Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

How to Spot a First Edition

One of the most touching things about Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids is the way the author slips into book-scouting lingo when she describes the knack she had for that enjoyable (and revenue-enhancing) pastime in the late '60s and early '70s:

Not long after, I found a twenty-six-volume set of the complete Henry James for next to nothing. It was in perfect condition. I knew a customer at Scribner's who would want it. The tissue guards were intact, the gravures fresh-looking, and there was no foxing on the pages. I cleared over one hundred dollars. Slipping five twenty-dollar bills in a sock, I tied a ribbon around it and gave it to Robert.

Smith describes a number of such finds. The mere idea that you could run into a signed Faulkner just wandering around a used bookstore in New Jersey!

It's worthwhile to know a little bit about rare books—because it's fun and also because you shouldn't be letting valuable things slip off into perdition, if you can help it. There are many characteristics that tend to make a book more valuable, but nearly all the valuable ones are first editions. So what is a first edition, exactly?

A reasonably simple question, but it turns out to be one of those deceptively difficult ones, like "What is knowledge?" or "Can cats secretly talk?": one that even a lifetime of study can never fully answer.

Let's get on a sound footing by first considering the whole idea of collecting books.

Bibliophilia, taken as a separate pursuit from the mere love of reading (which it may accompany) is concerned with all aspects of books, not only their contents. Bibliophiles like to study their materials and construction, or the whole history of a publishing house, a genre, an author. There's no detail they won't pore over. The history of publishing is chockablock with romantic stories: the charm and brilliance of designers like Eric Gill, say, or the literary sensitivity of Max Perkins (soon to be played by Sean Penn in a movie, apparently). Whole collections are built around such things as these. And collectible books can become tokens rich with personal associations, of course. Patti Smith found one of the rare Ace paperbacks of William S. Burroughs's debut as "William Lee" at a bookstall near Forty-Second Street one night with Robert Mapplethorpe. She never sold it, she says.

The study of a particular copy will somehow set the collector's heart beating a little faster: how close is it to that rare state, "pristine," still looking absolutely new despite its great age, in a fresh, glossy, clean wrapper free of even the slightest little tear, and inscribed by the author to his favorite mistress, who happens to be the model for the heroine of the story? That would be ideal. Or maybe it's an agreeably raggedy old thing, published by the book club a century later: "spine ends bumped, with chipped corners, cocked, hinges cracked and some foxing."

For those of us who have always collected books in order to read them, the two might scarcely be worth telling apart, so long as they contain the same words in the same order. To a collector, however, who sees each copy of a book as a specific, significant instance of that book's history on this earth, the difference may be as vast as that between the Hope Diamond and some wretched thing the cat dragged in. So, on to business.

Here is a quite nice-looking book, in a decent dustjacket (or in Knifecrime Islandese, "dustwrapper") in a protective mylar cover. (The Highsmith company of Wisconsin is a great library supplier where you can buy these at a good price and in small quantities. Yay Wisconsin.)

Much of the information you'll need for identifying a first edition is contained on the copyright page, which can be found on the reverse side ("verso" they sometimes say) of the title page.

The number series (also "number line" or "printer's key") found on the copyright page of many modern books is a valuable clue. Unfortunately, the subject volume lacks this feature. When the number "1" is present, that is an excellent sign and really almost always means a first printing. Irritatingly, some publishers such as Random House (in certain years) omit the "1" and begin with "2," even on the first printing.

If you're lucky, you will see the generally credible words, "First Printing." A first printing in collector's terms means the first printing of the first edition, so that when you see those words your research may well be over. The words "first edition" and "first printing" are often used more or less interchangeably in the book world, though really they shouldn't be. A printing is a single print run. An edition refers to the whole set of what were once printing plates. When any corrections or amendments are made to the original plates, then you have a second edition. If a dozen separate printings are made off the first set of plates, though, only those copies from the very first printing are of significant value; this is true, generally speaking, even of highly collectible books. You may have the twelfth printing of the first edition, but that doesn't mean you have a "true first." Almost always, it's only the very first printing that has collectible value. (With older books, this whole business gets quite a bit trickier, since number lines didn't come into general use until well into the twentieth century. It sometimes takes quite a bit of research to get hold of all the pertinent details.)

The agreeable term "First Printing" can also be found occasionally in a modern book club edition, in which case the book club will have just ordered some immense number of copies right off the first print run.

This very book contains a message indicating that it was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. That may mean that this is a book club edition, printed in the zillions and therefore utterly without value; or it may mean that the author Mr. Jones was fortunate enough to have secured an agreement with the BOMC in advance of the original trade publication of his novel. In these cases, you must check out the dustjacket, if present. Book club editions, most commonly, do not have a price on the inner flap of the dustjacket. But this copy has the price… a good sign.

Also, you'll find that book-club editions are commonly marked with a blind stamp—that's a small embossed dot or square or other recessed mark on the lower right corner of the back cover. There are probably exceptions to this (there always seem to be!), but blind stamps seem to be found only on book club editions. No blind stamp here … excellent.

(Personally, I find book club editions make great reading copies, and you don't have to feel so guilty when you take them into the bathtub.)

It's a good bet that this is, in fact, a genuine first edition. Worth, according to comparisons from the various search services such as Abebooks, maybe thirty or forty bucks in this condition.

The real trouble is that even today, there are no standards by which all publishers routinely identify their own first editions, and there are immense numbers of publishers. Not to mention which, publishing houses tend to change their methods over the years, and exceptions and errors are made constantly. Even experts are continually fooled as to the authenticity of various books purported to be "firsts." All the little details that go into identifying the first edition of a particular title are called "points," or "points of issue"; if you ever get into collecting a particular set of titles, you'll very soon be up on all the relevant ones. Here's a good one, just to be getting on with: the true first of Infinite Jest has got William Vollmann's name misspelled on the dustjacket blurb (with just one "n").

Keep in mind too that most books, even most first editions, are without collectible value. Only the stuff that turns out to have lasting interest appreciates over time. Really the best way to learn how to identify valuable first editions is to handle a lot of books with a view to learning how to do so. There are several excellent basic books on collecting commonly used by experts, notably Collected Books: The Guide to Values by Allen Ahearn and Patricia Ahearn, and The Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride is a good portable reference. Also recommended: the murder mysteries by John Dunning, Booked to Die and The Bookman's Wake. These feature the detective Cliff Janeway, a bibliophile and book dealer whose descriptions of book collecting are fun to read and full of useful details. Plus, there are murders!

Please be aware that a substantial percentage of the books for sale online are wrongly described. (That is a knife that cuts both ways, of course, because quite often less knowledgeable sellers may not quite know what it is they've got.) Careful study will reveal that many, many dealers, in some cases more than half those offering a given title, have not bothered to figure out what the earliest printing was, but instead merely pop the magic words "first edition" into their listings, either out of unwarranted optimism or mere laziness, or outright chicanery. If book lovers do the necessary homework, it will no longer pay those lazy bums to be so sloppy.

A Visual Dictionary of Commonly Used Terms

Cocked (spine slanted)


A blind stamp

Lower spine end bumped

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

soco (#8,225)

As a bibliophile, this article speaks to me. It seems most new books are pretty easy to identify as first editions, but then there's little value in new first editions. I personally like to look at it from a personal value system, though, one that exists away from any market value. Sure, if I stumble upon a first edition Dos Passos, I'm likely one of the few to care. But I wouldn't ever want to sell one, anyways. In contrast, a first edition of a Stephen King "Dark Tower" book (whatever the first one was) has incredible market value. I just would never go out of my way to acquire one.

I wonder what types of books other people here might collect. I like baseball and literary books, though a good political book is always welcome.

#56 (#56)

I have first editions of his trilogy that the ex left behind. HAHA! However, they do not have dust jackets.

soco (#8,225)

#56: Stephen King or John Dos Passos?

#56 (#56)

Soco: Sorry– Dos Passos

soco (#8,225)


barnhouse (#1,326)

So super identify with this. I once bought an Anne Perry first (very tricky on the points as I recall) for two bucks and sold it for over six hundred and the buyer was so amazed and thrilled (though not as much as I.) But the stuff in my own collection that I care about the most is almost all about the personal reasons, and not worth much.

Hirham (#1,709)

I have some first edition Pevsners (The Buildings of England)- guides to every building of architectural merit in a certain region. The firsts are fun in this case because so much has changed since the early 50s when they were published. You can walk down the street and know that before there was a concrete office block, there used to be a Victorian hotel, or whatnot.

iantenna (#5,160)

i collect private eye novels (mostly ross macdonald but also hammett, chandler, lyons, lewin, and anybody else from the 30s-70s) but only to the extent that i find them cheap so my collection is pretty meager.

now, records on the other hand…

HonoriaGlossop (#1,247)

I love literature and history, soco; 19th century if I can afford it, and also some modern and contemporary stuff. Got a big collection of signed Martin Amis; we'll see if THAT ever does anything for me… I also have a cracklike addiction to really early Penguin paperbacks.

I actually had a major book moment this past weekend… I'd gone to an antique shop near my house to look for something for my mom's b-day, when I stumbled across the 1856 1st edition (in 2 volumes) of "Arctic Explorations" by Elisha Kent Kane. They were in incredible condition – soft leather spines over marbled boards, original foldout maps, gorgeous plates, zero foxing – and inside vol 1, a handwritten 1856 inscription to a friend that quotes a 4-line verse from Ben Jonson.
I'd literally been salivating over that same edition on Abebooks a few weeks before (for some reason I can't explain, I love everything about the 19th century search for the Northwest Passage), and there they were, sitting eye level on a shelf, just looking at me. I think I sucked all of the oxygen out the room. They were marked $175 for the pair; I talked the dealer down to $125 and ran out of there like my ass was on fire. Whooo!

"The mere idea that you could run into a signed Faulkner just wandering around a used bookstore in New Jersey!" is a fragment.

Should read: "The mere idea that you could run into a signed Faulkner just wandering around a used bookstore in New Jersey without coming off as a pretentious douche is ridiculous!"

soco (#8,225)

If I ran into a signed Faulkner anywhere else, would I be okay? Or would I still be a pretentious douche? I need to know this, uh, for a friend?

HiredGoons (#603)

This is awesome Maria, and my copy of 'Just Kids' is in the mail and should arrive any day and I am going to devour it.

The Mapplethorpe bio by Patricia Morrisoe is also very good.

When I worked at The Strand I priced a first edition of Steve Schapiro's 'American Edge' for nothing too stratospheric (we got 50% off and first pick of books coming in) then when I got it home I noticed that I had missed the fact that it was signed.

I think it's worth around $500.

I also have a gorgeous Henry Darger monograph that went out of print right after I bought it and is also worth several hundreds of dollars.

Best present I ever got someone? In high school my friend introduced me to Camus (insert Magnetic Fields song here) and I bought him a first edition in French of The Stranger. He flipped. I'm hoping he didn't sell it for heroin after he became a junkie.

Also! I have a first edition of The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, which I have considered giving to Choire out of appreciation of his love for Shirley Jackson, but we've never met in person and I don't want to seem creepy.

I love the physical properties of books and deciphering them and researching them and I loved this article and I think I'll shut up now.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oo! I also have the Darger In the Realms of the Unreal, was so lucky to find it at a decent price. It is a treasure but man the art books are a pricey habit. p.s. I think you will love Just Kids.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

My favorite back in the days of crack was the guy who would try and sell us signed editions of posthumous collections.

HiredGoons (#603)

my Darger is 'Art and Selected Writings'

john.rambow (#703)

I think the idea behind Random House's method is that the words "first printing" or "first edition" take the place of the "1" in the printer's line. So RH removes those words for all printings after the first, and you're left with the numbers. Probably Bennett Cerf thought it was awesomer that way.

One other thing that might be worth mentioning: the first U.S. printing of a book that has already appeared elsewhere (e.g. Knifecrime Island) isn't likely to be worth a huge amount, either. Those can't be "true firsts."

offthewawl (#8,258)

Those commonly used terms are not to be searched on UrbanDictionary.

soco (#8,225)

Also interesting is that many book collectors are very peculiar about where a book must be signed. Whenever I'm helping run a book signing, we have to have the author sign on the first title page, in between the title and author (if possible).

A word of warning: this is dangerous and habit-forming behavior. But one invaluable reference material I tell people to get is John Carter's entertaining, concise ABC for Book Collectors.

The link will take you to a place where you can get a free pdf. Be careful!

roboloki (#1,724)

i suffer from a lower spine end bump. i am not, however, a first edition.

Apparently I can't edit. Sorry for the bad link.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

My Kindle is full of 1st editions.

stephilepsy (#8,696)

I found a U.S. first edition of E.M. Forster's "Two Cheers for Democracy" for two bucks at a library sale in Philly. I doubt I'll get rich off of it, but I was quite pleased with my find nonethless.

Murgatroid (#2,904)

Umm, about Eric Gill, I wouldn't use "charm" to describe a man who fucked anything that moved, including the family dog,

barnhouse (#1,326)

OMG just went to investigate this; I'd had NO idea. Yikes. How terrible and weird is it that his art and writings were so minimalist and beautiful, pure for lack of a better way of putting it, and then there is all this horror under there.

LondonLee (#922)

I got a first (US) edition of Brideshead Revisited with dustjacket for $10 (think it was, something dirt cheap anyway) at an antique store in rural North Carolina. That's the only good thing about the in-laws living in Hicksville, finds like that.

London, my dream vacation would be a cross country road trip hitting thrift shops and antique stores.

Suzi Lea (#5,187)

Hey! Thanks! Super interesting! And this will make looking through old books more fun too!

vespavirgin (#1,422)

I found a SIGNED first ed of "The Volcano Lover" at the salvation army a few years ago, before Sontag died. The jacket isn't tip-top, but, still, I was thrilled. Holding onto that one.

My 1st ed Infinite Jest has, oddly, a black-sharpied "remainder" slash on it, but I don't care. I picture my niece on the future version of Antiques Roadshow with all my DFW memorabilia one day. Or, alternately, with my cardboard "pity kitty" prints, which will be worth 25 cents, even in the future.

growler (#476)

I've got a first of McCarthy's "The Road," Phillip Larkin's "High Windows," Thurber's "The Wonderful O," some Cheever novel, and many more. But my pride and joy are my DFWs: "The Girl with Curious Hair," the coauthored "Signifying Rappers" (picked up for about 10 bucks and worth several hundred), and a signed "Inifinte Jest" (from when I saw him read at KGB).

Sorry to sound all braggy; it's just that they make me happy, and true book lovers, I'm sure, understand.

Yay for this article. I used to catalog used books for a website. Phrases like marbled endpapers, signed frontispiece, ex-libris and minor shelfwear will be floating around my head 'til I die. What's really neat are fore-edge paintings, which are only visible when the book is laid open.

mapshome (#10,110)

Infinite Jest by author William Vollmann does this book exist? I can't find it for sale. I find lots of David Wallace, so what am I missing?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh yes, Infinite Jest by DF Wallace; Vollmann wrote a blurb for the book that appears on the back cover.

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