Posted on: April 26, 2020

Beginner’s Guide: First Edition Books

In this week’s Beginner’s Guide, we’ll be taking a look at first edition books, what makes them so collectable and how to spot them. Ever since the first books were printed, people have collected them into libraries as a store of knowledge. More recently, books have become desirable as a store of value too, with collectors spending large sums to acquire key works. Many of the most valuable works are referred to as ‘first editions’, and collecting these has become a specialized subject in its own right. So how do you spot a valuable first edition? In this beginner’s guide, we’ll concentrate on 20th century books, and leave the more challenging field of antiquarian books for another time. 

What is a first edition?

CARTER (H), THE TOMB OF
TUT.ANKH.AMEN, First Edition
SOLD £420

In simple terms it’s just the first published version of a book. But inevitably it’s not that simple! When a publisher decides to publish a book, they send it to a printer who creates a set of typeset plates from which the book will be printed – these plates are literally the whole book laid out in the form it will appear on the printed page. These typeset plates are printed and bound into a book, and the publisher then tries to sell it to the public. If it sells well, they may decide to print more copies using the original typeset plates. These new copies are still technically first editions (as they use the original typeset plates of the book) but they’re not THE original version – they’re first edition second printings, and potentially a lot less valuable as a result. So how do you tell the difference? 

Up until around 1940, most (but unfortunately not all) publishers would put a publishing date on or near the title page of a book, so you’ll often find books marked ‘First published 1930’, ‘Published 1930’ or just ‘1930’.  If the book is a true first edition this is the only date reference you’ll find. However before you get too excited, make sure you turn the page – you may find a further statement saying something like: ‘Reprinted 1932’ or ‘Second printing 1932’. So what you’re actually holding is a first edition second printing.

In the 1940s, some (but again not all) publishers began to mark editions using number lines (sometimes called number strings). These generally consist of ten numbers in a row, but the actual format can vary a lot depending on the publisher. As a general rule, the lowest number in the line indicates the printing of the book:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Both the above number strings indicate a first edition first printing. Some number lines even include the publication date:

1 2 3 4 5 66 67 68 69 70

The number line above indicates a first edition first printing dated 1966.

Each time the publisher reprints the book, the lowest number on the line will be removed:

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

CRADDOCK (H), THE SAVOY COCKTAIL BOOK, First Edition SOLD £550

These lines both indicate a first edition third printing (in the second example the publisher has added higher numbers to the other end of the line to keep the total to ten numbers). 

Number lines generally make it easier to spot a first edition first printing, but there are still some things to watch out for! As with books published before number lines were introduced, if you see a statement after the ‘First published’ date saying ‘This edition published’ with a later date, or ‘2nd edition’, you’re not holding a true first edition. Also, remember that a book is only a true first edition if it uses the original typeset plates and is published by the original publisher – any book that has been published by a book club or reprint society is NOT a true first edition and should be avoided, even if it has a number line containing a ‘1’. The same is true of later publishings of earlier works. A book might be republished in a new edition years after it was first published – the new version will be a first edition, but it’s not the true first edition. These later editions are identified by dealers with the expression ‘first thus’ and some can be valuable in their own right.  

It’s also vital to remember that every book ever published started life as a first edition first printing. Given the huge number of books published over time, it’s easy to appreciate that not every first edition is going to be valuable or even desirable, so it’s important to identify books which are sought after before you pay a high price for something.  Often these might be early works by well known authors, or works by less well known authors whose work was only published in small quantities, but which is now regarded as classic.  Later works by authors who are now household names are unlikely to sell at a premium due to the huge print runs their work is produced in.  The best example of this is probably JK Rowling.  Although her first Harry Potter books were produced in very small print runs and are worth thousands as a result, the later books had print runs in the millions, making them all but unsellable to collectors. 

FLEMING (I), LIVE AND LET DIE,
First Edition EST. £3000 – £5000

Finally, a note on dust jackets: if a book was published with a dust jacket, it will always be more valuable with it than without it, and the difference in price can be huge. To achieve the best prices, the dust jacket should be clean, bright, undamaged and ‘unclipped’ (an unclipped jacket is one which still has the publisher’s price printed on the inside corner – often this is cut off or ‘clipped’).  It also needs to be the right jacket for the book! This sounds obvious, but some books had changes made to their dust jackets within their first print run, often following contractual disputes, so the true first edition is regarded as the one with the original jacket design (often called ‘first state’). Ian Flemming’s James Bond books are notorious for this, with books with first state jackets worth many times more than those with second state and later jackets. 

The future of first edition collecting is assured by the interest from collectors in various titles, authors and even genres of the 20th century and earlier, but the future of the true first edition in the 21st century is less clear – the growth of printing on demand from digital sources throws into question the very idea of a ‘true’ first edition, so it will be interesting to see how the market develops over time.

If you think you have a valuable first edition but require an expert’s opinion or guidance on selling, our team will be happy to advise you. Simply email your pictures and details of your item to info@trevanionanddean.co.uk.