A first edition is the first printing of a book. It's true that a first edition may have one or more printings and that a second edition will normally be noted only if there are actual changes, usually major, in the text. But for a collector, a first printing is the only true first edition.
Within the first printing there can be differences that make the earlier books in the printing more valuable than the later books in the same printing. These differences are identified by "points," which are discussed elsewhere.
If it's difficult to explain book collecting in general, the reason for collecting first editions is even more difficult to explain to those who are not afflicted with the mania. Bob Wilson, in his book Modern Book Collecting, deals with the question when he comments on book collecting in general:
A great many people over a great number of decades, have written pamphlets, whole books even, to justify the collecting of books. This seems to me to be an unnecessary exercise. If you are predisposed to collect books, you don't need any ex post facto justification for having done so. And on the other hand, if you are not convinced before you start, the chances are that no argument is going to win you over.
Now, we believe there is a little more logic and reason in book collecting than this, but Wilson's argument is not without merit. At any rate, for a collector, the first edition/first printing is the most desirable. It's the edition the author actually saw through production and the closest in time to the writing, and therefore the edition most likely to represent the author's intent. This may seem a minor point, but one has only to read Ray Bradbury's Afterward to a later edition of his book Fahrenheit 451 to become aware of what can happen to later printings or editions.
Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with 400 (count 'em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe ... into one book? Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy ... Every story, slenderized, starved, blue-penciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story ... Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel... All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers It's my game, I pitch, I hit, I catch, I run the bases ... And no one can help me. Not even you.
"I can only assume that many first edition collectors do not want to take a chance with their favorite authors.
First editions are normally identified by publishers. Each publisher has its own method of identification. Many publishers have changed their method of identification over the years; a few have been so inconsistent that one has to resort to individual author bibliographies to be sure one has the true first.
For information on how to identify first editions by publisher see the first edition identification section on this site.
First Issue/State and "Points"
In the case of a number of books, particularly those published before 1900, one can differentiate between the first and later printings only by being aware of the changes made between printings. These changes can be in the text, the type used, the number of pages, the dates in the ads, or the type of binding (cloth, leather, boards, wrappers). In some cases the authors may have wished to make changes in the text themselves, or the publishers may have run out of a certain color cloth for the covers and switched to another color. These differences are known as the "points." The most common points are typographical errors that are discovered and corrected between printings or even midway through the first printing.
When these changes occur, the points indicate the first issue or first state of the printing. The Glossary (elsewhere on this site) includes a discussion of these terms, but it is worthwhile to quote P. H. Muir's Book-Collecting as a Hobby, where the difference between issues and states is summarized as follows:
An "issue" is caused by some change ... after some copies have already been circulated, (while) a "state" is caused by a ... change before any copies of the book have been circulated.
The difference in value between issues or states can be great. For instance, the first issue of Dylan Thomas's 18 Poems (1934) has a flat spine, a leaf between the half title page and the title page, and the front edge roughly trimmed; the second issue (1936) has a rounded spine, leaf (ads) added, and front edge cut evenly. The difference in value between the first and second issue of that book is $2,000 or more.
The limited edition comes in varying forms. A limited edition of a new book is usually signed, numbered, and in a slipcase and costs three to five times the cost of the regular first edition, which is referred to as the trade, or first trade, edition. The first printing of the trade edition is still considered the first edition, so the collector must decide if both the limited signed and the first trade issue are required or if only one is necessary for the collection.
Trade Book Publishers. When an author becomes popular, the publisher may decide to issue a signed, numbered limited edition. This edition is usually 300 copies, plus or minus 50, but can be as few as 100 copies or as many as 1,000 copies. These books are normally composed of the first trade edition sheets bound up in a binding different from the trade edition binding and in a slipcase. Most people are very happy with the trade edition. But if you thought Patrick O'Brian an important writer, and you could have bought one of 200 signed and numbered copies of the U. S. edition of The Commodore for $125, versus a copy of the trade edition at $25, we'd would have advised you to buy the signed limited which is currently selling for $500 to $750. Of course, if the choice is between a first edition and a second printing for the same price, always buy the first edition.
Private and/or Fine Press Publishers. There have been a number of presses that reprinted classics, usually with new illustrations. Some of the most famous are the Kelmscott Press, Doves Press, Ashendene Press, and the Golden Cockerel Press.
There are also fine, private, usually small, presses that pick the works of an author who has become popular with book collectors, and publish signed limited editions of his or her work. Sometimes it is new material that has not been published before, or it may be a short story, novella, or poetry that appeared previously in magazine or short-story anthologies, and its publication by the press is considered the first separate edition or publication. Some examples of these types of presses (or imprints) are the Black Sun Press, Three Mountains Press, Lord John Press, Palaemon Press, Aloe Editions, Targ Editions, William B. Ewart, Metacom Press, Euographica, James Cahill Publishing, Sylvester and Orphanos, Arion Press, et al. Some of these modern presses publishing over the last 20 or 30 years can present real problems for the collector, because these books may come out in different states, for example:
10 signed and numbered copies for presentation
26 signed and lettered copies
300 signed and numbered copies
700 hardbound (not signed) copies
1,000 paperbound copies
All of the above are legitimate first editions, usually printed on the same paper at the same time, only bound differently, and in the case of the first three, with an extra leaf with the limitation and signature. If you must have one of each, you can see the problem and expense involved. If the author continues to remain popular, the prices would probably rise proportionally; thus, if one of the twenty-six copies sold at $100 and one of the three hundred copies at $50, their respective values in the future might be $200 and $100.
Limited editions of 200 copies are usually still available when one has a hard time finding fine copies of first trade editions from the same period that were published in an edition of 5,000 copies. This is because there is an aversion to throwing away a book signed and numbered by an author, even if one has never heard of the author, but no aversion at all to throwing away novels, poetry, drama, detective stories, medical books, and scientific books by an author one has never heard of.
A few current publishers reprinting famous and/or beloved classics include:
Limited Editions Club (LEC). George Macy started the LEC in 1929. The books were printed on good paper and bound in various interesting and attractive covers, illustrated and signed by famous artists of the period, numbered and limited to 1,500 copies (later 2,000). The books were issued in boxes or slipcases. They're very attractive and actually easy to read. The LEC issued one book a month until recent years, when it changed hands a number of times (it is currently issuing books at a cost of $400 and up per volume). If we look at the total output, we find that one or two titles a year have gone up significantly in price and the balance can be purchased at reasonable prices, particularly at auction.
If you are interested in well-bound illustrated books, you should not overlook the LEC.
Heritage Press. These editions are not limited, but are mentioned because the Heritage Press was an offshoot of the LEC. It produced the trade edition, so to speak. The Heritage editions were printed on good paper, nicely bound, and issued in slipcases. They contained the same illustrations as the comparable LEC editions but were not signed or limited. One can buy most of the earlier editions in the series in used bookstores in the $10 to $35 range. If you like the classics in a very readable form, attractively bound, and at reasonable price, it would be hard to go wrong collecting these editions, although it must be remembered they are reprints.
Franklin Press. The Franklin Mint is a truly interesting phenomenon. Franklin publishes leather-bound "limited editions." What we find interesting is that they publish literary titles and seem to have, or had a bigger clientele than all the specialist literary bookdealers in the country combined. The publishers do not usually disclose the quantities printed, but a John Updike bibliography included a quantity of 12,600 for a reprint of Rabbit Run in 1977, and Ray Bradbury informed a collector that he had signed about 13,000 sheets for Death Is a Lonely Business in 1985.
When the Franklin Press started advertising its Pulitzer Prize editions of fiction decades ago, a friend asked for advice on whether to purchase them. We told him that for less money he could probably buy first editions, in very good condition, of not only the fiction but also the poetry and drama winners. He bought around 150 titles and it probably didn't cost him $4,000. A nice copy of only one of the books he bought (Gone With the Wind) would probably sell for $10,000.
Another publisher bringing out leather-bound editions along the same line as Franklin is the Easton Press.
Proofs and Advance Review Copies
The publication date of a book is normally set sufficiently far after the printing to allow the publisher to distribute copies of the book to reviewers, bookstore owners, store managers, and others, and to actually ship an initial order to bookstores so that the book will be available to customers when the reviews appear.
Prior to the trade edition and the limited edition, if one is published, a book will take different forms. The most common forms that become available on the first edition market are galley proofs, uncorrected proofs, advance reading copies, and the normal trade edition with evidence that the particular book has been sent out in advance. The latter would usually contain a slip of paper or letter from the publisher stating that the copy is sent for advance review, or perhaps a publication date stamped on one of the preliminary pages.
A first edition collector is always anxious to obtain the first issue within the first printing; therefore, it should come as no surprise that proofs or advance review copies of the first printing are also collected and bring a premium.
It is difficult to place a value on these "prepublication" copies because there does not seem to be any consistent formula, but generally we find that trade editions containing advance review slips or other advance publication evidence will sell for perhaps 50 percent more than the regular trade edition; the advance review/reading copies in paperwraps will sell for twice the trade value; the uncorrected proofs (also in paperwraps but with "uncorrected" indicated) for somewhat more than the advance review copies; and the galley proofs (normally on long sheets either bound or unbound) would be the most highly valued, although this form has been rarely used in recent years.
The recent "galleys," run off on copiers, are so easily duplicated that we don't feel they have much monetary value above duplication cost, but this is a personal view; and we must admit that they will prove very valuable to researchers, as they do contain numerous errors and other passages that are later corrected. This is an important consideration in forming a collection. If you are interested in the evolution of a writer's thoughts, the page proofs and uncorrected proofs could prove very useful. If the collection is being formed with the thought in mind of eventual donation to a library, we believe the proofs should be included if at all possible. The number of proof copies actually produced is normally relatively low, 50 to 500 copies, and if eventual scarcity is a determinant of future value, a proof that was printed in an edition of 200 copies (and is very fragile by nature) will certainly have more value than the first trade printing, which for popular authors can run from 75,000 to 800,000 copies. Some examples are Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor - (2,000,000 copies), James Clavell's Whirlwind (850,000 copies), Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost (186,000 copies), and Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods (75,000 copies).
It should be noted that many publishers do not bother with paperbound proofs and only send out copies of the trade edition with review slips.
One example of a limited proof is James Clavell's Noble House. We understand the publisher photocopied four copies on one side of the page only, and then sixteen copies on both sides of the page. These copies were put in large three-ring binders, but after assembling twenty copies the publisher stopped. We assume they changed to sending out copies of the regular trade edition with review slips. We believe we know why they changed, as we handled one of the sixteen copies. It was about three inches thick and very unwieldy.
[Pix of two proof copies] Shown above are two prepublication copies. On the left is a proof of James Baldwin's first book, which is of special interest because the cover differs from the one finally selected for the book (the first trade edition is shown on page ----), and an uncorrected proof of the first American edition of Adams' Watership Down (the true first edition is the English edition)