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Book Collecting - Part Four

John Hutchinson, VJ Books
February 23, 2016

John Hutchinson, VJ Books


How to Identify a First Edition

Now that you are a "book collector," it is probably time for you to become more discriminating in the volumes you add to your shelves. What book collectors most look for is the first appearance of a title. For contemporary titles, this is usually a first edition, first printing.

How important is the edition of a particular book? It varies title to title, but as a general rule a later printing's value is significantly less than that of a first. Take for instance Tom Clancy's first book, The Hunt for Red October, published in 1984 by Naval Institute Press. A nice later printing copy can be found for $35-$50, where a first edition in similar condition will set you back over $1,000. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's runaway best seller went into over a hundred printings, with later printings easily found for $5, with first editions bringing $500 and up.

So how do you determine if a book is a first edition? Conventions for indicating a first edition varies greatly from publisher to publisher, so, unfortunately, there's no easy answer. To complicate matters further, some publishers do not identify their first editions at all, or change from time to time.

Most modern publishers indicate the printing of a book on the copyright page, found on the reverse side of the title page. This is the page includes the copyright, date of publication, year of publication, ISBN, and more.

Scrolling down to the middle of this page is where the edition information is most often located. Some books will have "FIRST EDITION" on the page. However, the most frequent convention used to indicate the edition of a book is a number line. This number line will be presented in different configurations:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 3 5 7 9 2 4 6 8 10
and many others.

The rule of thumb is that if the number "1" is included in the line, the book is a first printing. Beware though; this is not always the case. For some publishers, the words "FIRST EDITION" will appear with a number line in which the lowest number is a "2," as in some books by Random House. These books are first editions. Conversely, some books published by HarperCollins, state "FIRST EDITION," but have a number line that does not have a "1" present. These are not first printings.

Some titles like Putnam's 2002 release of John Sandford's Mortal Prey, no printing indication is provided. It's just blank. Whether this was intentional or an oversight by the publisher is unclear. This is the first edition of this title. Later printings include a number line, with the lowest number indicating the printing. For instance, the second printing has the number line 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10.

Once you get the hang of it, identifying first editions is not as difficult or confusing as it seems. Guides for indentifying first editions are available.

The best guide to first edition identification is A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions" by Bill McBride. It's inexpensive, easy to use and slips into a pocket.

What a True First?

As you become more specialized you may want to collect only the "true first." A true first is the first appearance of a story in print. For some titles this may be a mass market paperback, trade paper, or an international printing.

For English language titles, US and UK editions will typically have different publication dates. The earliest date is usually the best indicator of a true first edition.

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