Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In praise of older art books - used and low cost

Why buy second hand art books? Here's a few reasons:
  • you can buy books you'd NEVER see on the art bookshelves of a book shop
  • you can buy classic art books which are no longer in print. I'm currently eyeing up the various prices being charged for different editions of Kenneth Clark's Landscape into Art.
  • you can buy art books which can tell you about art processes or facts from the past. I'm currently reading a book on pastel techniques which provides very detailed descriptions of the methods adopted by famous pastel artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Information which I've never read in a modern book about pastels.
  • you can buy rare and much prized/very difficult to find art books which are classed as 'used'; however it's more than likely you'll be paying a premium for these over the price it cost when new
  • they typically cost less than new art books even at Amazon prices! Many cost much less than they did new!
  • many are better produced in terms of binding and print quality (although the use of mono plates in older books is common). You can often buy a well produced hard back for the cost of a contemporary paperback.
  • buy from a reputable dealer and you can secure a art book which is 'as new'
  • older books were published when publishers were not so obsessed with keeping the mass market happy. Many used art books adopt a much more intelligent tone and do not attempt to 'dumb down' for the mass market
  • rare second hand art books are like antiques - much nicer than the new modern version of the same thing!
If you want to 'try before you buy' see if you can locate a library which has a good stock of art books.

I'm currently working my way through the shelves of the Barbican Library which has many very good books. Out of my first haul of eight books I've ordered four!

Turner Sketches (hardback 1977)
(ordered from Trumpington Fine Books
via Amazon for £9 + £2.75 P&P
following a visit to the Barbican Library)


Some tips from my foray into the second hand book market in the UK.

Once you've decided on a title it pays to have a good look round at the prices being charged by different booksellers. There can be very large variations - which are (I think) only sometimes dependent on the quality of the book.
  • Amazon is a good place to start. A lot of smaller niche dealers are selling their books via Amazon as well as via their own websites. It's a good way of finding out about the decent second hand booksellers
  • AbeBooks is a global marketplace listing over 100 million new, used, rare and out-of-print books offered by more than 13, 500 independent booksellers. It has various country based domains. It was acquired by Amazon at the end of 2008 ('nobbling' the opposition). So it looks independent but isn't really. It has a rating system based on cancelled orders and returns. Their search system works better on ISBN numbers than titles. Like Amazon, it's good for introducing you to booksellers who are reliable
  • [Update]Alibris - Tracy Hall reminded me of one I forgot include. There's also which is alibris in the USA
I've found some out of print books there which I couldn't find anywhere else.
Tracy Hall
  • Bibilion is another front end directory of booksellers - but it comes up on a search for 'second hand art books'
  • Biblio has a range of rare art books with a decent range of subcategories. It has a nice feature where you can find booksellers local to your area. However I found the pricing on one book to be completely ludicrous.
  • [Update] Honor Martinez recommends Bookfinder. I'm searching for the same book (Landscape into Art by Kenneth Clark) in each Directory and this one came up with a particularly and a good quality listing which was clean looking and well organised.
  • [Update] Martin Stankewitz recommends - this is the English version which is called Choosebooks. Two of its categories are 'art' and 'graphics'
I use which is kind of central antiquarian platform in Germany. Has also an english spoken menu. Highly recommended!
Martin Stankewitz
The feedback systems used by some directories of booksellers means that you can pick and choose how much risk you want to take with the description given. I check out each seller before I place an order. My experience is that top rated sellers give very accurate descriptions of the books they have for sale. Personally I'm a sucker for a carefully crafted description! I invariably do not buy from those who only provide a very cursory description.

Do keep a note of the description and do check the book against the description. I had one seller come back to me and say that actually the book that was being sold was not as per the description. I cancelled the order and found the same book elsewhere.

It's worth keeping a note of those sellers who deliver a top notch book which is well packed for a good price. You may want to provide feedback and/or order from them again.

Once you've learned which are the reputable independent booksellers, if you buy direct from them then Amazon or AbeBooks don't get to take a cut of the price paid and the price may be lower.

Used Book descriptions

There is a recognised standard for used book descriptions. Below I've quoted the standard as set by the Independent Online Booksellers Association. I've been buying very good and near fine and to be honest I've seen books being sold as new on shelves in bookstores which have been in worse condition!
These IOBA Book Condition Definitions are used to describe both the book and the dust jacket, if applicable. Thus the word “book” may be replaced by “dust jacket” in the following definitions:

AS NEW; FINE; MINT: Without faults or defects.

NEAR FINE: a book approaching FINE (or AS NEW or MINT) but with a couple of very minor defects or faults, which must be noted.

[NOTE: From here on, there may be "+ (Plus)" or "- (Minus)" in a grade, which will mean that it is above the grade noted but not quite to the next higher grade for "+", and that it is below the grade noted but not quite to the next lower grade for "-", i.e., Very Good + (or Plus)/Very Good - (or Minus). Which means the book is better than Very Good and the dust jacket grade is less than Very Good.]

VERY GOOD: A book showing some signs of wear. Any defects or faults must be noted.

GOOD: The average used book that is totally complete (as issued) and intact. Any defects must be noted.

FAIR: A worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title page, etc. Any defects or faults must be noted.

POOR or READING COPY: A book that is sufficiently worn that its only merit is the complete text, which must be legible. Any missing maps or plates must be noted. May be soiled, scuffed, stained, or spotted, and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc.

EX-LIBRARY: Must always be designated as such no matter what the condition of the book.

BOOK CLUB: Must always be noted as such no matter what the condition of the book.

BINDING COPY: A book in which the text block, including illustrations, is complete but the binding is lacking, or in such poor condition it is beyond realistic restoration efforts.

REMAINDER MARKS, BOOKPLATES, PREVIOUS OWNER'S NAME: These are faults and must always be noted, if they apply.

IOBA Book Condition Definitions
Below is the AbeBooks version. It's best to check each seller's site to see how the define the terms they use. It's worth noting that Amazon does NOT provide a glossary of terms for the used books sold on its site!
Book Condition

Condition of a book is usually in the form of VG/VG, Fine/Good, VG/--, etc. The first part is the condition of the book; the second is the condition of the dust jacket. If a "/--" is present, it usually means that the dust jacket is not present.

As New - To be used only when the book is in the same immaculate condition to which it was published. There can be no defects, no missing pages, no library stamps, etc., and the dust jacket (if it was issued with one) must be perfect, without any tears.

Fine (F or FN) - Approaches the condition of As New, but without being crisp. For the use of the term Fine, there must also be no defects, etc., and if the jacket has a small tear, or other defect, or looks worn, this should be noted.

Very Good (VG) - Describes a book that does show some small signs of wear - but no tears - on either binding or paper. Any defects must be noted.

Good (G) - Describes the average used worn book that has all pages or leaves present. Any defects must be noted.

Fair - Worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title, etc. (which must be noted). Binding, jacket (if any), etc., may also be worn. All defects must be noted.

Poor - Describes a book that is sufficiently worn, to the point that its only merit is as a Reading Copy because it does have the complete text, which must be legible. Any missing maps or plates should still be noted. This copy may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc.

These terms may be arbitrary, but whatever terms are employed, they may be useless or misleading unless both buyer and seller agree on what they mean in actually describing the book.

AbeBooks - Statement of Book Condition descriptions



Tracy Hall said...

Hi Katherine
Another one you might try is (or I've found some out of print books there which I couldn't find anywhere else.

Honor Bradley said...

I have used the following also as it will give comparative prices.

Papierflieger said...

I use, which is kind of central antiquarian platform in Germany. Has also an english spoken menu. Highly recommended!

innisart said...

Wonderful post! I've found all the second-hand book sellers you've mentioned very helpful, particularly when I am searching for artists who have, unfortunately, found little fame outside their home countries. I use ABEBooks most often, and with their international reach, I have purchased books on British, Scandinavian, and French artists which never made it to the USA marketplace.

What is the name of the pastel book you found?

Penny Schine Gold said...

Another site that gives comparative prices, and includes listing from Amazon, abebooks, etc.:

Marion Boddy-Evans said...

Leakey's bookshop in Inverness, in an old church with an enormous, roaring fireplace in the middle, is where I've found many a fab book since we moved to the Isle of Skye. Last visit it was a book on traditional etching written in the 1920s -- detailed info and very opinionated, in a way modern how-to books can't be.

Making A Mark said...

I'm updating this post with the sites which seem to be designed for those interested in art books (as opposed to one which are more generalist).

Making A Mark said...

The pastel book is called "Pastel Techniques" by Guy Roddon - published by Batsford in 1979. It looks as if it might have had a second edition published in 1991.

It's described by Google Books as A classic reference to mastering the brilliant medium of pastels. Includes expert advice on materials and techniques, plus 17 projects.

His work is not great - but the book includes good work by other artists plus a lot of information about techniques used in the past.

I'll do a review of it soon over on making a mark reviews

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