  While bestselling books do not always play a role in academic or literary books, they do have an important cultural role especially since they are often the impetus behind many of the blockbuster movie best sellers.  Blockbuster is the movie industry equivalent of best seller.

Finally, a rather obscure but important technical term which every bookseller should know about is octavo. Octavo is the standard format of how the book pages are folded four times to make eight leaves and sixteen total pages.  These eight leaf sections are called a quire.  When bound, these quires of an octavo are glued or sewn together.  The average book is a Crown at 7 ½ x 5 ½ inches.  A foolscap is 6 ½ x 4 ½ inches.  A post is 7 ½ by 5 ½ inches and an Imperial is 11 by 7 ½ inches.  These names are paper sizes.  The largest sizes of paper known as the Elephant and Atlas are not used in the Octavo format.

Armed with your new professional vocabulary you should be better able to go out there and sell more books!

Photo References

Vocabulary information inspired by:

The Official Price Guide to Old Books & Autographs, 7th Edition, Random House, @1988 Editors of The House of Collectibles

5 thoughts on “Bookstore Speak: Words of the Trade”

  1. What a great blog Louis.

    I did enjoy the phrase – “book has been affected by dampness”. I guess buying on-line is all about Buyer Beware, but surely there are enough books in the world waiting to be sold that we don’t need to resort to selling mouldy, damp and potentially dangerous to our health books?

    And I realise I’m only new at this selling caper but when I see a book listed with Octavo or some other such term – my eyes just glaze over and I move on to another site.

    Speaking for myself – these are terms I just never use and always feel slightly inferior for not knowing exactly what size book the seller is talking about. I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in this 🙂

    • Amanda,

      Thank you for the compliment. There is a terminology used in bookselling. Only the most traditional sellers use the terms in their online descriptions. An intimidation factor is definitely present for the uninitiated. However, the words are not that much different from coin or stamp collecting to make an analogy to a similar field.

      Words like: Fine, Very Fine… etc having to do with condition of the book. Adding the extra information can put buyers at ease. To be truthful, what I do is a synthesizing of the traditional booksellers descriptions while using more plain English.

      The Independent Booksellers association has a list of some of the words:

      You should also read their code of ethics because that is important too!


    • Dear John,

      I was stretching my expertise in this blog post. Thank you for the clarification. I would like to know more about the behind the scenes of the publishing industry.

      Louis G.

  2. OK, I have to finally admit that I made a rather stupid mistake. Not realizing that there was anyone in the Universe who would destroy the beauty and integrity of a book by dog earing it and writing in it, I purchased 60 cookbooks at an Estate sale. I thought I had hit the “mother load” and could make a great profit since I only paid $30 for the lot. It would have taken hours to look through each one, or so I thought, and in my fever over the find, I scooped them all up, failing to comprehend the broad smile on the face of the man giving the estate sale. It wasn’t until I started putting them on eBay that I began learning the different categories of quality and that over half of my lot was considered acceptable or readable. Dog Ears, underlining, stars, pages folded in half permeated my gold mine of books. Now, I am not sure what to do with them. I know what I “want” to do with them, but a book is a book. Should I just take them to the goodwill and see if they will accept them or try to sell them in a lot on eBay?

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