What Is A First Edition?


What is a First Edition?

A first edition is the first published separate edition of a story, novel, poem, or any work of nonfiction in its earliest version.

What Is A First Issue or State?

Sometimes an error is discovered while a book is being printed, or a change is made to the text or dust-jacket. The printing process is then stopped, the error corrected, and the printing is resumed until the specified order to the printer is filled. The earliest copies without the change are then called the "first issue" or "first state", while the corrected copies are called the "second issue" or "corrected issue". Both issues are part of the first printing of the first edition.

What Is A First Printing?

When there is further demand for a book, the publisher will order a second printing. If no changes are made to the book, such as a new chapter, a new preface by the author, etc., the second printing will still be part of the first edition. Many modern first editions indicate they are later printings by dropping one of the numbers in a number sequence on the copyright page. It is important to remember that even though a later printing of a book may technically be a first edition, generally only the first printings of the first edition are considered collectible.

How Do You Identify A First Edition? (Ask us - we'll answer your questions)

A few publishers actually state "First Edition" or "First Printing" right on the copyright page (Knopf, Random House, Norton, St. Martin's Press). If only it were always that simple!

Most publishers just give the copyright date or use number sequences, generally ascending or descending number rows, such as 12345678910 or 10987654321. A typical example of this is Houghton Mifflin, which generally now has 10987654321 on the copyright page. For the second printing, the "1" will be dropped, for the third, the "2". A fourth printing will have "10987654". As of the second printing, Houghton Mifflin also drops the year from the bottom of the title page (not all publishers do this, but Houghton Mifflin is especially known for this practice).

Some publishers also use odd-even ascending and decending rows, such as 135798642 and 246897531. Some publishers have nothing but the date. Some use unique systems, and many have changed their systems over time. Random House uses the following system: They have the number row 98765432 and the words "First edition". Their system is unusual in that it doesn't use a "1": it's almost as though the "1" were replaced by the words "First edition", because when the words "first edition" are lacking, it's a second printing. Lately, Random House has been using the ascending-descending system a lot, such as "24689753". It still needs to state "First edition", however, - and, if those 2 words are missing, it's not a first printing.

We welcome questions about particular books you may have, and will answer them as soon as we can.

E-mail us your questions now!

Firsts Magazine

We also recommend that you subscribe to FIRSTS magazine - an excellent source of information on first editions and collecting. It is $40 a year and well worth it.

Write to:
Firsts Magazine Inc.
4493 N. Camino Gracela
Tucson, AZ 85718-6807

You can also call them at (520) 529-5847. They have an excellent "Letters to the Editor" section where they answer specific questions from readers about first editions and how to identify them. (As noted above, we welcome the same kinds of questions from visitors to our website).

Books On Collecting

There are several good books on the subject of book collecting. Allen & Patricia Ahearn's excellent COLLECTED BOOKS (Putnam, 1998) and BOOK COLLECTING (1999) contain a lot of essential information about prices and editions. The best single and most inspiring book on collecting remains Robert A. Wilson's MODERN BOOK COLLECTING (Knopf, 1980).

Why Should Anyone Care About First Editions?

Look no further than eBay or a yard sale to see how much some people care about baseball rookie cards, glass bottles, custom antique furniture, Elvis figurines, early Beatles album covers (one had the Fab Four wearing bloody butchers' jackets: that "first issue" was papered over with something less offensive; the "first issue" is now worth thousands of dollars), old toys, early comic books, etc. Shouldn't the earliest forms of books - first editions - be just as valuable and interesting as any of these other collectibles? Of course they should, and to many, they are the most interesting of all.

I think the reason for this is that books are, or have become in some ways "the software of the entertainment industry": a great many movies are ultimately based on or inspired by books. Think of GONE WITH THE WIND, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE GODFATHER, SHANE, BAMBI, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, etc. Older classics like DRACULA or several stories of Edgar Allen Poe seem to recur in any number of horror films, adaptations, and sequels. Even Homer's ODYSSEY and the BIBLE inspire films, as they once did operas and verse dramas of the past. In fact it is in many ways through films - both old and new, classic and modern - that books now enter into the popular culture, and thus become more interesting as collectibles to a wider audience than ever before.

I have so far been talking here mainly about stories: first editions can be of many other kinds as well. Let's not forget the classics of knowledge and science that have shaped the world we live in: The Geometry of Descartes, The Principia of Isaac Newton, Darwin's Origin of Species, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, the work of Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes and the many works of mathematics and astronomy, Einstein, etc. First editions - often just early editions - of many of these great intellectual achievements - are of course of great value as well. However they are so rare most would-be collectors cannot even dream of owning any of them.

Realizing this, many collectors have started paying more attention to books of their own time that are more accessible and affordable, and which may in time appreciate in value as they begin to have their own influence and be absorbed into the culture. Let's also not forget that we all owe collectors a great debt for preserving these things, learning about them, discovering rare issues, etc. Like explorers looking for some rare bird or plant, these collectors may travel far and wide just to examine a copy of a rarity only one other collector may actually possess.

There's a lot to know about almost any author's work, and enough to keep a dedicated collector busy through a lifetime finding out everything there is to know about it. Most of the most important collections in our great libraries are the work of individual collectors who donated or sold their collections to those institutions. Because of our interest in how things develop, we are always most interested in the earliest published forms of books: in short, first editions.

--Bert Babcock