How to recognise first Edition Books

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How to recognise first Edition Books


What is a First Edition?

The very first time a book is published, anywhere, by anybody, the volume produced is a First Edition. It's never been seen in print before. First editions are highly prized by collectors, and if you think the book you're selling is a first, it's always worth mentioning.


True First

There is a little wrinkle to confuse matters, and this is what's known as impressions. When a book is printed the very first time, absolutely no question, that's a true first. You will sometimes see this represented by the numbers 1/1 in a description, The first 1 states it's a first edition, the second 1 that it's a 1st impression -- or true first.

What does this really mean?

As with all printing, the expensive bit of the process is setting up the text etc. for printing. Producing copies thereafter is the easy bit! So, the first time something is printed, it's the first impression. If the publisher decides the book is selling well and wants to produce more copies without making any changes to the set up or layout, they'll just print a second impression. Another run of the identical book. So this is 1/2 -- a first edition (because nothing's changed from the original set up) but second impression (the second time it's been printed). Many impressions can be made if a book proves popular. Twentieth or thirtieth impressions are not uncommon. These will often be listed in the printing history, either as impressions or reprints ... same thing.

Many sellers will legitimately call this a first edition, but they should always notify you that it's not a first impression, as the value is changed by it's not being a true first. I never tick the "first" box on my own database for later impressions, but I will sometimes mention the fact that it's a first, albeit a later impression (number stated) if I know true firsts are really hard to find and collectors might be interested in later copies.

Believed First

If you're not sure if your edition is a first at all, but you genuinely believe it probably is, you can legitimately describe this as "believed first." It's a good idea to explain why you think it's a first, such as no printing dates but looks the right age, for example. If you see this description in an item you want to buy, it's basically telling you: here's what I think but make your own mind up. If there's not enough information given, you should feel free to ask some questions, included, for example, asking for a picture of the title pages to see if there's something the seller hasn't spotted ... they might not know as much about books as you do!

First Thus

As explained, a first edition is considered to be the first printing of an item in any form. However, there's also the concept of first thus. What first thus means is: the first time this book's been printed in this form. So, for example, the first time a book comes out in paperback, the first printing will be a first thus. If a later edition has some corrections made, or a new introduction added, it will be a first thus. Collectors are often keen to possess all first versions of a title they really love, so it's always worth mentioning. Also, some collectors aren't necessarily operating at the umpteen-thousand pound end of the market and might be very happy to get hold of the first paperback copy, or the first cheap edition
produced en masse by a publisher, if only Bill Gates can afford the true first!

How to recognise a First Edition

Publication details are usually given on the copyright page, being the back of the title page. Check here first for dates and details. If that fails, check all the pretext pages, then all the post-text pages. Failing that, look at the back cover. Print dates can appear in any of these places, but the copyright page is by far the most common, and what I'll assume here.

Some publishers will make it really simple for you, by printing First Edition on the page. If you wish you can use the phrase *stated first* for complete clarity. This technique is particularly popular with American publishers. However, do remember to check the impression and mention if it's a later copy.

Normally it is easier to see that something is not a first, than something is! Reprints are usually recorded on the copy right page with year dates. So, typically, a page might read:
First edition MCMXXI
Reprinted MCMXXIII
Reprinted MCMXXVI

Note the use of roman numerals. These are very frequently used in older books, and it's worth learning the basics of counting in numerals if you don't already know them. Failing that, there are web sites on the WWW that will do the conversion for you.

More recent publishers tend to use something called a number line. This shows the impression or edition of a book by using a line of numbers that are knocked off as they progress. The numbers
 can be presented in various orders, but generally consist of 1 through 9 or 10. For example:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2

The 1 is the number that shows the book is a first printing. When the second impression or reprint is done, the 1 is dropped. Then the next number is removed on the next printing. So, for example:

4 5 6 7 8 9 is a fourth printing.

In older books if no reprints are mentioned, and there is no number line, you probably have a first edition. If you're not sure, remember, believed first covers you for possible mistakes. Just don't use it as a cop out on every book, or people will stop believing you.

Another simple check to do on the copyright page is to check the copyright year against the print year. On first editions these will, obviously, usually match. However, do be aware that sometimes a writer might finish a book at the end of one year, to have it printed the next. So a gap of 1 year doesn't necessarily mean the book isn't a first, if nothing else suggests it's a reprint.

Book clubs

Less experienced sellers will sometimes list as a first, or a first thus, a book club edition. This is not something that is encouraged, as it is in the very nature of book clubs that their books are cheaper reproductions and never true firsts. So if you're buying, watch out for the phrase book club edition, or the letters BCE or BCA. Also The Reprint Society in older books. There are various clubs and reprint publishers, so keep your eyes peeled for suggestions that a book is produced by such publishers, and don't expect them to be true firsts.


These are, obviously, generalisations and you can bet that every publisher will do their own thing without regard to how easy or otherwise it makes life for booksellers or collectors. So there are bound to be plenty of exceptions to the above guidelines, but I hope you will find them at least a useful place to start.
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