Buyer Beware – Understanding “First Edition”

Buyer Beware – Understanding “First Edition”

Buyer Beware – Understanding the term “First Edition”

What it is and what it isn’t

We recently acquired a rare and collectible book, one that you only find every few years. While searching through comparable books and doing some price comparisons prior to listing the item, we were bewildered by the amount of deception, misunderstanding, and in some instances flat-out lies by sellers listing books as First Editions.

The most common dishonest tactic is using the term First Edition without disclosing the appropriate printing of a book. Sometimes this is an honest mistake or a lack of research. But as the saying goes, “Caveat Emptor,” let the buyer beware.

The lesson to be learned below is not to memorize every method each publisher uses to declare that a book is a first edition, but rather that the buyer should take the responsibility to do some homework before making a purchase.

What is a First Edition?

A First Edition is the initial publication of a written work. This can include any number of printings before the book is edited, altered, or otherwise changed to another edition (e.g. New Edition, Revised Edition, Second Edition). A book can be a first edition, regardless if it is an earlier printing or later printing. “Gone with the Wind” comes to mind, as there are numerous printings of the 1930’s release but they are all still first editions. For the 1936 first edition, additional printings are indicated by the month/year and how many times it was printed, as demonstrated below:

Using that specific book as an example, a “December 1936 (twice)” marking would indicate that even though the book is a first edition, it is a 29th printing! This is a substantial difference in the value of a later printing book compared to that of a 1st printing.

[You will occasionally find a book listed as a first edition that is actually a book club edition that has similar markings of its first edition counterpart; please read our article on book club editions for a brief primer.]

Stated First Edition
The easiest first edition to spot is one that is stated on the copyright page as such, “First Edition,” or even stated further as a “First Printing.” While this happens on occasion, it is not usually the case. Typically you will have to consider a number of factors such as the publisher, the copyright/publication date, publisher codes, book errors, numberlines or printing numbers, etc. to determine if it is a first edition.

Publication Date
In many instances, particularly before the use of numberlines, the best way to determine if a book is a first edition is to see if the book has a publication date on the title page that matches the copyright date on the copyright page. There are always exceptions but this rule of thumb is useful for many 20th Century books.

Dust Jacket Price and Information
The price of the book will help pinpoint and confirm if the book you possess is a first edition. This also rings true for books you’re trying to identify as a first printing or first state based on the information, pricing, and jacket details (author photos, inside flap information, etc.).

As mentioned in the section below regarding First State books, printing errors can help identify a first edition as well. Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” bite error on page 281, Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” page 229 broken type error are just a couple examples of books with errors that help identify the earliest printing of a book.

What is a First Printing?

Known as a “True First Edition,” a first printing of a book is the first run of the presses that a book publisher determines will meet their market needs (expected sales and current orders). The discussion of a first printing is where most sellers mislead potential buyers, by stating the book is a First Edition but failing to declare the printing number. There are various ways to determine if a book is a first printing or not.

Starting in the 1940’s, publishers began using what is known as a numberline to indicate the printing. There are even books published in the early 1900’s with markings similar to a numberline such as Appleton and Company publishers who use a (1) and similar numberings on the last page to indicate the print number.

Typically, this is found on the copyright page but can also be shown on the bottom of the last page. The range in length from a full numberline of 10 digits but can also be a few digits as well.

Typically, the lowest number in the numberline is the printing number; of course there are exceptions, such as Random House publications where a “2” in a numberline indicates a first printing. The numberline can be in any order, such as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, or even a odd numbers then even numbers such as 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2. You will encounter a vast array of numberlines and it will require some research based on the title and publisher to determine with certainty that the book you have is a first printing or not.

Lack of a Copyright, Turn of the Century Books
The important thing to note is that if a book is missing a copyright, publication date, or any other identifying marks then you’re likely dealing with a book from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when copyright dates were not strictly observed by publishers. These types of books can still be desired but for the most part are not the original work or publication house for that given book.

What is a First State?

This is the absolute earliest occurrence of a published work, and the phrase typically comes into play when you’re talking about an error in a book. There are numerous examples of Mark Twain books that underwent several changes during the initial printing run that created different states, such as first state, second state, and even mixed state. Other books from the 20th Century will have differences in the color of the boards, placement of ads, dust jacket alterations, address changes for the publisher, and other small details that determine the state. Asimov’s science fiction hit “Foundation” is a nice example of the a first edition with varying states based on the texture and design of the hardcover boards and also the dust jacket information, particularly the ads. As shown below, a second state of the book shows advertising on the rear flap and an oversized list of Gnome books on back of the dust jacket.

Advance Reading Copies
Also known as Uncorrected Proofs, these are pre-publication book copies that are sent out to various book reviewers to generate interest, responses, and overall desire for a new publication. These books are typically stated on the inside as first editions, but are again, issued prior to the first run.

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