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Collectible Book Terminology Part 6 – Recognizing First Editions

by Liz Holderman (03/23/09).

Vintage books offered for sale by individuals are very often misidentified as first editions. In fact, online auction sites are full of old books that are casually and incorrectly represented as firsts.

Some publishers clearly state “First Printing” or “First Edition” on their books’ title pages, which make identification easy. But most first editions are very difficult to recognize.

Unique Publisher Markings—Every publisher is different, and most changed their first edition markings many times throughout the long history of their business:

• Some publishers don’t mark their first editions at all, but subsequent reprints are always noted as such;
• Some publishers show the year of publication only in their first editions;
• Some publishers print their logo (or seal) only in their first editions;
• Some publishers print a single capital letter on the copyright page to indicate the edition number. The letter “A” would be a first edition, while an “E” would be a fifth;
• Some publishers use a series of numbers or letters, eliminating the first number or letter in the series for each new edition. (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 would represent a first edition while 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 would represent a third);
• Some publishers use a series of coded letters on the copyright page to indicate the month and year when an issue was printed. In old Harper & Brothers books, a code of B-P would indicate a printing in February 1915.

Extensive guidebooks are available that list many different publishers and the varying ways they have changed their first edition markings over time. But there are exceptions to all the rules, and some publishers do not use any markings at all to identify their editions.

Copyright and Published Dates—A copyright date is not a published date. A copyright date only indicates the first appearance of a work and could be 50 years older than the actual book.

Some books print both a copyright year and a published date. It is usually possible to identify a first edition if the copyright year and the published year are the same; but not always. (The first edition of Gone with the Wind was published in May 1936. Only 10,000 copies were printed but the book was so popular that a second printing was ordered right away, in June, and several subsequent printings also occurred in 1936. Thus, a September 1936 edition of this book is not a first edition, even though the copyright year is also 1936).

Title History—Knowing a book’s original publisher and original publishing date can go a long way toward edition identification. Many popular titles were reprinted over and over, by scores of different publishers.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published in 1949, but a book with this date is not the first edition unless it was published by London’s Secker and Warburg (The Harcourt, Brace and Company version printed later in 1949 was the first American edition).

To the uninformed, a version of Frankenstein with a published date of 1865 may seem like a good candidate for a first edition. It’s certainly a very old and valuable book, but it’s not anywhere close to being a first printing. Frankenstein was first published anonymously in 1818. Author Mary Shelley’s name appeared on the second edition in 1823. Editions of this book were also published in 1831, 1833, 1849 and 1856.

The first illustrated edition of Frankenstein did not appear until 1831. This is the first artist interpretation of the monster.

The first illustrated edition of Frankenstein did not appear until 1831. This is the first artist interpretation of the monster.

Points—Many popular books experienced multiple printings in quick succession by the same publisher. But in some cases, meticulous researchers have documented peculiarities that can identify the edition number. These include typos, changes in text or illustrations, binding variants, dust jacket styles, changes in price and the like. The text for the first printing of L. Frank Baum’s The Road to Oz in 1909 was printed on pastel tinted paper, with the color changing every 32 pages (off white, lavender, gray, light blue, salmon, tan and light green). The technique proved to be far too expensive and labor-intensive so was discontinued with subsequent editions.

Common identification points usually include advertising—in the back of the book, on the back of the dust jacket and on the dust jacket flaps. For many old juvenile series books, this is a key source for identifying first editions and is not possible without the dust jacket present.

Sometimes as many as four editions of a vintage juvenile series book were printed in the same year, before the next new title was released. Therefore, the common practice of assuming that a series book is a first edition if the advertising list of previous titles stops with that book (often referred to as “lists to self”) is highly unreliable.

The Bungalow Mystery dust jacket can only be identified as a 1930 first edition with the following points: The back of the dust jacket advertises only the first 10 Amy Bell Marlowe Books for Girls; The inside front flap advertises only the first three Nancy Drew titles; and the inside back flap advertises only the first 10 Beverly Gray titles.

The Bungalow Mystery dust jacket can only be identified as a 1930 first edition with the following points: The back of the dust jacket advertises only the first 10 Amy Bell Marlowe Books for Girls; The inside front flap advertises only the first three Nancy Drew titles; and the inside back flap advertises only the first 10 Beverly Gray titles.

Book Club Editions—A book club edition might have the markings of a first edition because it was printed from the same plates. But it is not. Without a dust jacket, it is often difficult to recognize a book club edition. The book might have an embossed marking on the back and might be made of lesser quality paper, but not necessarily. However, a book club dust jacket will not have a price (and might even state “Book Club Edition” in the lower corner of the front flap). Beware of popular books passed off as first editions that do not have dust jackets (or have price-clipped dust jackets).

So how can a casual buyer be cautious and informed? First edition identification is not specific and never easy. Here are a few tips:

Know Your Seller—Reputable book dealers will have done the necessary research to correctly identify a first edition. Does the seller have a store or website? Does the seller publish a book catalog? Is he a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association?

If you’re still not sure . . .

Ask a Worthologist—WorthPoint’s experts understand the points and research materials necessary to identify a book’s true age. A Worthologist can safely authenticate a book for you before you buy. It’s just as important to know when a book is NOT a first edition—and that is usually easy to determine.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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5 Responses to “Collectible Book Terminology Part 6 – Recognizing First Editions”

  1. jack says:

    I disagree with the advice given which ” steers” buyers to so called reputable dealers who are members of professional organizations etc. You will only pay more for your book, but it will not insure quality control. Anyone can become a card carrying member of various associations thus use this alliance as a badge of “honor” to sell. Yet they may not know anymore about these matters than anyone of common knowledge. Also in buying from the online venues you can always ASK questions; and ask for photographs. If you are expert enough to find a book and pare down its value yourself by shopping online you can often get books of high value for bargain prices. That is the fun of collecting isn’t it? The hunt for the book is 90% the fun of collecting.

  2. r. Lawry says:

    very useful. I’ve often wondered if I’ve found a bargain.
    Thanks bunches.

  3. jack says:

    The Gemologist are the only sellers who require expert credentials for membership in their various exclusive limited associations. Most other groups are so happy to receive their membership dues and increase their numbers they let anyone in.

  4. SUSAN POLSKY says:

    I FOUND ALL OF THIS TO BE VERY INTERESTING AS I HAVE LOTS OF BOOKS FROM NANCY DREW AND THE HARDY BOYS I WOULD LOVE TO SELL….NOW I AM GOING TO SEE IF THEY ARE 1ST 2ND OR 3RD EDITIONS. THANK YOU FOR ALL THE INFO….BUT, I STILL NEED TO HAVE SOMEONE CHECK MY BOOKS AFTER I TRY TO DETERMINE WHAT THE VALUE IS. WORTHPOINT IS A FANTASTIC SITE TO HAVE.

  5. SUSAN POLSKY says:

    I FOUND ALL OF THIS TO BE VERY HELPFUL. I HAVE LOTS OF OLD BOOKS…NANCY DREW, HARDY BOYS, AND WANT TO SELL THEM. I THINK THAT WORTHPOINT IS A FANTASTIC SITE TO HAVE AS THEY HAVE GREAT INFORMATION AND SEEM TO BE VERY HAPPY TO SHARE IT. THEY ARE ON YOUR SIDE.

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