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How do I know if a book is a "true" first edition?

Dear John:

I saw your video on identifying first editions through the numbering following the title page. I was wondering how you tell if it is a "true" first edition. I understand that each publishing house can purchase the rights and then publish their "first edition". So you can have several first editions out there.

I've seen some publishing houses that have 4 or 5 titles from the same author issued with the same publishing date. Yet these are technically first editions since it's their first printing.

I guess my question boils down to is there any way to easily identify which "first edition" is the very first that was "ever" printed?

Thank you,
Doug W.

John Replies

Hi Doug,

You are entering into a dark forest - one called "first appearance." For English language books the true first is usually the first time the book (or story) appears in print.

For modern fiction that is pretty clear. For example the first edition of Dan's Brown's 2003 The Da Vinci Code was published by Random House and has a number line on the copyright page that reads "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1." The words "FIRST EDITION" appear above the number line. The UK edition was printed by Bantam Press and has a number line that reads "1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2." The words "FIRST EDITION" are absent. The UK edition was released after the US, making the US the "true first."

Brown's Digital Fortress was first released in 1998 by St. Martin's Press and the first edition has a number line on the copyright page that reads "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1." The phrase "First Edition: February 1998" appears above the number line. This is the true first edition of this title.

In 2004 St. Martin's re-released Digital Fortress. That book has a number line that reads "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1" with the phrase "Revised Edition: May 2004" appearing above the number line. While all the typical markings lead you to think this is a first edition, and it technically is, it is not the first appearance. There lies the rub.

While not a technical industry term, booksellers refer to such editions as "first thus." This provides a workaround to the problem. While the 2004 edition is a first, it is not the true first - so we call them a first thus.

A similar problem arises when a title than was originally released a a paperback (PBO, or paperback original), and is re-released as a hardcover, the hardcover will have all the markings of a first edition. However, for the purist, the paperback is the first appearance and therefore the true first.

UK Editions can present yet another set of issues. For British authors, or authors from Europe, the UK edition usually precedes the US edition and is therefore the true first. Conversely, US authors usually have their books released is the US first followed by UK editions. Occasionally, titles have the same laydown date for both US and UK editions - so those are anyone's guess to which comes first. Ugh!

For antiquarian books you will have to seek out expert authentication. They are way beyond my skill set.

Sorry to be so long winded. I hope it proves helpful.

All best,

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