I am a freelance author, writer, critic, artist, and entrepreneur living in the Heart of the Texas Hill Country.
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It’s not always easy to spot a first edition—or first printing, as it’s more traditional referred to—most people seem to think that if the words “First Edition” are anywhere on the title page then it must be so, but no that’s not always the case, and, unfortunately, with as many publishers as there are, and because most of them do it differently, unless you know what you’re looking for you’re probably not going to find it.
Fortunately, if the book is a stated “First Edition” it is, in every case, always a First Edition, but is it a true First Edition, or a First Edition/First Printing, because, yes, some publishers like to throw people off by printing First Editions with a number of Printings, which, essentially, means absolutely nothing.
If you’re holding a book in your hand and somewhere on the title page it reads, First Edition, and there is no Number Line, or Letter Line, and it doesn’t specifically indicate whether it’s a later printing, than the book you’re holding is a true First Edition, or a First Edition/First Printing. If the book is a stated First Edition and includes a number or letter line then you should disregard the stating, First Edition, and focus on the number or letter line.
A Number Line or Letter Line often look like a line of scattered seemingly nonsensical numbers, however, with most books if there is a number 1 or the letter A anywhere on the line then the book IS a First Printing. If there isn’t a number 1 or the letter A then you would look for the next lowest number or letter. For example: if the book is a stated First Edition with a number line and the lowest number you can find is a 3, then you’re looking at a First Edition/Third Printing. Or if the book is a stated First Edition with the letter E, it’s a First Edition/Fifth Printing.
Here’s where it can get kind of confusing…
Not every book is a stated First Edition, however if it still has a number, or letter line and the number 1, or letter A are listed than the book is still a First Edition/First Printing, unless otherwise stated. And it might otherwise be stated by saying, it’s a reprint, or an anniversary edition, or “this book has been printed x number of times.” With the case of anniversary editions that are stated, or otherwise First Printings, those books still might have market value. I have a VIKING printed Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that has a number line, with the number 1 indicated, and so it is a First Edition/First Printing Fiftieth Anniversary Edition and the values is still right around $50—imagine what a 1939 First Edition/First Printing of The Grapes of Wrath would be worth? (It goes for as high as $17,500, but I can get it for under a $1,000 so, you know, don’t be fooled).
It can get more confusing still…
Random House, sometimes, list at First Edition/First Printing by stating First Edition and leaving the number of THAT printing OFF of the number line. So if the book is a stated First Edition and the only number that’s missing is a 1, then that book is a true First Edition, or a First Edition/First Printing. If the book is a stated First Edition, and the lowest number is a 4, then that book is a First Edition/Third Printing. But, again Random House doesn’t always do this.
There are other publishers, and books that were published before a certain year that will only include the date. The book will not necessarily have the words First Edition printed anywhere on the copyright page, there will be no number, or letter line, and your left with the words copyright 1955, only. In this case you either know what year the book was printed, or you find out what year that book was printed. More often than not if that particular book is not a true First Edition, it will have a list of copyright dates indicating later printings.
You know what another fun game is? Some authors had both the cloth and paperback copy of their books published at exactly the same time! Of course, the edition/printing will, likely, but stated on both the hardback and paperback copies, but nevertheless, for collectors, that’s an interesting things to come across. Thomas Pynchon, for example, printed Gravity’s Rainbow—“A screaming comes across the sky.”—in both formats, simultaneously.
I bet you didn’t know it could be so complicated!
Having a signed book, too, can be more complicated than you might have thought. A number of collectors prefer signed books that are, what the industry considers, Flat Signed, which means that the author, when signing, only wrote his/her signature. Most collectors prefer this to an inscription (but that, too, will depend on the book, and how difficult it is to find). Occasionally you’ll find a book signed by the author, and inscribed to someone, for example:
To: Roberto, Thanks For All the Wisdom
& Advice. You Are a great Friend.
Keep on Keeping On!
AKA. LA CHUPACABRA!
Above is the inscription in a copy of The Da Vinci Code I have, inscribed by Dan Brown. Personally I like to collect books inscribed by authors, if for no other reason that you come across something like THAT!
So, determining whether a book is a First Edition/First Printing can be exceptionally difficult, and confusing, and it takes a wealth of knowledge, and experience in order to do so, but having a general idea of what you’re looking at can be helpful, otherwise consult your local bookseller, or a collector.