Firsts, Firsts, Who's Got Firsts?
by Al Navis, ABAA, ILAB
This article is the first in a series in which Al Navis examines the wonderfully confusing, highly collectible world of first edition books.
The Toughest Question in the World
The answer to that question is more difficult to find than Eldorado or the lost Kingdom of Atlantis.
The major problem is that there isn't one answer. Dozens of guides have been written chronicling the various publishers and how they have identified their own First Editions over the years. But for every rule there are dozens - if not hundreds - of exceptions.
While Rinehart and Company may state that they always placed their oval colophon on the copyright page, there were some titles which slipped thought without it. Likewise with Scribner’s and their eponymous letter “[A]”. There were misses over the years. Why? Because publishers had people working for them, setting the type by hand and lino-type machines.
Even today in this computer-driven culture, details about the book edition simply get missed. Identifying a book as a First Edition won't affect publishers' sales. It's not until the book reaches the hand of a collector or a used bookseller that edition matters. But this collector’s market hardly registers on publishers' collective radar screens since they focus on new books and selling them. Therefore, it falls to the collector and the out-of-print dealers to pick up the dropped gauntlet and see whose hand it really fits.
Decoding First Editions
Today, the vast majority of publishers use what has come to be called the “number string”. This is a series of numbers on the copyright page, with the lowest number appearing in the line being the printing (or impression) number.
A First Edition could look like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
While a Fourth Printing (or impression) would be:
4 5 6 7 8 9
5 7 9 8 6 4
4 6 8 9 7 5
This seems pretty straight-forward, but not all publishers use it. For years, Random House never used the number “1”, preferring to use the words “First Edition” on the line following the number string. It would look like this:
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
For a second printing (or impression) they simply removed the words “First Edition”, leaving the number string alone. Once the tenth printing was in place, Random would precede the string with the letter “B” so a fifteenth printing would look like this:
B 9 8 7 6 5
The letter “C” would be used for the 20th to 29th printings, and so on.
The majority of publishers, on the other hand, will continue with cardinal numbers, so their fifteenth printing would look like this:
15 16 17 18 19 20
Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich preferred to use letters of the alphabet instead of numbers. Some of their titles would omit the letter “A” in the string while others included it.
And we haven’t even begun!
During the early 1970s, Harper and Row came up with the idea to bury their number string on the bottom of the last page of the book, which leads to many mis-identified hardcovers, even to this day. An interesting anecdote involved Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Tony Hillerman and his first mystery, The Blessing Way. When he looked at the copy on his own shelf, after being informed about where his publisher had hidden the number string, he discovered that he had a fourth printing! Most professional booksellers have been victims of this practice, and Harper and Row discontinued it after a couple of years.
What's the difference anyway?
During the 1950s, the paperback house Ace Books, famous for their “Ace Doubles” - primarily science fiction and westerns - would bind two books back-to-back. The copyright pages of each book could very well have different copyright dates, but would always be the date of the original appearance. So an Ace book from 1964 with a reprint of a 1955 novel, would contain the 1955 date, thereby confounding collectors and even some professional booksellers. The amateur booksellers are usually left far behind at the starting line, simply because they lack the necessary reference books, many of which are long out-of-print themselves.
I think that all professional booksellers will agree that the difference between a First Edition and a Second Edition is that there was a change in the text. It happens more in non-fiction than in fiction, but a good fiction example is from Jeffrey Archer and his book Shall We Tell the President?
Originally written in 1977, Archer mentioned Ted Kennedy and his becoming president in the 1980 election, but by the late 1980s, the story seemed arcane. Archer then did a clever thing: he re-wrote the story tying in the character, Florentyna Kane, who became President at the end of his book The Prodigal Daughter, which followed up Kane and Abel, now forming a trilogy - and poor Teddy Kennedy lost another one! So this Revised Edition is in fact a Second Edition.
Some Books Make Great Impressions
So if the book wasn’t out yet, why didn’t they simply increase the initial print run from 25,000 to 40,000? Here is where the world of bookselling collides with the world of printing. If Interview was decided to have a print run of 25,000 copies, the printer would know how many hours or days that it would take to complete that print run, so it was slotted in line. By the time that the sales force went out on the road to sell the book and got orders, and then reported them back to the head office - the printer already had Interview in line and dozens, if not hundreds of books after it, so a Second Printing would have to be slotted in after the First Printing, but still before the release of the book.
It sounds silly until you’ve been in the printing business, which my father was for sixty years. I talked to him about this phenomenon years ago and he said that it was easier to slot in a second printing in line because to add more copies to the first printing would inconvenience the publishers with books immediately after the first printing. It was better to inconvenience one publisher and one title, than many.
The views of the author, expressed above, are not necessarily those of AbeBooks.com.
Do you have a question about book collecting? [Ask our Experts]
Books on First Editions
Al Navis Suggests the Following Guides on First Edition Books: