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Introduction to Collecting Literary First Editions

Answers to questions you may have about collecting first editions.

As many a collector, acquiring a first edition of a favourite author’s book is like a dream come true. Besides the joy of ownership, a first edition can offer an excellent return on your investment should you choose to sell.

Not all first editions are alike. Before you embark on your search for collectable, first-edition books, it’s important that you educate yourself about the marketplace and what to look for. Below we’ve offered some general answers to questions you may have about collecting first editions.

Introduction to Collecting Literary First Editions - Peterborough Antiques Fair

Who Collects First Editions?

Lovers of books are primary collectors. Book lovers generally like having something real in their hands as opposed to a digital version of a beloved book. They appreciate the quality of paper, the binding and the dust jacket – the feel of the book.

What Is a First Edition?

Generally, a first edition of a book refers to both the first-run printing and first additional version of a book. A true first edition should have no editorial changes.

Later, edited versions of a book are considered second editions especially if there are substantial changes to the text. The term “first edition” can also refer to the first time a book appears in a particular format, say in paperback.

The first printing and first editorial edition of the book are the most sought by collectors and dealers.

How Can I Identify a First Edition?

This can be a little tricky, but there are some things you can check:

  • The copyright page. This page will sometimes identify a book as a first edition, but you shouldn’t just take the publisher’s word for it, which brings us to the next thing to look for.
  • The number line. This line is found on the copyright page. Usually if the number line begins with “1,” you can assume that this is a first printing of the book. If the book is successful, subsequent printings will delete the number one and replace it by the number identifying the next print run. For example, a number line beginning with the number “2” will identify a second printing and so on.

In some cases as the print run dwindles, the number “1” will be moved to the end of the number line. To make things even more complicated, some publishers may use the number line to identify the date of the printing. For instance, the date may come at the beginning of the number line and the print run at the end.

  • The letter code. Another way publishers have identified printing history is with a letter code. In this case each letter of the alphabet would correspond to the print run. For instance, the letter “C” would indicate a third printing. Letter codes also appear on the copyright page.

It’s worthwhile to note that books printed earlier than the 20th century may include the words “first edition.” It’s also useful to keep in mind that even if the words “first edition” are on the copyright page, you should cross-reference this against the print history as shown in the number line or letter code.

While you’re at it, check to make sure the publisher’s name is on the book spine. The name should be the same as on the copyright page. Sometimes another publishing house will reprint a book. Though it may be a first printing for this new publishing house, it’s not really a first edition of the book.

Paperbacks can also be first editions, and the guidelines listed above can equally apply to them.

All that said, indicators of print history can vary from publisher to publisher, so you may find it helpful to acquaint yourself with the house styles of different publishing houses.

What Books Should I Collect?

You can begin collecting what you love. Some people collect first editions by a particular author. Other people may desire to collect books that fall into a particular genre like science fiction or children’s literature. Still other collectors may even want to collect books from a particular publishing house, be it a large house or a small press. The choice is really up to you.

What Kind of Book Is Valuable?

If you’re considering collecting first editions as an investment opportunity, you may be interested to know that the market currently seems to favor modern first editions. What’s a modern first edition? Think about the authors you may have studied in your literature class. Names like Hemingway, Woolf, Salinger, Orwell and Amis may come to mind. Don’t let this rule out popular, contemporary authors like J.K. Rowling, whose first-edition Harry Potter novels fetch a good price on the market.

Other factors that may influence the value of a first edition can include the type of binding used and the quality of the paper. Obviously a book in good condition will be more valuable than one that is not. In addition, books that include an author’s dedication and/or an autograph have added value.

Where Can I find a First Edition?

  • Book fairs and antiques markets.
  • Independent booksellers.
  • Other private collectors and auctions.
  • Your own library. You may have hidden gems on your library shelves. Checking your own library will also be a good exercise in becoming familiar with how print histories are indicated.

How Can I Educate Myself on First Editions?

You may find classes you can take at reputable booksellers or schools to better acquaint yourself with the ins and outs of acquiring first editions. Many booksellers are only too glad to help. It can never hurt to be a well-informed collector.

There are also published guides available to better acquaint you with the process of collecting.

How Do I Start Collecting First Editions?

To recap, keep the following points in mind:

  • Start with titles or genres you love and go from there.
  • Visit book and antique fairs. Talk to other collectors.
  • Contact reputable booksellers about that to look for. Many are glad to help.
  • Research publishing houses to discover how they record and display their publishing history.

There are many more details, but as you educate yourself you will become more of an expert on how to spot a first edition. You’ll soon discover that collecting and searching for first editions in this age of digital books can be a rewarding experience, especially if you value the written word.