In an earlier FAQ I gave the short answer for how to identify a first edition: ask an expert. But what if you don’t know an expert? I’ll point out that this question is a moot point—you’re reading my blog, after all, so you know me—but let’s say you want to do this whole collecting thing on your own, without consulting an experienced rare book dealer. My three pieces of advice are:
- Use extreme caution.
- Double and triple check your facts.
- Expect the unexpected.
I decided to write this post after I was sent a link to a 200-word article claiming to teach one how to identify first printings.* The article described the number line one sees on the copyright page of some books printed from about the mid-late-ish 20th century onwards. Essentially, the principle is that if the last number on the right-hand side of that number line is a “1,” then you’ve got a first printing. This is true.
Except when it isn’t. Which is often.
Leaving aside the fact that the number line is an extremely new phenomenon in the history of printing (and therefore no help with your 1885 copy of Huck Finn, or indeed a huge portion of rare books), this basic principle is often simply not true even for recent books.
Some number lines start with “1” on the leftmost portion of the number line to identify the first printing. Others don’t have the “1” at all, but end with a “2”—and they are still true first editions. (This is the case with the trade edition of Sophie’s Choice.) The lack of uniformity comes from the fact that different publishers have different conventions. Like herding cats, those publishers.
So you just need to learn what conventions go with which publishers, right? Except that publishers’ conventions change over time. And in some cases, the publishers don’t even follow their own conventions. A great example of this is the first edition of Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. This book was printed by Harper & Brothers, who at the time typically would state “First Edition” on their copyright pages if the book was a first printing.
Except they didn’t always do that. These notations were for their major sellers—mostly fiction—so such conventions were often ignored in their lesser side projects, such as some of their children’s books, or in this case, an economics book. The earliest known copies of The Intelligent Investor do not state “First Edition” on the copyright page, despite the primary identification conventions for that publisher and that era.
Now I can reiterate my first point: use caution. A book may even state “First Edition” on the copyright page, but that doesn’t actually mean it’s a true first edition in collectible terms. Most of W. Somerset Maugham’s earliest books were first published in London; nevertheless, the first American edition of these works says “First Edition” on the copyright page. But these are not true Maugham firsts: they are first American editions, and often significantly less valuable as such.
By now you may be thinking this sounds pretty impossible. But there are two solutions. The easiest is, of course, to find a reputable, experienced dealer and work closely with him/her. The other choice is to do a lot of in-depth research yourself, and be careful about checking your facts.
To expand on point two, double and triple checking your facts, let’s talk a bit about the nice one-volume guides to identifying first editions out there. These books can indeed be handy. But think on this: there are entire volumes of descriptive bibliography (explaining all the physical details of a book, allowing one to use those details to identify editions) dedicated to an individual author alone. If it takes an entire book to list the points of identification for Dr. Seuss’ oeuvre, how complete can those one-volume guides really be? Personally, I’ve noted cases in which the identification points for a first edition are described, but not the first state of the book—the most collectible version (when applicable).
I’m not saying to stay away from those guides. But I would argue that they are better used as a quick reference to remind you of deeper research (i.e. going to the authoritative bibliography), rather than as the final word on the subject. So when researching the identification points for a first edition book, I highly recommend you not rely on one source (unless that source is a reputable dealer with a guarantee). Cross-reference your guides; read articles about author bibliographies; note what people are saying online about the points (there will be plenty of misinformation floating around, but also some correct information that you can match to your other sources); and, most importantly, check the authoritative bibliography, if there is one.
Finally, to my last piece of advice: expect the unexpected. In 1934, Man Ray produced a book called Photographs 1920-1934. Some copies state “Second Edition” on the title page. However, these copies are actually still first editions. The publisher added the “Second Edition” statement to stimulate interest through implying the demand for the book was so high that the first edition had already sold out.
This is why book collecting is so enthralling and so rewarding. Every book has its own story. This story is more than just what’s written by the author. It’s the story written by the vicissitudes of time and by the people who helped produce the book–it’s the story of how the book came to be. There will always be surprises. There will always be more to learn. There will always be more to discover.
*A technical note: the first “printing” is the first batch printed of an edition within a specific interval of time. An “edition,” on the other hand, is any group of books printed from the same setting of type without substantial change (which can therefore be made up of multiple printings, if batches were printed at different intervals). Once type began to be produced by photographic and digital methods, there was no more actual setting of type, so the term “first edition” lost its collectible punch: a book could be from the 27th printing 5 years later and still technically remain a first edition, since the type was never manually “dismantled.” This is why dealers will often distinguish 20th century (and later) books with the description of “first printing” over “first edition”—though for most reputable dealers, “first edition” will mean “first edition, first printing” unless explicitly stated otherwise.