How to Tell if a Book is a First Edition: An Identification Guide

Beginner tips for antique book collectors

first edition book guide

If you’re a collector of antique books, you know the importance of finding a first edition. However, even experienced antique dealers can have trouble sorting out the authenticity of these hard-to-find collectibles. There are many variables to consider, and many publishers have different marking methods. If you want a primer on how to tell if a book is the first edition, check out some of these tips and tricks.

What Is a First Edition?

For book collectors, a first edition is a book that publishers printed during the initial release. These copies were the first to be put on shelves and bought by consumers. Ultimately, the most valuable book is whichever edition was printed first, whether by months or years.

For publishers, on the other hand, a first edition can be any copy of a book printed without significant changes from the initial printing. When the second set of identical copies is printed later, this is known as a first edition, second printing. Subsequent editions might be published but generally include several added or retracted sections.

Second State or Second Prints

A first edition can have a different print or a state. So long as nothing from the first release was changed, there could be a second (third, fourth, and beyond) printing. This print would be considered part of the first edition when the printing was done later due to consumer demand, but the book remained unchanged.

A first edition reprinted to correct minor typos or errors can be printed as a second state. However, a second state would still be considered part of the first edition.

Again, these books are considered first editions. However, the first printing (and first state) is considerably more desirable for collectors. Therefore, these earlier books tend to be the rarest, especially when the first edition, first print was on a small scale.

NOTE: Sometimes, a printing might be called an impression. You might read something like “First Edition, Ninth Impression.” An edition might also say something like “First Revised Edition” to imply a second state.

How to Spot a First Edition

With unlimited publishers and no universalized method of recording, identifying the first edition can be challenging. However, with a bit of detective work, most famous copies should have some paper trail to follow. There are a few clues to watch out for when examining an old book.

1. See if the edition is printed on the copyright page.

Some publishers will include this information with First Edition or First Printing. If the book is listed plainly as a first edition, you’ll need to do further research to determine the printing and state of the release.

2. Find the date on the title page.

For older 19th-century books, an initial publication date could be listed on the title page. Find this date and then compare it to the date on the copyright page, which indicates when the book went to print. The book is likely an early edition if these dates are the same. Some old books will include both the initial publication date and that copy’s print date on the title page.

3. Look for a number sequence.

Other publishers won’t write explicitly that the book is the first edition, but they will include a numerical system that can offer some hint. This system started after WWII and can be confusing. For a first edition, there might be a line sequence of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10. Since one is included in this sequence, you can assume it’s the first edition. A second edition might have a series like 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10.

Sometimes a publisher will have the words “First Edition” and a number sequence. The number sequence would then tell you the printing. The example of “First Edition 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10” would indicate a first edition, third printing.

4. If there is no date, research the information you find.

Sometimes antique books don’t list a date on the copyright or title page. In this case, you’ll want to use whatever information you have to find the date of print and edition. Many old books were signed and dated in pencil by their original owners. Use that date as a starting point, and then research the book title and publisher online. Each publisher has proprietary ways of indicating the edition, so knowing the publisher is the first hurdle. Next, match the cover and dust jackets to what you see online. If your copy looks like it could be the first edition, take it to an antique book appraiser for further inspection.

Some antique book resources to start your research:

Reproduction Alert

It’s relatively easy to differentiate an antique book from a modern reprint. However, sometimes appraising modern books in good condition can be misleading. For example, there are book club editions, which are generally subpar to original prints. Book club edition markings tend to be on the back cover near the spine, and these books tend to be smaller and lighter than the original versions.

Reprinting houses also take the exact printing plates from the first edition to reprint the book. At first glance, these books seem like first editions on the copyright page. However, check the book spine for the listed publishing house and see if that matches the one listed on the copyright page. If it doesn’t, it’s likely a reproduction reprint.

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