07-06-2007 05:36 PM
In the 19th and 20th centuries, printing technology advanced considerably. Type was set lithographically (a chemical process – meaning no tiny block letters) so that an entire page fit on a thin sheet of aluminum, called a “plate”. The plates used to print a book could be easily stored and re-used. This meant that publishers could easily re-print a book without resetting the type if the demand arose. If the same plates were used to print two separate batches of books, the publisher would refer to both batches as the “first edition” (since both used the same set of type and contained minimal textual differences). But the first batch was called the “first printing” and the second batch was called the “second printing”. A first edition could in theory be issued in hundreds of different printings. To make matters more complicated, publishers often sold their plates so that books nearly identical to the first printing were published by entirely different publishers. For instance, book club editions are frequently indistinguishable from first printings. A pirate edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was produced when the book’s publisher went out of business and the plates disappeared – collectors frequently confuse the pirated version for the originals.
These changes led to several significant developments in book collecting. First, publishers began issuing books in smaller quantities since they were much easier to reprint if the first printing sold out. For instance, the first printing of the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is tiny – allegedly something like 1,000 copies. However, millions of copies of the first edition were issued in a series of later printings, once the book had become an international best-seller. As a result of this general trend (which began long before Harry Potter), the term “first edition” in the sense used by publishers ceased to have any real meaning for collectors – a first edition could be printed in 20 print runs spanning 20 years. However collectors became very interested in first printings, which they confusingly continue to refer to as simply “first editions”. (Giving rise to the paradoxical situation where a second printing of the first edition is not considered by collectors to be a first edition at all.) As a result of this shift, collecting began to require more expertise. Whereas previously, first editions could be identified by fairly obvious differences in the text, once “first edition” began to mean “first printing” collectors had to find minute differences in bindings, dust jackets, and copyright pages – the points referred to above. A book could state "First Edition" on its copyright page and still not be a true "first edition", since it might belong to a later printing. “First editions” simultaneously became more difficult to find (because of smaller print runs) and more difficult to identify (because of the “points”). In other words, they became more collectible.
The history is fascinating to me because we see in the 20th century a change in the technology of industrial book production resulting in the most rarified forms of aesthetic book-worship.
But the thing to remember is this: nowadays, if a collector or dealer calls a book a "first edition", they mean that it is the first printing of the first edition.
07-07-2007 08:18 PM
And are vanity press or self published books considered collectible? My genealogy shelf contains several first printings of self-published or privately printed family histories. Is there any market at all for these outside of the members of the family who care about the contents?
I think, therefore I drive people nuts.
07-11-2007 12:43 AM
07-30-2007 02:07 AM
07-31-2007 01:10 AM
How does the person who is interested in purchasing a first edition, first printing learn what the correct points are? I was looking at some B&N first editions last night, and it was very confusing to identify which version would be considered the preeminent book. Even by checking first edition, a whole range of books in the same title come up. Is there a central location where "point" information can be found? How do I unlock these mysteries regarding a particular book?
Hello, thanks for posting. There are a few good, general sources for this sort of information -- I like "Collected Books" by Allen and Patricia Ahearn. Also "Book Finds" by Ian Ellis lists general points for each publisher (i.e. Scribner's books after 1930 use an "A" on the copyright page). But it really depends on the types of books that you're interested in. I'd be happy to tell you about some more specific guides if you let me know what you're looking for. I'm also happy to look up individual titles, so long as I'm not inundated with requests.
I wish that there were a button or search filter that displayed first printings only in search results. Unfortunately, because of the different meanings of the term "first edition", the filter really just narrows down your results to more manageable proportions. The collector still needs to read the individual book descriptions and use his or her knowledge and experience to find the true first editions. The dealer is responsible for describing the book accurately, so the trick is to look for clues in the information available on the site. Professional book dealers are generally good at providing the points you need to determine whether a given copy is a true first edition. I would advise collectors to be more cautious on sites like Amazon or eBay, where non-professional dealers can list books and the descriptions are often not as reliable. (In those cases, sometimes you can contact the dealer with specific questions if you know which points you're looking for).
This isn't as daunting as it sounds. 99% of the first printings that came out in the last 20 years can be identified by the presence of a "1" in the number row on the copyright page alone. And you can find a lot of good info about the other 1% through a simple google search. Good luck,
02-29-2008 01:45 PM
08-28-2008 11:52 PM
I posted a question concerning my American first edition Harry Potter books on my first time joining this group. Could you tell me how to go about selling my books if they are worth anything? You can read what I wrote about my books on my first thread. I'm dreamdans6. Can you go to a place where they appraise paintings, antiques, etc.to find the value?