How to Identify a First Edition Book

This page has lots of information on it! Here are some quick links to the most important topics.

How do you know if a book is a first edition? Since criteria for indicating a first edition varies from publisher to publisher, there’s no easy answer. To complicate matters, some publishers do not identify their first editions at all, or have used varying methods over the years.

That said, there are some general guidelines one can rely upon to identify many first editions. If you find yourself purchasing a certain publisher’s books very often, you would do well to familiarize yourself with the methods that publisher uses to identify its first editions.

The best guide to first edition identification is A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions” by Bill McBride. The 7th edition has just been published.

McBride’s book “Points of Issue : A Compendium of Points of Issue of Books by 19th-20th Century Authors,” is also well worth buying. Both books are softcover, inexpensive, and small enough to fit in your pocket. You can buy them directly from Bill McBride or buy it at Amazon.com.

General Guidelines for Identifying a First Edition

There are many ways that publishers identify their books as a first edition. Some common ones are:

  • “First Edition,” “First Printing,” “First Published,” “Published,” or “First Impression” appears on the copyright page.

  • A number line such as 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1, or something similar. (See below.)

  • The date on the title page is the same as the date on the copyright page.

  • There is no designation for a first printing, but later printings are noted on the copyright page.

    (For an explanation of the difference between a edition and printing, click here.)

Number Lines:

Number lines have been commonly used in the post-World War II era.
The line commonly is a series of numbers (ex: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 or 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2. Occasionally a letter line is used (ex: a b c d e).

Generally speaking, if the “1” is present, the book is a first edition (first edition, first printing).

For the second printing, the “1” is removed, so the “2” is the lowest number present. For example, a number line that reads 5 6 7 8 9 indicates a fifth printing.

Occasionally a number line will be accompanied by a date line. Example: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 80 81 82 83 84 indicates a third printing, published in 1980.

Confusion enters the situation when one encounters both a “First Edition” designation and a number line. For example, the copyright page may read “First Edition” and be accompanied by the number line 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2. In this case, one of two situations may apply:

  • The book is a first edition. The “First Edition” line will be deleted by the publisher for the second printing, leaving the line beginning with “2.” (This was Random House’s method prior to 2005.)

  • The book is a second printing. The publisher neglected to remove the “First Edition” designation, by policy or by error.

In these two situations it is best to consult a guide to first editions, or a bibliography.

Though these guidelines serve as a good rule of thumb, each publisher has their own way of designating their first editions, and I strongly recommend purchasing a guide to first editions, such as Bill McBride’s.

Matching Dates:

If you find that the date on a book’s copyright page matches the date on the title page, it is likely that it is a first edition. Very occasionally these dates may differ – for example, if the book was copyrighted late in the year and published early the next year. But generally you want to find dates that match.

Sometimes you may see a series of dates on the copyright page. This is usually because
some of the work appeared at an earlier time in a different publication. For example, a poem or chapter may have been published in a literary journal or anthology. In this case, if the latest date on the copyright line matches the title page, then you likely have a first edition.

Small Press Publishers:

Small press publishers print books in relatively small press runs, from just a dozen or so on up to a few thousand. For reasons such as budget and demand, most small press publications do not go into second or later printings. As a general rule of thumb, if you have a small press book and there is no indication of a later printing, there’s a high likelihood of it being a first edition. Most small press publishers do designate later printings on the copyright page. Also, check the back of the book to see if there’s a colophon page that explains the details of the printing history.

Identifying First Editions from Specific Publishers

For an accurate, up-to-date guide on publishers’ current – and previous – methods of identifying first editions, I strongly recommend finding a copy of A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. It is inexpensive, and small enough to fit in your pocket or bag to take along on book shopping expeditions.

Identifying Book Club Editions

There are several ways to identify book club editions (BCE). Different book clubs use different criteria for identifying their books. But, here are some rules of thumb:

  • Book club editions will not be priced. (However, some University presses & small presses do not price their books either, so lack of a price will not always be a sure way to identify a BCE.)

  • Book club editions are often a little smaller than a regular hardcover book, and may feel lighter. The paper may not be the same quality as on the trade edition.

  • There may be a blindstamp impressed into the back cover of a hardcover book. Turn the book over, and look near the bottom of the back cover, near the spine. There may be a small shape impressed into the cover. This is a blindstamp and always indicates a book club edition.
  • Look at the flaps of the dustjacket. There may be a notation “Book Club Edition,” or something similar.

  • Check the copyright page. Occasionally the name of the book club will be found here.

  • Paperback book club books are often (but not always) a little larger than the trade paperbacks. They will not be priced.

  • If in doubt, do a web search for a bibliography of the author in question. If you still can’t find the answer, the folks at rec.collecting.books newsgroup may be able to help you out.

    Some book club editions are sought by collectors; most are not. But there are easy ways to research your book’s possible value.

    Unraveling the mysteries of first and later printings

    What’s the difference between a printing and an impression?

    They are both the same thing. Printing is the more commonly used term.

    When a particular book is printed for the first time by a particular publisher, that’s the first printing, or impression. (The first printing is also what book collectors call a “first edition.” Subsequent printings would be, for example, a “2nd printing” – but not a first edition.)

    When the supply of the first printing (or impression) runs low, and the publisher needs more copies a second printing is done. (Some popular books go through many printings or impressions.)

    What is a “second printing before publication?”

    Have you ever seen the statement “second printing before publication” on the copyright page? In a nutshell, it’s just a second printing, printed before the date the book went on sale.

    Each book that is published has a planned publication (release) date. The publisher estimates about how many books will be needed to fulfill orders from book sellers, and prints that many.

    Sometimes a book receives so many advance orders that the publisher needs to order a second printing to meet the demand. That’s what’s known as the “second printing before publication.”

    A second printing before publication is no more or less desirable than any other second printing. Generally, book collectors are interested in the first printing of the first edition.

    Another note here on the use of the term “first edition:” To a publisher, all printings within an edition are the “first edition.” But publishers are the only ones who use the term that way.

    In common usage – the way book collectors & booksellers intend it – a “first edition” is only the first printing of the first edition. If an advertised book is referred to as a first edition, “first printing of first edition” is always what’s meant.

    Some more questions about first editions

    Are First Editions Valuable?

    Some are; many are not. (Every book has a first edition, but not every book is desired by collectors.) Please see our article on the value of first editions.

    What about first editions published in multiple countries?

    Often, books are published in various countries by the same publisher on the same day. How do you know which one is the “true first edition”?

    For books published in multiple countries simultaneously, the general rule amongst book collectors is to “follow the flag.” This means that book published in the author’s own country is considered the “true first.” So, for instance, if the books are released on the same day & the author is American, the American first would be most desired.

    However, if the Canadian edition were released on a date before the American edition, in most instances it would have priority with collectors, since it is the earliest publication of the book (the “true first”).

    I say “in most instances,” because if the author is American, some collectors will still prefer to have the American book, even if it was published slightly earlier in another country. Collectors are funny like that; although there are generally accepted customs & trends – such as “follow the flag” – each collector will still have his own preferences.

    And, a completist collector (one who wants to collect everything by a particular author) will want to have both the American and Canadian editions, even though only one will be considered the “true first.”

    To sum up – as a general rule, if you have a choice between two books or more books, published at the same time in different countries, you’ll want to buy the one published in the author’s native country.

    Recommended resources for book collectors

    Helpful books

    These books can be found at your local bookshop, library, or Amazon.

    A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions details the methods over 4,600 different publishers use to identify their first editions. It’s easy to use, and small and light enough to fit in your pocket. You’ll likely recover the cost of this book very quickly, with your new ability to figure out what’s a first edition and what’s not. McBride works tirelessly to get the latest information, and this latest edition, the 7th, was published in 2012.
    Points of Issue: A Compendium of Points of Issue of Books by 19th-20th Century Authors is also by Bill McBride, and will help you delve much deeper into the finer details of first editions. It’s also small, inexpensive and easy to slip in your bag or pocket.

    This book lists the “points of issue,” the fine details (a typo, binding color, dustjacket detail) that may distinguish the first books printed in a first edition from later ones. Not every book has “points of issue,” but for many literary works which do, these differences can make a vast difference in value.

    ABC for Book Collectors is a nearly-exhaustive glossary of book terms. The parts of the book are even labeled so you can learn what they are! You’ll find common and uncommon book terms, information about various book sizes, bindings, papers, first editions, and so much more.

    This classic of book collecting has has been helping book lovers and collectors for decades and is now in its 8th edition.

    Book Finds, 3rd Edition: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books by Ian C. Ellis.

    Fabulous. About 12 years ago, as I began a bookselling business, I bought the first edition of this book and I’ve often referred to it since. Ellis has an engaging writing style, and provides an invaluable perspective on book buying and an understanding of the bookselling trade. Updated twice since, this is the 3rd edition.

    There’s lots of good information here about identifying first editions, advice on avoiding rookie mistake, where to find collectible books, how to be a book scout, and lots more.

    Modern Book Collecting: A Basic Guide to All Aspects of Book Collecting was freshly updated in 2010. Recommended for any book collector, and a must-have for the collector of modern poetry or the Beats, this book was written by the former proprietor of the Phoenix Book Shop in New York. He is the author of bibliographies of Gregory Corso, Gertrude Stein, and Denise Levertov. Chock full of insights you’ll find nowhere else. A good read for novice & experienced book collectors alike.