Identifying authentic first editions
On this page we seek to share some insight pertaining to the recognition of first editions. While we don’t claim that this information is definitive–an entire book could be written on the topic–we do hope that our experience will be helpful to you.
First, we would like to point out that from the perspective of the antiquarian bookseller and book collector, first edition and first printing by the original publisher are synonymous. Some publishers, however, consider a later printing to be a first edition if there were no significant changes in the book. Exceptions are generally made in the case of a book being published for the first time in the United States after having been previously published in one or more other countries. Such a book should be clearly identified as being a first US edition as opposed to a first edition. Another example of an exception is when the book is published for the first time as a hardback edition after having been previously published only as a paperback edition. In that case, the book should be clearly identified as a first hardback edition as opposed to a first edition.
Regarding printings, you will notice that most recent books have a printing status bar on the copyright page that may look like
0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
or it may look like
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
The lowest number appearing in this status bar tells which printing it is. For example, if the “1” is present in the list, it is a first printing. If the “1” is absent and “2” is the lowest number in the status bar, the book is from a second printing.
Be aware that there are exceptions. For example, Random House has used the absent number in the list to represent the print-run number.
It is worth noting here that there are still a few publishers who use letters rather than numbers:
a b c d e f
If the “a” is present, the book is from a first printing. If the “a” is missing but the “b” is present, the book is from a second printing.
In general, the first reprinting of a book by a new publisher is not considered to be any type of first edition. Books may be reprinted by a different publisher when the first publisher lets it go out of print, allowing the author then to sell the book to a second publisher. Be cautious if you encounter a book that has a complete printing status bar and a copyright date that is older than the printing date indicated by the publisher. You may think that the book is a first edition when technically it is only a first printing by a new publisher or by the original publisher in a new format.
Rarely are books produced by book clubs of value to collectors, and almost never are they considered to be first editions although there are some exceptions in each case. For example, the Science Fiction Book Club published Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane prior to the trade publication by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, making the book club edition the true first edition. Most collectors prefer, however, to have the first trade printing of this book because the book club edition has a different dust jack whereas the artwork of the trade printing matches that of the first editions of the next two books in the series. Book clubs also occasionally commission book club originals. For example, the Science Fiction Book Club has recently published two original anthologies edited by Michael Resnick. An example of a book club printing that has some value to collectors, though not nearly as much as the first true edition, is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson because of the extremely small print run of the true first edition. In this case, the book club edition is the only other hardback printing of this book that exists.
Unlike regular publishers’ first editions, book club editions do not have a price on the front flap or anywhere else. Book club editions may or may not have an ISBN number on the back with the corresponding bar code, but they always have a five- or six-digit number without a bar code on the back cover; this set of digits represents the book club stock number. Older book club editions usually have “Book Club” or “Book Club Edition” stamped on the front flap, commonly in the lower corner, but this practice stopped some time ago.
To summarize, in book club editions
- there is no price on the front flap
- there is a five- or six-digit number on the back of the dust jacket in the lower right-hand corner
- there may or may not be an ISBN number and corresponding bar code on the back of the dust jacket.
Be aware of the fact that because books published by book clubs are often printed using the plates or files provided by the original publisher of the true first edition, the copyright page will often look as if it is a first edition and may even state as much. You should assume that such books are not first editions.