How to identify a book as a first edition

What is a first edition book?

A first edition book is described as a book in its first print. It is the first copy in paperback or hardback that has been published and released for sale into the public. Books can be printed many times after its first publication depending on demand. First edition prints are very attractive to collectors especially when a book becomes popular worldwide. You will be familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? there are only 12 copies left of the original draft, one of which was sold in 1998 to London Book dealers for a staggering £7.5million.

 Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Canterbury Tales’ first edition (about 1483).
Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Canterbury Tales’ first edition (about 1483)
Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Canterbury Tales’ revised edition 2003.
Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Canterbury Tales’ revised edition 2003
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Terms used for different editions:

First edition:
Described as a book in its first edition and first print. Certain editions of books can be released many times over, for example, a first edition printed for the second time with the exact same contents, would be regarded as a first edition second printing. Book collectors will want a book that is of the first edition first print as these will be the most valuable.
Second edition or later:
Books that are revised, updated or corrected from their first edition. Authors will read and reread a book many times before its handed to an editor for proofing. But of course mistakes can still be missed. A lot of people assume that a second or third edition is better due to its revised text. But in terms of value, a first edition first print with errors, will be of even greater value to a collector.
First edition thus:
Described as a book printed as a first in its current format. For example, a book that is created from the original first edition print, but with never seen before illustrations will be described as ‘first thus’ as it is the only copy of that book to be printed with illustrations. When a book is originally released in hardback and then later on in paperback, the paperback is also seen as a ‘first thus’ edition. Different publishers will also refer to their copy as ‘first thus’ if the book has previously been published by a different publisher.
Special / Limited editions:
Books that are released with only a limited number of copies, these will usually have different covers to the first edition, and can be signed by the author. The amount of copies produced can usually be found on the colophon page. More and more we are seeing special editions being released only for sale to small independent bookstores, it is always worth shopping in these stores if you are a collector, and of course there is nothing better than helping to sustain these magical book shops.

Are all first editions valuable?

The valuation of a first edition relies upon various factors, the popularity of a book will increase the value of its first edition. Thus making it more desirable for collectors. The more popular a book is, the more times it will be reprinted, making the first edition print all the more sought after. It is always worth purchasing a first edition release as you never know just how popular that book will become. A great way to ensure you never miss out, is to subscribe to bookshops newsletters, most bookshops will advertise the most anticipated releases of the year, with release dates and the opportunity to pre-order these, often offering signed copies.

The condition of any first edition book is of the most importance in regards to collectability and value. A signed copy by the author or illustrator will always be worth more than a copy without. But beware, leaving a message in a book you give as a gift, will reduce its value. The only hand writing that should ever be in a book, is the writing from the original author or in some cases, the illustrator. Take a look at the definitions used when describing the condition of a book:

A books condition:

Very fine / As new:
A book described as new, in its same condition as when first published with no markings or blemishes. The rarest of all book finds, as most books will have some type of marking just from its travels from publisher to bookshop.
A book that is of the same condition as that of a new book. But will look as if it has been read or opened. This book will have no marks or defects to it.
Near fine:
A book that is of fine condition but has very minor but noticeable defects.
Very good:
Book has been used and shows this through some minor wear and tear defects on the binder or dust jacket.
This is the most commonly used term for a used book. The book will show obvious signs of being used, but will have all its pages intact and its binder still present. Most secondhand books will be in this condition.
A book that has all its text present but may be missing some front and end pages. Pages may be ripped or curled at the edges. Binder may or may not be present.
A book described as being sufficiently worn, the only guarantee is that all text is still present within the book. The book may be spoilt through soiling or scuff marks. And may have loose pages or hinges.
A book in any condition but that has been previously owned by a library and will usually be identified as such with the libraries stamp.
Binding copy:
A book that’s binding is of unrepairable quality or has no binding at all. But where the text is otherwise complete.
Reading copy:
A book that is usually in good to fair quality, and is described as only being seen fit for reading.
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Recognising first editions

Identifying books as first editions sometimes requires a bit of detective work, as not all publishers use the same methods for identifying them. There are thousands of publishers out there and often we find that they don’t always use the same identifiable features for each book they publish.

Some publishers will have ‘first edition’ or ‘first printing’ written on the copyright page. We can usually assume that these are first editions when the first published date is the same as the copyright date. The copyright page below shows a first edition. It is written on the bottom of the page as such, and also shows the year the book was published and the year of the books release (copyright year).

First edition printed at the bottom. Published and copyright dates are the same.
First edition printed at the bottom. Published and copyright dates are the same. (Click to see the latest prices)

Another popular method that publishers use is the number line. This number line will be shown on the copyright page and will have a line of numbers. In most cases if there is a number one shown, then the book is likely to be a first edition.

For example in the picture below we can see the number line shows

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

Please note: The ‘1’ can be placed anywhere in the line. As long as it is present, it’s most likely a first edition.

First edition. Number line has a one present, copyright and published dates are the same.
First edition. Number line has a one present, copyright and published dates are the same.

If a first edition has been printed again and again in the same year, the published date and the copyright date will remain the same. To establish that the copy is of another print, the publisher will usually write ‘second print’ or ‘third print’ etc. Or it can be established from the number line. If it isn’t a first edition, then no number one will be present. The first number on the line will tell us which print edition the book is. Have a look at the copyright page below.

First edition published and copyrighted in the same year. Number line beginning with 3 shows third print of first edition.
First edition published and copyrighted in the same year. Number line beginning with 3 shows third print of first edition.
This number line below identifies a third printing printed in 1976.

76 77 78 79 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3

As you can see there are many different ways in which publishers distinguish their editions, and there are many more that I would never have the time to write about. But what i have shown you is the most widely used methods of today.

I would strongly advise that for anyone with an interest in collecting or selling first edition books. That you purchase Bill McBride’s Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. This handy guide will help you establish the method which each publisher uses on their first edition books.

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