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How to identify a first edition book

Microform Branding - Stack of old books.

Here at Microform, we scan a great deal of books.

Whether upon the request of a private collector, library, museum, or university, every year we scan and digitise thousands of books of all kinds.

We offer two kinds of book scanning.

The first involves the scanning of pages with an intact spine. The second involves slicing the spine to gain clearer images and a speedier turnaround.

The only problem with the second method is that the book is therefore rendered destroyed.

If you are looking to get a book collection scanned, it is important, therefore, to check whether you own any valuable books such as rare first editions.

With that in mind, how do you identify a first edition book?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this, as first edition criteria varies from publisher to publisher.

Furthermore, not every publisher will identify first editions or might change the way that it does so every now and again.

That said, the first time that a publisher releases a new book, all copies of it that are printed without major changes can be considered a first edition.

Once, or if, the initial print run of this first edition sells out and there is a subsequent printing with the same typeset, the book would be described as a first edition, second printing.

If changes have taken place however, such as a forward or an error correction, anything past that can be regarded as a later edition of the first.

Also, just to make things a little trickier, if a new publisher decides to print an old book that may also be described as a first edition.

These are sometimes described as a “first edition thus”.

There are however general guidelines for identifying a first edition. Some of the most common ones are as follows:

  • On the copyright page, the words “First Edition”, “First Printing”, “Published”, or even “First Impression” might appear.

  • There could be a descending number line such as 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

  • The date on the title page might be the same date as on the copyright page.

  • There could be notes about later printings, which would indicate that the book is not a first edition.

Number lines were introduced after World War Two and generally speaking, if the number “1” is present the book could well be a first edition.

For the second printing the “1” would be removed and “2” would be the lowest number present. This continues through the editions.

You could also identify matching dates on the copyright page and on the title page to work out if a book is a first edition.

Sometimes a series of dates could appear, but this might be because some of the material in the book appeared throughout different years before publication.

A collector might also want to identify book club editions (BCE) and you can identify these in a number of ways:

  • A BCE will not be priced

  • A BCE book might be a little smaller than a regular hardback book

  • The flaps of the book might contain the words “Book Club Edition” or something vaguely similar.

  • The name of the book club might be found on the copyright page.

  • Paperback BCEs are sometimes larger than regular paperbacks and again, will not be priced.

It’s also important to realise that not all first editions are valuable. In fact, the majority of first editions are not that valuable at all, as all books will have a first edition, but not all of them are sought after.

If you’re interested in first edition books A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions is a helpful guide to identifying first editions across publishers.