So somebody asked me why a book dealer was asking her about plates. “Are they all as loony as you, selling bowls and stuff?”
I was trained in library school to look within the words of a question and detect what the real question is. This person did not really want to talk about me, oddly enough, or even about the psychiatric disorders of those who work with books.
“A plate is an illustration,” I said, “Usually a picture printed on a page without text, and on a different kind of paper. He was asking whether your book had all the illustrations.”
She pursed her lips. “Then why didn’t he just say ‘picture’? Why plate?”
“It’s one of the mysteries of the universe,” I said, not wanting to point out that if we call it a plate we can charge more. Anyway, I thought I might list a few other words you could run into in a book description, so you, too, can use this insider jargon, or at least figure out what you’re paying your money for.
FRONTISPIECE: That’s the first picture in the book, usually, hence the “front” part of the word. It faces the title page in any well-arranged book, though it can be found in other places. (In books where pictures are printed on only one side of the page, this is the only picture that faces right, toward the back of the book. This fact is of no significance whatsoever.)
SIGNED/INSCRIBED: A book which is described as signed usually has the signature of the author in it, and nothing else (maybe a date.) A book described as inscribed has a brief message “To Georgie; remember that night at 26th and California.” Modern book wisdom says the inscribed copy is worth less than the signed one. Modern book wisdom is funny in other ways, too. (Thanks to computers, you can hunt for signed books online and find books described as having an “owner’s signature” or “gift inscription”. Unless the owner was Abraham Lincoln or Al Capone, this adds not a jot to the value of the book.)
EX-LIB: This does NOT mean, as I once saw in a book collecting guide “a book which used to be in somebody’s library”. It means more than that. This book was in an institutional library and often “bears usual markings”, which in bookdealer talk means it has a label taped, glued, or burned into the spine, the name of the library rubber-stamped in six or seven places, a library pocket or space where the pocket was ripped away. See next entry.
READING COPY, INTERNALLY OKAY, FILLER COPY: These are all terms for a book most book collectors would not take even as a gift. It’s the copy you buy only if you’re desperate to read the contents. It is torn or burned or scribbled on or moldy or missing its cover or coming apart or any combination thereof. Most book dealers I know would never, ever list such a book for sale (but in that case, why do they even have these terms?)
That’s enough to go on for now. It’s a complex lingo, but what can you expect in a business where plates are pictures and good is bad? (“Good” is about the lowest grade of book you can get, a bare half step above “Fair”. If you want a book in nice shape, go for “Fine” or “Near Mint”. The word “Mint” should be reserved for those books which have been covered in chocolate.)