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How to Identify First Edition Books

Updated on April 6, 2017
Is this a true first edition book?
Is this a true first edition book?

How can you tell a book is a true first edition?

Book collectors primarily search out books for one of two reasons. They either (1) look for a collectible book that can be sold for a profit, or (2) want to add a desirable book to their own collection. The most collectible book, in most instances, is a true first edition, in very fine or fine condition and is scarce, making the demand for it great. There are exceptions to the first edition factor, usually for very rare books.

When Ian Ellis, author of Book Finds: How to Find, Buy and Sell Used and Rare Books , refers to a First Edition, he is writing about a First Edition, First Printing. While there are some rarities in second or subsequent printings of a book, due to an unusual feature, the majority of books written by modern authors that become valuable consists of the first printing of the first edition—the book that initially hit the bookstore shelf upon publication. True first editions signed by the author (or someone else who is famous) are the only books containing handwriting that are worth more than unmarked ones—that is, if the signature can be authenticated.

Any book marked with writing by an owner or reader, even though it’s a first edition, first printing, and in otherwise mint condition with a perfect dust jacket, loses several layers of value because of that writing. Let that be an important lesson to anyone tempted to write in a book! (I am one who was formerly guilty of that act--for many years. It's cost me a lot of money, so I wouldn't dream of ever doing it again.)

Limited editions are smaller first printings, from 300 to 500 copies, and are often printed by a small publishing house. There is a large market for those books with a limited first printing by authors whose works are in great demand. (Vanity publishing in limited copies does not fit into this group.) All copies of a limited edition may be sold before actual publication, and the lower the number on a copy, the more it is worth.

Since publishers don’t have a standardized method for identifying first editions of their books, reference guides that describe various publishers’ means of designating first editions are invaluable to the book collector. Some publishing houses changed their methods of differentiating first editions, first printings, from later ones during the middle of the twentieth century. Other publishers don’t employ any method that denotes the first printing of a book.

Because of this inconsistency, it’s very easy to make mistakes in the endeavor to find a true first edition. Even experts and experienced collectors sometimes make mistakes. When first starting out as a book collector, you can probably expect the occasional error in judging a book’s edition. If you mistakenly buy a later edition that you think is a first, you will have to live with your mistake, either keeping the book on your shelf or re-selling it for less than you expected.

The serious book collector relies on reference books to help distinguish how first editions of most publishers are identified. The book by Ellis, previously mentioned, provides helpful information for the new collector. A pocket-size guide that will fit in either a pocket or handbag and accompany the collector to bookshops and other venues where used books can be found is aptly titled, A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions , compiled by Bill McBride. I have the Sixth Revised Edition of this small guide. Both books are available from McBride and Ellis share with the novice first edition sleuth ways to ferret out the truth of a book’s edition—if you’re lucky.

First, look for the statement of edition. It’s usually found on the copyright page, and states “First Edition” or “First Printing.” Even then, you can’t be absolutely certain it’s what is known as a “true first” because some publishers don’t remove that edition statement from subsequent printings. And just to make it more of a challenge, some publishers don’t provide a statement of edition at all.

The next thing you should look for is a number line—a sequence of numbers that usually, for a first edition, ranges from 1 to 10. In some books that sequence will put the 10 in the middle, with odd numbers on one side and even numbers on the other. If that’s not confusing enough, there are some well-known publishers who either do not use a number line or do not put it on the copyright page.

The publishers that do not provide a statement of edition or a number line usually state on the copyright page, “First published in….” and the date. They usually add the years for reprints as well. If there’s no reprint date, it’s likely to be a first edition. But…not always. This is a field where a great deal of study is essential. Reference volumes and dealer catalogues should be consulted. Even then, you need an enviable, but rare, photographic memory to be certain that what you’ve discovered is a true first edition.

Another thing to beware of is the book club edition. The book club edition may have a dust jacket with the same illustration and colors as the true first edition, but not always. Many book club copies have a “book club edition” statement printed inside the cover. If not, they are likely to have a small square or round indentation—a stamp that identifies the book as a book club edition—debossed on the back cover of the book. Other elements that unmask a book club edition include: lesser quality bindings, no embossing, no price listed, cheaper paper and overall smaller size of the book. There are first printings of book club editions that may state “first edition.” They are good reading copies, but collectible? No.

It’s easy to see that a book collector or book scout must be extremely vigilant when evaluating a potential book for purchase to ensure it is a true first edition. Even then, it won’t be a real find if it’s a true first edition for which there is no demand. This is where the economic law of supply-and-demand is very evident. Some first printings of first editions by established authors are published in very large quantities, so they remain very plentiful. The supply stays at a high level and, as such, the book is common. This usually occurs after an author’s work becomes popular, and the publishing house expects to recoup its investment. You can find multiple copies of the book every day on eBay for a dollar.

This doesn’t mean every book that doesn’t have a large first printing will become valuable. It may not be plentiful—in fact, you may not be able to find any copies listed for sale at all—but it’s the demand that determines its value. No demand—no value.

Those first editions published in small quantities that do become very valuable are usually an author’s first book, possibly the second, before he or she becomes well-known and develops a following. While the supply remains low or nil, the demand for these books rises.

A prime example is the first edition/first printing of J.K. Rowling’s initial book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone . At the time of publication, no one involved in its publication could conceive of the Harry Potter phenomenon that was about to explode upon the world, so the book’s first printing was a mere 500 copies. The ensuing wild popularity of the series meant that huge quantities of Rowling’s subsequent books in the series (as well as reprints of the first book) were printed.

Anyone fortunate enough to have a first edition of that initial 500 copies printed of the first book in the series could expect to sell it for a sensational price. In fact, a true first edition of that first small printing actually sold at auction in the UK in June 2007 for 7,200 British pounds, equivalent to about $14,000 USD! Does that make you see the possibilities inherent in book collecting?

When searching for true first editions, points are other factors to consider overall. Points are small differences in a book between the first and subsequent editions, such as, errors that are corrected in later printings, differences in the color tones of the dust jacket on a first edition compared to that of a later one, etc. There are too many of these points to comment them all to memory. Bill McBride compiled another pocket-size reference, Points of Issue: A Compendium of Points of Issue of Books by 19th-20th Century Authors . That’s a mouthful of title for such a small book, but it contains a wealth of information to help the book collector make a wise buying decision. Its small size lets it follow you to the book shop in your pocket or handbag.

There are other references listed in Ellis’s Book Finds , and I encourage anyone serious about the art and business of book collecting to acquire and read his reasonably-priced book first. Chapter 14 of the book contains a listing of about a thousand collectible and findable books to start you on your way. The prices of other references range from low to large investments, and you may want to wait until you’re moving out of the shallow water of book collecting before you purchase the high-cost guides. Once you know you’re serious about collecting, whether for profit or compiling your own collection for pleasure, these guides will be invaluable.

I wish you good book hunting!


Autograph of author makes a valued first edition even more valuable
Autograph of author makes a valued first edition even more valuable

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NOTE: I am the author of this article, and it is owned by me in entirety. It is not available for use by reproducing in any form without my express written permission. If you see all or any part of this article (as written) on another site, please notify me where it can be found. Theft of a writer's work is plagiarism, and stealing another's words is no less wrong than any other theft.


© 2010 Jaye Denman


Submit a Comment
  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    3 years ago from Deep South, USA

    It's ironic to read your comment (which I enjoyed, by the way) at the end of a week in which I've spent a lot of hours and a great deal of "hard labor" separating books I want to keep versus books I plan to sell or donate. I'm in the process of selling my too-large home and downsizing, so at least half of more than a thousand books have to go. Actually, it may be pushing 2,000, because I found storage boxes of books "stashed" in extra and otherwise unused closets, which added to my work. The moral here is to enjoy collecting books, but--unless you plan to open a bookstore or you have the time to spend selling--don't let your collection outgrow you ability to contain it! As I've grown older, I should have pared it down more than the hundreds I sold and the hundreds I donated annually. Push has finally come to shove, so it had to be done (and wasn't easy, because there were so many I did not want to give up.) Three booksellers are coming next week to view the half of my collection I'm selling and, hopefully, at least one will make me a good offer on the lot. After moving, I will be motivated to keep my collection from mushrooming again, though I will never be a minimalist--not when it comes to the books I love. Thanks for sharing and do enjoy collecting books for your grandchildren. Teaching children to love books when young is one of the best things you can do for them. Regards, Jaye

  • Anita Hasch profile image

    Anita Hasch 

    3 years ago from Port Elizabeth

    Hi Jaye, I used to love reading Nancy Drew as a child. I now collect them for my grandchildren. Although most kids are into wizards and magic, they enjoy them as well. I have now discovered handy, strong carrier bags, which I use to store some of my books. Easy to move around and they take an amazing amount of books.

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    3 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Thanks, Anita. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I read for pleasure, too, and also to learn. It's ironic, but I'm currently looking through my huge collection of books (from which I sell or donate hundreds every year) and realize that I have many more volumes than I thought! I'm preparing to sell the house where I've lived for 17 years, and a lot more books "made their way here" during that span than the collection that moved in with me. Moving thousands of books is a challenge--one that requires many, many small boxes. : ) Regards, Jaye

  • Anita Hasch profile image

    Anita Hasch 

    3 years ago from Port Elizabeth

    Thank you for a very interesting hub. I collect books all the time, just for the pleasure of reading them. But who knows, maybe one day I will get lucky.

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    5 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Lovtoowrite - I'm sorry for the delay in my response, but sometimes I don't get notices of comments. Thanks for reading, and I hope your professor finds the first edition THE HOBBIT.

    Regards, Jaye


    Peg - Don't we wish now we'd known years ago not to write our names in books? Your '30s Nancy Drew find sounds interesting. Thanks for reading. Jaye


    VocalCoach - Thanks for reading, your comment and sharing this hub. Jaye


    GmaGoldie - Thanks and good luck with your book searching. It's a marvelously fun hobby, and if you make one big "find" can also be lucrative. Jaye

  • GmaGoldie profile image

    Kelly Kline Burnett 

    5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

    Great post! I love shopping on Amazon and hunting through antique book stores. Thank you!

  • vocalcoach profile image

    Audrey Hunt 

    5 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

    Thanks Jaye for all of the great information on first edition books. Learned so much. Will share.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 

    5 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

    Interesting and useful information for those of us who like to collect books. Wow, I'd sure like to have a copy of that first edition Harry Potter book. That is truly amazing and you've provided a lot of helpful clues in what to look for and what not to do in a book. For years, I always wrote my name in them...I recently bought a Nancy Drew 1930s edition book that has a child's name written in it. Luckily, it was only a few dollars.

  • luvtoowrite profile image

    Luvtoo Write 

    6 years ago from Chicago, IL

    I have an old professor friend who is looking for the first edition of the Hobbit. The only place he will find it, is in England. No first editions in the United States that I am aware of, but you never know, he may get lucky at a garage/estate sale.

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    6 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Hi, John - Thanks for reading. Collecting books--particularly if you're after that big-$$ score--is time-consuming and almost requires an obsession. It's not for everyone. The major factor in choosing a hobby is that one should enjoy it. Regards, Jaye

  • John MacNab profile image

    John MacNab 

    6 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

    Very informative article, Jaye. After reading it, I've decided that book collecting is not for me; I'll look for another hobby. Voted up +.

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    7 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Thanks, kuttingxedge - Good luck with your new hobby. I hope you find that very special book. Regards, Jaye

  • kuttingxedge profile image

    Steven P Kelly 

    7 years ago from Tampa, FL

    What a great article! I have a real passion for the old fashioned book, although I use my e-readers all the time. This gets me fired up to start a new hobby. Thanks and voted up for sure!

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    7 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Flourish - Estate sales are great places for finding old and collectible books. Whether or not you make a great find, the search is half the fun!

    Thanks for the vote and feedback.


  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    7 years ago from USA

    This is very helpful information. I love books and although I wouldn't consider myself a collector (because I don't know what I am doing and just keep the ones that look old and interesting to me personally), this allows me to be a little more strategic when I visit those garage sales, estate sales, and antique fairs. Thanks for sharing your expertise. Voted up and more.

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    7 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Thanks, Brian....I read your profile and, as an antiquarian bookseller, you're the expert. I appreciate the link, and I'll check out your hub very soon.



  • B. Leekley profile image

    Brian Leekley 

    7 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

    Up, Useful, and Interesting. This is a very good introduction to the topic of identifying the first editions of books. I put a link to this hub in the Learn More capsule in my hub "How to Describe the Condition a Book."

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    9 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Hi, htodd...I'm so glad you enjoyed the article and hope you'll find the information helpful.


  • htodd profile image


    9 years ago from United States

    Thanks for the great post..Nice

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    9 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Glad you found this article helpful and good hunting!

  • Sunshine625 profile image

    Linda Bilyeu 

    9 years ago from Orlando, FL

    Informative hub! As a collectible book seller I appreciate the extra pointers!

  • JayeWisdom profile imageAUTHOR

    Jaye Denman 

    9 years ago from Deep South, USA

    Hi, J...The old rule of "follow the flag"--considering the author's home country edition the true first--is changing. Some established American authors sell better in the UK and allow their books to be published first there. When the UK first ed. is a smaller printing,its scarcity compared to the US first printed in large numbers tends to make the UK edition more valuable than the first printed in the US, even if the latter is the author's home country. Did that make any sense? I almost confused myself! (That was a run-on sentence to rival some of Faulkner's.)

    Keeping up with all of the rules of book collecting and dealing requires more memory than I have left! It's a good thing for cheat sheets. One of my biggest problems is that the used book shops I frequent in my home area do not allow credit for hardcover books, even if I take in hardcovers to trade. Credit is only issued for paperbacks, and ALL hardcover books are sold in cash, so I can't follow Ian Ellis's advice about "trading up." Still, I can move a lot of paperbacks off my shelves and find a few by my favorite authors that I haven't read. I'm still trying to find that perfect book shop. I'm also considering selling books on and Too much of my living space is occupied by books! Thanks for stopping by. JAYE

  • jstankevicz profile image


    9 years ago from Cave Creek

    Great information! Another thing to be aware of is near concurrent publication in more than one country. Is the US First or the Great Britain First, the true first edition?...


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