How to Identify First Edition Books
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 Amazon.com. 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!
Other hubs in this series about book collecting
Thanks for reading and supporting this HubPages writer!
Please join the discussion and leave comments. Your feedback is valuable to me.
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