Identifying First Editions
The term First Edition is normally used to describe a book in its earliest published form and we don’t want to complicate this guidance more than necessary by opening a debate about issues, states, impressions, advance copies, copyright editions, pre-firsts or any other bibliographical idiosyncrasy. Maybe we’ll do that elsewhere. For the purpose of this exercise let us just assume that first edition implies the first time that the work in question appears in book form.
We are sorry to disappoint you but there is no one solution to identifying a first edition. Different publishers use different methods and a publisher might be inconsistent or change their policy at a point in time. Some publishers do not identify their first editions at all – an omission which, in itself, may occasionally be an indication that the book is a first edition!
But do not panic; there are some guidelines you can follow and we will try to explain a few of them here.
If you have a reasonable collection of books already try sorting them into publisher order. (Don’t worry – you can re-arrange them again later.) This way you can familiarize yourself with the methods that each publisher uses to identify its first and later editions. You will see that some common patterns appear.
Common Features To Look For
Publishers identify their first editions in many ways and these are some of the most common.
- The word First Edition, First Printing, First Published, Published followed by a date, or First Impression appears on the copyright page (also sometimes known as the printer’s imprint or publisher’s page).
A number line, for example 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 or similar, is printed on the copyright page.
The date on the title page is the same as the date on the copyright page.
There is no designation for a first printing, but later printings are noted on the copyright page.
Number lines have been in use for the past 50 years or so and have become more common recently. They were rarely used before World War II. Look for a series of numbers (eg. ‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9’ or ‘7 6 5 4 3 2’ or ‘1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2’. Very occasionally a letter line is used, such as ‘a b c d e f g h i’. The lowest number or letter shown usually indicates the edition number. Almost invariably, if the ‘1’ or ‘a’ is present, the book is a first edition. For the second printing, the ‘1’ is removed, so the ‘2’ is the lowest number shown. A number line that reads ‘5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12’ indicates a fifth printing.
Sometimes a number line will also include a date. For example: ‘2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 92 91 90 89 88 87 86 85’ indicates a 2nd printing that was published in 1985. You can see how this arrangement allows the printer to lop off either end of the string and keep the number line centered on the page.
But what if you find First Edition printed on the copyright page and a number line that does not contain a ‘1’? (Eg. First Edition - 8 7 6 5 4 3 2)
There are two possible answers:
- The book is a first edition and the First Edition entry will be omitted for the second printing, leaving the line beginning with ‘2’. (A method used by Random House' before 2005.)
The book is a second printing but the publisher forgot to remove First Edition.
If in doubt consult a guide to first editions, or a bibliography, which might give you other points of issue to look for.
A date on the copyright page that matches a date printed on the title page might indicate that you have a first edition. But beware, books have been known to be reprinted even before the first edition went on sale and conversely, a book was copyrighted late in the year and published early the next year.
A string of copyright dates usually indicates that some or all of the work appeared in an earlier publication. Common examples are short stories or poems that were previously published in magazines or other anthologies. In this case, if the latest date on the copyright line matches the title page, then you are likely to have a first edition (in book form).
Small Press Publishers
Most small press publishers print books in short runs, from just a few dozen to a few thousand at most. Often there are no subsequent printings. As a general rule, if you have a small press book and there is no indication of a later printing, it is probably a first. Most small press publishers do designate later printings on the copyright page. Also, check the back of the book to see if there is a colophon page that lists the printing history.
Identifying First Editions from Specific Publishers
Each publisher has its own way of identifying first editions and later printings and it would be impossible to try to list them on this website. If the basic guidelines shown here do not help you are strongly advised to seek out a bibliography of the author’s works (there are many on the internet) or refer to one of the many price guide and other publications that are available. Some of these are listed below under Suggested Reading.
Points of Issue (Points)
Quite simply, a point is a distinguishing feature (a printers’ error, an omission etc.) that can be used to differentiate between editions. Comprehensive bibliographies will often include lists of points to look for.
ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter
Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride
Points of Issue : A Compendium of Points of Issue of Books by 19th-20th Century Authors by Bill McBride
Guide to First Edition Prices by R B Russell (published annually)
Breese’s Guide to Modern First Editions by Martin Breese
Modern First Editions: Their Value To Collectors by Joseph Connolly
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