Collecting First Editions: When Firsts Aren’t Really First at All

The blurb on the back of the first “The Great Gatsby” dust jacket was first printed with the protagonist’s name written as “jay Gatsby,” with a lower case j. When this mistake was discovered the type was quickly revised. To buy a copy at auction, it could cost you upwards of $50,000.

Why are first editions so collectible? Unless an author is already acclaimed, first editions are usually printed in a small run, so that the publisher can test the waters of popularity before investing a lot in the title. Sometimes a new book doesn’t arouse interest until years after its initial release (perhaps because the author became famous for a later title). By the time that happens, the small number of first editions may have long been relegated to half-price sale bins, library donations, forgotten storage boxes or even recycling. The book has now become both desirable and scarce.

Today, most publishers’ markings indicate first editions with a clear and specific statement, a series of numbers or letters, the presence of colophons and other techniques. But that hasn’t always been the case and older firsts may be harder to identify. In many vintage juvenile series (like Tom Swift and Nancy Drew), the only way to identify a true first printing is by the advertisements on the dust jacket.
And, first-edition terminology is often confusing. Even experienced collectors and booksellers can differ in their interpretations of some of the definitions (and their relative worth). Many classics first appeared serialized in magazines or newspapers before they were published as books and these periodicals are technically the first printings of the works. Sometimes changes and corrections were made during the first print run of a book (before the book was actually published) and those changes constitute different states of the first edition (usually with different collectible values as well). Sometimes the exact same setting of type was used for a second print run at a later date, and although technically this was the second printing of the first edition, it is not valued the same. And even though a book club edition may be printed almost simultaneously with a first edition, perhaps even using the same plates, it is still just a book club edition (which can be difficult to determine without the dust jacket).

Why are some first editions in higher demand than others? Author renown, rarity, illustrations, binding and other factors can all play a part. But it’s important to remember that a title nobody wants probably won’t be reprinted. So its designation as a first edition is virtually meaningless.
As an accredited book appraiser, I’m often asked to appraise a well-known “first edition.” The owner has looked at asking prices online and is anticipating a good payoff. Most of the time, they are disappointed to learn that a different publisher, a slightly different date, a facsimile dust jacket or even a few peculiarities (such as typos or illustration goofs) can make a big difference in the value of those “firsts.” Here are a few fun examples where misidentification can falsely inflate the real value of a book by hundreds (or thousands) of dollars.

This dust jacket, in very good condition, has the revised version of the protagonist’s name, with a capital J in “Jay Gatsby.”

“The Great Gatsby”: This F. Scott Fitzgerald classic was published in 1925 by Charles Scribner’s Sons with striking dust jacket cover art by Francis Cugat. The Long Island story initially received mixed reviews and didn’t really become popular until it was reprinted in the 1940s, making first editions rare. The blurb on the back of the dust jacket was first printed with the protagonist’s name written as “jay Gatsby,” with a lower case j. When this mistake was discovered the type was quickly revised. Many of the existing copies were hand-corrected in ink and some were over stamped with a capital J. First printings with a first state dust jacket are prized by collectors and can reach $50,000 or more at auction.


"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: The first print run of Mark Twain’s 1884 masterpiece began with a rare defacement to one of Edward M. Kemble’s illustrations. An unknown engraver made a lewd alteration to the printing plate featuring Tom Sawyer’s uncle, Silas Phelps (page 283), right before the book went to press. It was not discovered and replaced until 2,500 books (in deluxe bindings) had already been printed. The offending books were supposedly pulled from distribution, but examples do appear on the market from time to time. Last year a copy was purchased from an online bookseller for $8,500.


"Gone With the Wind"

“Gone With the Wind”: Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book was so immensely popular when it was released that it was reprinted almost immediately and continued to be reprinted at a furious pace. In fact, within the first six months of initial publication it was reprinted 22 times. Many people think this book with the date “1936” inside indicates a first edition. And dozens of listings on the Internet repeat that same error. But the valuable first-edition distinction is reserved only for books with the date “May 1936”. First editions in excellent condition can sell for $3,000 to $4,000.


"Bartholomew and the Oobleck"

“Bartholomew and the Oobleck”: The 1949 first edition of this Caldecott Honor book by Dr. Seuss had blue covers and a blue dust jacket. This version is scarce. The dust jacket paper was very thin and most copies, if they can be found, are in tattered condition. Later printings were issued in red. A 1949 Junior Literary Guild book was also issued in blue covers, but the spine and dust jacket clearly indicate that it is a Guild edition (and therefore not a first edition).


"Nineteen Eighty-Four" with a green dust jacket.

"Nineteen Eighty-Four" with a red dust jacket.

"Nineteen Eighty-Four" with the American first-edition dust jacket.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four”: George Orwell’s dystopian classic was published in 1949, first in England (by Secker & Warburg) and shortly later in the United States (by Harcourt Brace). Thus, there is both a first British edition and a first American edition. However, the British version is the only true first edition, and is valued significantly higher. That first edition appeared in two states, with red and green dust jackets. Although there is no documented priority between the two jackets, the red one is scarcer and generally preferred. First edition examples in very good condition can reach $1,500.


"The Bonfire of the Vanities"

“The Bonfire of the Vanities”: This trade edition of Tom Wolfe’s novel about ambition and greed was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1987. The copyright page states that it is a First Printing. However, at the bottom of the copyright page another statement reveals that a signed, limited first edition of the book was privately printed by The Franklin Library. That Franklin Library edition (in a full leather binding with gilt edges) appeared first and is the true first printing.


"The Road to Oz"

“The Road to Oz”: The first issue of this 1909 Frank Baum series book included gatherings of pages (in groups of 32) tinted in pastel colors (off-white, lavender, gray, light blue, salmon, tan and light green). This was an extremely unique feature and as a result was the first Oz book that had no color illustration plates (although it contained many elaborate black and white drawings by John R. Neill). The publication process proved to be far too costly and was quickly abandoned. In subsequent printings, regular white paper stock was substituted and these books are often called first editions. A true first with tinted pages can sell for $1,500.


"Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone"

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”: Only 500 hardcover copies (or fewer) of J.K. Rowling’s first book were printed by Bloomsbury Publishing in London in 1997. They had laminated picture covers (no dust jackets) and most were issued to school libraries. So, first editions (especially ones without library markings) are extremely rare. The copyright page has the statement “First Published in Great Britain in 1997”—but that statement also appears on other editions. Only the true first printing displays the full number line 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Later editions each drop one number starting on the right and working left. The dust jacket did not appear until the third edition. A true first printing (ex-library copy) sold at auction for $16,133 in June 2010 (including buyer’s premium).


"And Then There Were None" is not the original title of this book.

“And Then There Were None”: Agatha Christie’s most famous novel has sold more than a million copies world-wide. It first appeared in the United States in the magazine Saturday Evening Post (in seven parts from May to July 1939) under the title “And Then There Were None”. Running almost simultaneously, but starting two weeks later, it was serialized in the British tabloid newspaper Daily Express (in 23 parts from June to July 1939) under Christie’s original (and offensive) title “Ten Little Niggers.” The storyline focused on mysterious one-by-one murders on a remote island, paralleling an old nursery rhyme with the same name.

In November 1939, it was published in book form in England by Collins Crime Club, again with Christie’s original title. Two months after that, in January 1940, the book was published in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company, who changed the title back to “And Then There Were None” (shown here). Over time, the contents of the story that related to Christie’s original title (nursery rhyme, island name, figurines on a dining room table) were changed from the ethnic slur to Indians. Later, they were changed again to soldiers. The first British book, with the objectionable title, is considered the first edition and can sell for $1,500 or more, while the first American book (actually rarer) may reach only a quarter of that amount. However, the true first printing (the Saturday Evening Post magazine version) is also hard to find and can reach prices equivalent to the first British book.

Do you have a book that you think might be a valuable first edition? Use the “Ask a Worthologist” service under the “Research Your Items” tab on WorthPoint’s home page. A Worthologist will investigate your book and do the research to determine the edition and estimated range of value.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.


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