How to tell if you have a first edition copy of a book.

The Deliberate Reader 2015 Reader SurveyOne of the questions I received in my reader survey last year was
How to tell if I have a first edition copy of a book

First EditionThis can be really easy (sometimes) or really complicated (sometimes). It’s way beyond my expertise to go into all of the variations and possibilities, but here are some pointers:

First, be aware that sometimes people mean one thing when they say first edition (as in, the valuable copy of a book), but what they really mean is first printing. Any printing that is of the original edition is “first edition.”

Since I suspect what most people really mean when they wonder about a “first edition” is if they have the possibly valuable first printing, we’ll go forward with how to identify that.

You first want to look on the copyright page at the front of the book. On books published after World War II, you’ll see a set of numbers. The LOWEST number is the key one. If it’s a “1”, then you probably have a first printing.

Guernsey printing info

Definitely NOT a first edition, let alone a first printing. See that 12 that’s the lowest number?

first edition
But this one is a first printing. Note how numbers can sometimes count up and sometimes count down – the key is the lowest number of the string, not whether it’s first or last. But don’t get too excited for me about owning a First. It still isn’t a valuable book – all firsts are not created equal!

Why do I say you probably have a First? Because you also get into which printing is the “First” first printing – as in, the one that beat all the others. You can have a first US printing, and a first UK printing, and a first Canadian printing, but only the one that came to market before the others is the true First (very important capital “F” there), and generally the true First is the one that can be valuable.

For books published pre-World War II it gets more complicated, and that’s where I’m not going to try to get into all of the possibilities. However, here are some websites that go into more detail, and give specifics on how to tell which is the first edition by various presses:

AbeBooks – includes a video if you’d rather see it than read about it

Quill & Brush – with a lengthy list of publishers

Book Libris – provides some additional suggested resources for how to determine first edition status

Travelin Librarian – a guide to editions and printings

One other thing to note: translations can have their own copyright information, but the first printing of a translation is unlikely to be a valuable book. I’d say it’s never going to be a valuable book but I suppose there are some extra circumstances that might allow it to happen, so I’ll be safe and say “highly unlikely”.

Translation copyright

Finally, if you really want to get into book collecting, get a reference guide and read it – it’s much more involved than the surface glance I’ve given it here. Modern Book Collecting or Book Finds are good places to start if you’re a beginner, or just see what your library has on the topic.

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Previously on The Deliberate Reader

Three years ago: Friday Link Love, Writing Edition