Rare Books 101: Identifying First Editions

In an earlier FAQ I gave the short answer for how to identify a first edition: ask an expert. But what if you don’t know an expert? I’ll point out that this question is a moot point—you’re reading my blog, after all, so you know me—but let’s say you want to do this whole collecting thing on your own, without consulting an experienced rare book dealer. My three pieces of advice are:


  1. Use extreme caution.
  2. Double and triple check your facts.
  3. Expect the unexpected.


I decided to write this post after I was sent a link to a 200-word article claiming to teach one how to identify first printings.* The article described the number line one sees on the copyright page of some books printed from about the mid-late-ish 20th century onwards. Essentially, the principle is that if the last number on the right-hand side of that number line is a “1,” then you’ve got a first printing. This is true.


Except when it isn’t. Which is often.


The number line
The number line


Leaving aside the fact that the number line is an extremely new phenomenon in the history of printing (and therefore no help with your 1885 copy of Huck Finn, or indeed a huge portion of rare books), this basic principle is often simply not true even for recent books.


Some number lines start with “1” on the leftmost portion of the number line to identify the first printing. Others don’t have the “1” at all, but end with a “2”—and they are still true first editions. (This is the case with the trade edition of Sophie’s Choice.) The lack of uniformity comes from the fact that different publishers have different conventions. Like herding cats, those publishers.


The number line of the true first trade edition of Sophie's Choice ("trade" is the word that distinguishes a public edition from a deluxe edition).
The number line of the true first trade edition of Sophie’s Choice (“trade” is the word that distinguishes a public edition from a deluxe edition).


So you just need to learn what conventions go with which publishers, right? Except that publishers’ conventions change over time. And in some cases, the publishers don’t even follow their own conventions. A great example of this is the first edition of Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. This book was printed by Harper & Brothers, who at the time typically would state “First Edition” on their copyright pages if the book was a first printing.


A first edition of The Intelligent Investor
A first edition of The Intelligent Investor


Except they didn’t always do that. These notations were for their major sellers—mostly fiction—so such conventions were often ignored in their lesser side projects, such as some of their children’s books, or in this case, an economics book. The earliest known copies of The Intelligent Investor do not state “First Edition” on the copyright page, despite the primary identification conventions for that publisher and that era.


The copyright page of The Intelligent Investor. The key to identifying a first printing here is not the "First Edition" statement, as usual, but the "D-Y" code, which means it was part of the batch printed in April 1949.
The copyright page of The Intelligent Investor. The key to identifying a first printing here is not the “First Edition” statement, as usual, but the “D-Y” code, which means it was part of the batch printed in April 1949.


Now I can reiterate my first point: use caution. A book may even state “First Edition” on the copyright page, but that doesn’t actually mean it’s a true first edition in collectible terms. Most of W. Somerset Maugham’s earliest books were first published in London; nevertheless, the first American edition of these works says “First Edition” on the copyright page. But these are not true Maugham firsts: they are first American editions, and often significantly less valuable as such.


By now you may be thinking this sounds pretty impossible. But there are two solutions. The easiest is, of course, to find a reputable, experienced dealer and work closely with him/her. The other choice is to do a lot of in-depth research yourself, and be careful about checking your facts.


To expand on point two, double and triple checking your facts, let’s talk a bit about the nice one-volume guides to identifying first editions out there. These books can indeed be handy. But think on this: there are entire volumes of descriptive bibliography (explaining all the physical details of a book, allowing one to use those details to identify editions) dedicated to an individual author alone. If it takes an entire book to list the points of identification for Dr. Seuss’ oeuvre, how complete can those one-volume guides really be? Personally, I’ve noted cases in which the identification points for a first edition are described, but not the first state of the book—the most collectible version (when applicable).


A page of bibiography for Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat.
A page of bibliography for Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat.


I’m not saying to stay away from those guides. But I would argue that they are better used as a quick reference to remind you of deeper research (i.e. going to the authoritative bibliography), rather than as the final word on the subject. So when researching the identification points for a first edition book, I highly recommend you not rely on one source (unless that source is a reputable dealer with a guarantee). Cross-reference your guides; read articles about author bibliographies; note what people are saying online about the points (there will be plenty of misinformation floating around, but also some correct information that you can match to your other sources); and, most importantly, check the authoritative bibliography, if there is one.


Finally, to my last piece of advice: expect the unexpected.  In 1934, Man Ray produced a book called Photographs 1920-1934. Some copies state “Second Edition” on the title page. However, these copies are actually still first editions. The publisher added the “Second Edition” statement to stimulate interest through implying the demand for the book was so high that the first edition had already sold out.


Man Ray Photographs 1920-1934, First Edition
Man Ray Photographs 1920-1934, First Edition


This is why book collecting is so enthralling and so rewarding. Every book has its own story. This story is more than just what’s written by the author. It’s the story written by the vicissitudes of time and by the people who helped produce the book–it’s the story of how the book came to be. There will always be surprises. There will always be more to learn. There will always be more to discover.



*A technical note: the first “printing” is the first batch printed of an edition within a specific interval of time. An “edition,” on the other hand, is any group of books printed from the same setting of type without substantial change (which can therefore be made up of multiple printings, if batches were printed at different intervals). Once type began to be produced by photographic and digital methods, there was no more actual setting of type, so the term “first edition” lost its collectible punch: a book could be from the 27th printing 5 years later and still technically remain a first edition, since the type was never manually “dismantled.” This is why dealers will often distinguish 20th century (and later) books with the description of “first printing” over “first edition”—though for most reputable dealers, “first edition” will mean “first edition, first printing” unless explicitly stated otherwise.


21 Comments Add yours

  1. paupol says:

    Rebecca, I always learn so much reading your blogs. I thought that I knew a lot and I have read a lot in my lifetime. But what can I do to learn more? You seem to know more than I ever would and I’m older than you. I thought I knew about many subjects and I do. But something doesn’t come easy. How did you gain so much knowledge?

    1. There are a number of books on collecting, bibliography, and the history of printing you can delve into. But a big part of it is simply handling a lot of books. You learn the things to watch for simply from running across a tricky book.

  2. phasersandspells says:

    Reblogged this on Phasers and Spells and commented:
    On figuring out if your book is a true first edition.

  3. Martin Sanchez says:

    hi like the info..umm im a horror /crime/dr ama…..fool….classic………like the info miss rebeca,,,


  4. Dallas Jacobs says:

    Very interesting, it means that now I have to go back thru my books and re-research them…oh well, I guess that it was too easy in the beginning, now the fun starts, right?…dj…:-)

    1. That’s right. This is FUN.

  5. sarabarnes98 says:

    Reblogged this on Writing Red Baron and commented:
    Think will help next time I’m in an old bookstore…not that I’ll have the money to buy a first addition. Sad indeed.

    1. Sara, not all first editions are thousands of dollars. Especially if you like recent authors, they can be quite affordable, less than $100 (even signed) if you catch them particularly before they explode in popularity. Good luck in your hunting!

      1. sarabarnes98 says:

        Awesome!! Thanks so much for the advice. $100 is much more in my price range with school loans to pay off.

  6. Dr Nick says:

    As long as II purchase books from you..I’ll let you do all the worrying..

    1. This is exactly why I have a job. 🙂

  7. Brian says:

    Today I found a “book club edition”. What does that tell me?

    1. Brian, in 99% of cases, it tells you the book is not a first edition. As I try to communicate in my article, there are always exceptions, so a book is always worth double checking, but book club editions are generally reprints.

  8. Steve S says:

    Hi Rebecca
    Your posts are terrific; I am learning a lot. I’ve been a casual book collector for a while. I like to collect inscribed or signed books on subjects or people I enjoy. I few years ago, I bought a signed copy of Andre Agassi’s “Open” from a charity auction in San Diego. I bought a 2nd copy to actually read, so that I wouldn’t wear out my signed copy. Ironically, my reading copy turned out to be a 1st Edition, whereas the signed copy I was saving was a later printing. While I would rather have a 1st Edition than a later one, to my way of thinking, an author’s actual inscription in a book should far outweigh whatever edition or printing the book happens to be, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the collecting world. Don’t you think the extreme emphasis on 1st Editions is WAY overdone, and is perhaps just from past inertia??

    (“Open” is a very enjoyable read and my favorite sports autobiography, by the way)

    Cheers, Steve S.

    PS: My “bucket list” of books to collect includes Thomas Paine, esp “The Age of Reason”

    1. This is a complex question to answer. On the one hand, people don’t realize that the focus on 1st editions is a somewhat “new” trend in collecting–it didn’t pick up much speed until about the end of the 19th c. or so, but now it’s the baseline standard.

      And then there’s the question of supply and demand. If an author signed anything put in front of him (and many authors these days do), examples of their signatures might not be very rare at all. On the other hand, for example, that author’s first book may have been printed in a small run: 1500 copies, 500 copies, or less… For each author (and each book) the traits of supply and demand balance differently depending on the circumstances behind the scenes like these.

  9. james says:

    So helpful. Was just trying to determine the lineage of my copy of Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor” – your above picture says it all! “D-Y” Know anyone in the market for such a book?

  10. Mary Jean Maness says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    I’ve seen you a number of times on Pawn Stars and have learned a lot from your analysis
    of rare books. So I wondered about your thoughts on a book I’m going to purchase on Ebay. I want to get it because is part of a 26 book series written between 1934 and 1955. What makes it special is that the title was deleted when the original publisher sold the rights. At the time, the author was so concerned about the continuity of the series that when she failed to get the new publisher to reprint it, offered to write a replacement. Sorry, I digress.
    The first one of these books has a dust jacket (not perfect), a tear in the “Head” and some wear on the edges of the binding. The pages look more yellow from age than the second one. Now the second book has no dust jacket, cover looks dingy, but does not appear to have tears or much wear on the bindings. Pages don’t look as yellow.
    I’m leaning towards the first one because of the DJ and because the seller has more than twice as many pictures posted. FYI, I’m not buying in for it’s value, just would like to continue my reading in this series which I started back in the 1960’s.
    What do you think?
    Thanks for you time.
    MJ Maness

    1. Thank you for the comment. Unfortunately I can’t comment about books I haven’t handled in person myself. But if you’re not buying the book for value, you don’t need my help! I think it’s wonderful that you’re searching after a long-lost series to complete the reading.
      All best,

      1. Mary Jean Maness says:

        Thank you for your reply and for your “101” series that I read throughly. It helped to reinforce my thoughts on which to buy.
        Appreciate your time.
        MJ Maness

  11. A great blog Rebecca. We mainly deal with children’s titles, and like you say, whilst having the dedicated identification literature is a great foundation, they are not always correct, up to date or specific to first state books. An example of this is Engen and Schuster and the multiple examples of Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose. Consistently, we are finding additional bindings that have not been recorded by Engen and Schuster. Most recently we found an orange copy of Dr. Seuss’ McElligot’s Pool. All points of a first printing except the color of the boards.
    What do you recommend for folks that have additional questions about a particular book after going through the research process and who still have just as many questions as they started with?

    Many Thanks!

    1. Your comment brings up another wrinkle in the rare book world: some bibliographies are more up to date, or more thorough, than others. Unrecorded variants that can otherwise be proven to be part of the first run (let’s say, for example, they have the right date in the advertisements included with the bound book) aren’t so much a problem as a pleasure. But there are books that will still leave questions. I’d encourage you to cast a wider net in terms of communication if you’ve reached an impasse through research alone. There are resources like the Exlibris listserv where many people are willing to help if they can.

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