Identifying First Editions | The New Antiquarian (2023)

One thing that distinguishes the book collector from the casual reader is a preference for owning first editions.

What is a First Edition?

A first edition is the format a book took when it was first made available for sale.

The ABAA glossary of book terms states:

First Edition: “All of the copies printed from the first setting of type; can include multiple printings if all are from the same setting of type.”

Collectors distinguish between a first edition (the first printing of a book) and a modern first edition (which more-or-less applies to books printed from 1900 on -- although, the exact definition is open to debate between dealers).

What is a First Printing?

The first printing is the first batch of books printed from this first setting of type. For a small press, this might be the only printing a book gets, so all copies are first edition, first printings. (The ABAA glossary is a master of understatement when it says “Every printed book has a first edition, many never have later editions.” For others, there might be dozens of printings, especially if a book becomes wildly successful. (Witness the current trend to keep popular young-adult novels -- Veronica Roth’s Allegiantand John Green's Turtles All the Way Down, for two recent examples -- in hardcover for years, rather than replace the hardcover with a paperback edition a year after first publication.)

How Can You Tell if a Book is a First Edition?

In general, books before 1900 did not indicate first or subsequent printings. The best way to determine first printings of older books is by the date (usually on the title page), however the practices differed wildly between publishers in this period, so the best advice for pre-1900 books is to consult a reference guide (such as the ones listed at the end of this article) or simply to seek advice from an ABAA member.

Identifying First Editions | The New Antiquarian (1)

Copyright page for The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown 2005) indicating a first edition (middle of the image) and first printing (number line at bottom).

When western publishers began indicating printing numbers on the copyright page of their books in the mid-1900s, they adopted various methods. Some print the words "First Printing" on the copyright page of the true first printing, and remove the designation on subsequent printings -- but not all do this. By the later half of the 20th century (as the theory of “mass-market hardcovers” increased the sales numbers of hardcover books), many American and British publishers included a row of numbers on the copyright page to indicate printing:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

but the order of these numbers varied by publisher.10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 indicates a first printing, as do the same numbers in the opposite order, and oddly so does this configuration with the odd numbers on one side and the even on the other:

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

The unifying factor is that the lowest number indicates the printing, so

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 and

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 and

3 5 7 9 10 8 6 5 4 all indicate a 3rd printing.

Identifying First Editions | The New Antiquarian (2)

Copyright page for The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon Books, 2013) indicating First United States Edition (original publication being in the UK, the author's home) and first printing using the number line with even numbers to the left and odd to the right.

Just to make things more confusing, somepublishers add a year to the printing number (usually seen in best-sellers which were reprinted frequently -- several times per year), leading to lines like this:

88 89 90 91 92 10 9 8 7 6 -- meaning 6th printing in 1988

Unless a collector is seeking to collect one copy of every book published within a certain year, we can assume there will be little interest in specific printings of the huge bestsellers likely to require this notation.

Identifying First Editions | The New Antiquarian (3)

Copyright page for Allegiant by Veronica Roth (Harper Collins, 2013), which indicates the printing number on the right, and optimistically includes year notations on the left (anticipating many and rapid reprints for this hotly anticipated final book in the Divergent Trilogy).

For more information on methods of indicating first editions, see this informative article by ABAA-member Quill & Brush...

The bottom line is beware of placing blind faith in the words "First Edition." Publishers occasionally/frequently (delete according to how charitable you're feeling) leave the "First Edition" or “First Printing” notation on the title page when ordering a new printing. So, if a book’s copyright page says:

First Edition, First Printing

10 9 8 7

it's the 7th printing, not the first.


As every publisher has their own ways of doing things, the above advice serves as a general rule, but doesn't always hold. Confused? Who wouldn't be! Thankfully, there are a number of excellent books by long-time book dealers which detail how individual publishers denote first editions. One of the best is Allen and Patricia Ahearn's Collected Books: The Guide to Values, which includes a trove of information on 19th century and 20th century publishers. Another classic is Edward Zempel and Linda Verkler's First Editions: A Guide to Identification. Professional booksellers keep these on hand for reference, as there are simply too many publishers and too many different notations to keep straight otherwise.

Identifying First Editions | The New Antiquarian (4)

A page from Collected Books: The Guide to Valuesby Allen and Patricia Ahearn

First State

Most collectors prize the first edition, first printing because it was the way the book first appeared.*

To confuse matters, a “first state” is a term for the first printed form a book takes (each state referring to a minor change or group of changes to the type or paper). Usually, this is the first edition/first printing. However, occasionally errors are caught after the first printing ships. Depending on the severity of the error (one end of the scale comprising a single typo and the other whole chapters of the book being bound in the wrong order!) the whole print run may be pulped and reprinted -- without removing the “first edition” designation. (Publishers, like anyone else, prefer to sweep their mistakes under the carpet.)

If any books have been shipped to stores when this level of error is discovered, they are usually returned immediately, making surviving examples of some first states quite rare indeed! If you collect the unusual, the very rare, or the unique, then certain notorious first states may be of great interest.For example: the first state of Franzen'sThe Correctionshad pages 430 and 431 transposed.

Identifying First Editions | The New Antiquarian (5)

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux. (2001). The first issue (pages 430 and 431 transposed) of his National Book Award-winner, in the first issue dust jacket, without the Oprah seal. Fine in afine dust jacket with the slightest crimp to the crown. First Edition. Hardcover. Signed three times by Franzen: once on the title page, once on page 431 (with a frowny face); once on the erratum slip laid in explaining the error (with a smiley face).

This copy was offered by Ken Lopez - Bookseller,but is not longer available.

Most collectors do not get over-excited about first states, but as in any human endeavor, there are purists who pursue first states with a near-religious zeal. The choice of whether first states are something you want to collect depends upon your interests, collecting goals, and budget. Whether first states are "worth it" can be a bone of contention among booksellers and collectors. Famed book collector John Carter, in his classic guide to the terminology of the rare-book world,ABC for Book Collectors, described people who obsess over first states as "Point-Maniacs" -- beginning his page-long analysis of the uselessness of such activity thus: "These are the collectors who do not merely love POINTS but love them to excess." Another phrase he defines is "Issue-Mongers" -- booksellers who focus on first state points for profit's sake, declaring "The issue-monger is one of the worst pests of the collecting world, and the more dangerous because many humble and well-intentioned collectors think him a hero to whom they should be grateful." So, Carter clearly didn't think obsessing over first states was worth his time.

If you do go in for collecting first states, expect to attend a lot of book fairs and get to know a lot of dealers, as advice about, and the "secrets" of, first states are often kept close to the chest. In a market where anyone on eBay can pose as a book dealer, some antiquarian booksellers prefer to share their knowledge with serious collectors in person. Which is why we at the ABAA encourage you to get to know our members. Call a store to talk about a book you are interested in. Ask questions; request pictures. Go to book fairs and get to know antiquarian booksellers. The internet is a convenient method to source books you've been hunting for, but, though we guarantee the authenticity of our members' listings and have built a secure and robust ecommerce site, the internet cannot fully replicate the knowledge-sharing, camaraderie, and trust engendered by meeting dealers face-to-face.

Why Collect First Editions?

There are numerous reasons to collect first editions. Physically, they usually come without irritating "Winner" or "Nominee" stickers with which later printings are often defaced (although some might consider these award nominations an enhancement -- the publishers certainly hope so!), and they are perhaps less likely to be marred by cheap "staff pick" or price stickers. (When I was a bookseller, some of these stickers added by trade book stores used glue that marked the cover, and some publishers occasionally coated their dust jackets with a glossy substance that retained the ghosts of price stickers quite horribly -- I’m looking at you, Penguin Putnam!) But, most collectors simply want a copy of the original, the unassuming book that had not yet won awards, gained notoriety, or climbed the bestseller list. They want a copy of The Great Gatsby before it was “Gatsby!,” a copy of The Satanic Verses before it set the world on fire, or The Corrections before it bore the Oprah seal of approval. Once you have a first edition, first printing of a book you desire, you can do no better -- unless it’s signed, but that’s another story, and one which brings a whole other set of issues with it…).

Thankfully, there are several useful guides that detail the intricacies of first editions, and any book collector, casual or dedicated, will want to read some of these, if not keep them on hand for reference:

  • First Editions: A Guide to Identification by Edward Zempel & Linda Verkler
  • Collected Books: The Guide to Values by Allen and Patricia Ahearn
  • How to Identify and Collect American First Editions by Jack Tannen
  • A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride
  • ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter

* (This of course, overlooks, ARC/AREs -- Advance Reading Copies/Advance Reading Editions -- which are paperback printings of a soon-to-be-published book distributed free of charge to booksellers and reviewers in the months before a book is officially published. These are often based on uncorrected proofs, usually lack illustrations or maps (if any), and may or may not include the final cover art, dedication page, etc. Some people enjoy having these in their collections for curiousity value, but collectors do not consider these the first state.)

Note:It should go without saying that condition often trumps printing. Unless a book is exceedingly rare, most people will value a later printing in excellent condition over a first edition in tatters (exceptions are made for First Folios and the like...). The presense or absense of a dust jacket can also greatly affect value and desirability.

Gallery: a few first editions from among our members' current listings:

Things Fall Apart


London: William Heinemann, 1958. First Edition. Very Good/Very Good. First edition, first printing. Bound in publisher's red cloth with spine lettered in gilt.. Very Good. Cloth mottled and spine sunned, textblock edge foxed and pages toned. In a Very Good unclipped dust jacket with toning, heavy foxing to the white portions and light creasing to the flaps. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's magnum opus, the most widely-read modern African novel.

Offered by Burnside Rare Books.

The Catcher In The Rye


A First Edition of The Catcher in the Rye in Jacket SALINGER, J.D. (1919-2010).

Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. First edition, in first issue dust jacket. Octavo (7 11/16 x 5 1/4 inches; 196 x 135 mm). [8], [1]-277, [1, blank] pp. Publisherís full black cloth. Spine lettered in gilt. Boards with some light glue residue to top and bottom edges. Glue residue from bookplate removal on front and back pastedown. Library stamps for ìBeverly Book Shelves Rental Librariesî on front and back free endpapers as well as to bottom margin of page 71, only touching page number. Some very light soiling to top margin of page3, not affecting text. In a first issue dust jacket printed in red, black and yellow with cropped photograph of Salinger on rear cover, flap priced at $3.00. Some wrinkling to front panel and small minor chipping along top edge. Some minor toning to bottom edge. Old adhesive remnants to front sides of both flaps and some minor paper damage to inside of flaps. Still a very good copy in a very good, unfaded jacket.

Offered by Heritage Book Shop.

Farewell, My Lovely


New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940. First Edition, First Printing. Cloth. Near fine/near fine. First edition of Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.. Octavo, 275pp. Red cloth, title in blue on spine and front cover. Stated "first edition" on copyright page, with no additional printings listed. Solid text block, top edge dyed blue, faint toning to rear endpapers, a near fine example. In publisher's first state dust jacket, $2.00 retail price on front flap, wear to corners, faint sunning to spine, a vibrant, near fine example. Housed in a custom black cloth clamshell. (Johnson, The Dark Page, p. 60). Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was a popular American-Britishcrime and mystery writer. All but one of his seven novels have been made into movies, including Farewell, My Lovely which was adapted in 1942, 1944, and 1975.

Offered by First Edition Rare Books.



London: Victor Gollanz, 1975. First U.K. Edition. Hardcover. Fine/Fine. First UK and true first edition of the Booker Prize Winning author's first book. A superb collector's copy. Faint erasure mark to front endpaper else a bright clean copy in fine price intact dustwrapper.

Offered by Derringer Books.



Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964. First Edition. First American edition, first printing. Signed by Jorge Luis Borges on half title, inscribed in Spanish to Robert Lima. Lima wrote the first critical work on Borges in English. 96 pp. Bound in publisher's black cloth with copper spine lettering. Fine in a Near Fine dust jacket with small closed tear to front panel, light shelf wear, toning. A collection of prose pieces and poetry by the Argentinian author.

Offered by Burnside Rare Books.



[Los Angeles]: Black Sparrow Press, 1970. Near fine.. First edition, association copy, with an extraordinary inscription and drawing from Bukowski at a pivotal moment in his career to Hal Norse, perennial literary scenester and author of the classic cut-up novel BEAT HOTEL. Norse was a frequent Bukowski correspondent beginning in the mid 1960s, and it was Norse who recommended Bukowski to Penguin Press for their Modern Poets series - then Bukowski's highest-profile appearance to date (they appeared together in the thirteenth installment). But the two didn't meet in person until January of 1969, a little less than a year before this inscription. Norserecalls the experience in his book MEMOIRS OF A BASTARD ANGEL: "I knew that a wild Falstaffian ruffian had come to shake things up with more fiction than fact, more fantasy than truth [...] Bukowski was misshapen [...] He looked [...] during down and out" (p. 420).
Indeed, the poet was down and out, frustrated at his job for the post office and desperate to find a way to support himself from his writing alone. He would find that opportunity later the same year when Black Sparrow publisher John Martin famously offered Bukowski a guaranteed $100 a month for life if he wrote for the press full time. According to Martin, their agreement went into effect January 2nd, 1970 - just six days after this inscription and only a few weeks before Bukowski completed his first novel, POST OFFICE. (IF WE TAKE was the first of many Black Sparrow greetings Bukowski would do for Black Sparrow Press.)
Norse and Bukowski remained life-long - if contentious - friends and correspondents (a collection of their letters has been slated, but delayed, for publication since 2002). Quite simply, one of the closest and warmest Bukowski associations we've seen. 5.5'' x 4.5''. Original string-tied stiff printed wrappers. One of 350 copies. [8] pages. Inscribed by Bukowski to Harold Norse: "12 -27 - 69 / For Hal Norse - / We've both been / through the fire, / dear friend, and / there's more to come - / more fire more o / so much more fire, / and we can only / wonder if we will / kill ourselves first, / or they. No matter - / they will never know. / yrs, / Charles Bukowski." Bukowski has also added to inside of front cover an illustration of a man smoking, signed "Buk." Touches of rubbing, soil. Well preserved.

Offered by Brian Cassidy Bookseller at Type Punch Matrix.


by Vera Caspary

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943. Hardcover. Good/Good. First edition. A bit cocked, small tears and light fraying at the crown, a good copy in a price-clipped good later issue dustwrapper which is sunned at the spine and has some chipping on the front panel. An exceptional association copy of this title. Inscribed by Caspary in the year of publication to George and Miriam Sklar: "For Miriam and George - who feed and shelter me, sympathize with me in my worst moods, listen to my beefs, and still collaborate, with my best, first-class, grade-A love - Vera Jan. 21, 1943." The Sklars were very close to Caspary. George Sklar was a leftist playwrightand novelist and the co-author with Caspary of the play adaptation of *Laura,* as well as several other plays. One of the scarcest film source books, basis for the classic 1944 film directed by Otto Preminger (and Rouben Mamoulian) and starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb. The film is reportedly to be remade. The only significant association copy we've ever seen offered for sale.

Offered by Between the Covers Rare Books.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection

by Charles Darwin

London: John Murray, 1859. FIRST EDITION. Original cloth. Very Good. FIRST EDITION IN ORIGINAL CLOTH of Darwin's masterpiece, "the most important single work in science" (Dibner). One of only 1250 copies printed. The Origin of Species marked "a turning point, not only in the history of science, but in the history of ideas in general" (Dictionary of Scientific Biography).

In the Origin, "Darwin not only drew an entirely new picture of the workings of organic nature; he revolutionized our methods of thinking and our outlook on the natural order of things. The recognition that constant change is the order of the universe had been finally establishedand a vast step forward in the uniformity of nature had been taken" (Printing and the Mind of Man). Diber 199. Freeman 373. PMM 344b. Norman 593. Garrison-Morton 220.

London: John Murray, 1859. Octavo, original green cloth (binding variant b, no priority); old custom box. With 32 pp. publisher's catalogue dated June 1859 (Freeman variant 2; no priority) at end. With all accepted first edition/first issue points: Half-title with quotations from W. Whewell and Bacon only on verso. Folding lithographic diagram by William West after Darwin bound to face page 117. With "species" mispelled "speceies" on page 20, with the whale-bear story in full on page 184.

Bookplate (Thomas Cope, Huyton) on front pastedown. Signatures ("George Taylor" and "Alexander Glass, Darin, Conn., U.S.A. 4-15-62" on half-title. Original cloth expertly re-cased. With minor patch of discoloration on front board and spine and tiny repaired closed tear to spine. Spine gilt extraordinarily bright. Text with a little foxing on some early pages, then very clean; last page of ads shaved a bit at margin (not affecting text). Occasional interesting and neat marginal pencil notes.


Offered by Manhattan Rare Book Company.

Make Way for Ducklings


New York: Viking Press, 1941. 1st Edition. Hardcover. Near Fine/Very Good. A true first edition in a first edition first issue dust jacket, with First Published August 1941 stated on the copyright page and no mention of the Caldecott Medal on the front flap of the dust jacket. The reference to the Medal was printed on the front flap of the dust jacket of the second printing. The Medal has been affixed to the front of the first issue dust jacket, which still has the first issue price of $2.00 on the front flap. A near fine book in a very good dust jacket with a small chip at the top of the spine, as shown in the photograph. Housed in a custom-made collector'sclamshell case with leather spine with gold gilt lettering and decoration. Perhaps the rarest, most important and most desired of all the Caldecotts. A remarkably scarce book, read to death by or to children, and especially beloved in Boston, where the ducks are commemorated in bronze statues in the Public Garden.

Offered by Bookbid.

Finnegans Wake

by James Joyce

London & New York: Faber & Faber Limited & The Viking Press, 1939. First edition. Hardcover. Orig. publisher's orange/red buckram, backstrip lettered in gilt. Fine in the original yellow cloth slipcase as issued. Teg. 628 pages. 26 x 17 cm. Limited edition, copy 22 of 425 signed by James Joyce in green ink. Joyce wished to puzzle critics with his novel's plot which is not nearly as complex as the linguistic tactics he employed, and he did both. Finnegans Wake met with mixed review: some said it was unreadable, others praised Joyce for ingenuity. Joyce combined use of a number of languages with complex ironic implications to create wordplayand hidden meaning throughout this work. His polyglot idiom of puns and portmanteau words was intended to convey the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. The density and layers of meaning have induced scholars to dedicate a good portion of their lives studying it. The critic and scholar Richard Ellman was best known for his literary biography of Joyce noted, "In his earlier books Joyce forced modern literature to accept new styles, new subject matter, new kinds of plot and characterization. In his last book (Finnegans Wake) he forced it to accept a new area of being and a new language." Connolly: The Modern Movement 87. Slocum & Cahoon A49. Slight spine fading, some minor soiling to slipcase.

Offered by Roy Young Bookseller.

The Lord of the Flies


London: Faber and Faber, 1954. First Edition. Near Fine/Very Good. First edition, first printing. An advance presentation copy inscribed by William Golding to his next-door neighbors and dated ten days before publication, reading "To Mr and Mrs Nelles with the author's regards 7/9/54" with his name not signed. Bound in original red cloth with titles in white on spine. Near Fine with slight fading to cloth, bleeding to edges of front paste down and several tiny spots to textblock edge. In a Very Good or better unclipped dust jacket with light bleeding from cloth to blindside, light waviness to front panel, light edge wear, short tear at bottom of frontspine joint and two short splits to rear spine joint. An allegorical tale of children stranded on a coral island and their disastrous attempt to govern themselves. It was Golding's first novel, who was a middle-aged school teacher when he wrote it. After reading an unrealistic story of stranded youth, he commented to his wife he could do better. He drew upon on his experience as a school teacher, and at one point even divided the children into two groups and told them to fight each other and observed. The manuscript was rejected by many publishers, and even the book's publisher Faber and Faber initially rejected it as well. A lovely association copy from a then-unknown British school teacher on the cusp of becoming a major novelist, inscribing a copy of his soon-to-be published book to his next-door neighbors. The novel would become a titan of twentieth-century literature and would be named as one of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels, ranked number 41 on the editor's list and 25 by readers. In 1983, Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.

Offered by Burnside Rare Books.

Foundation Trilogy SIGNED AND INSCRIBED BY AUTHOR ( Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation)


New York: Gnome Press, 1951. An exceptional and RARE set, all three books having been SIGNED AND INSCRIBED BY AUTHOR Isaac Asimov to the same lady in the most intriguing and charming manner - "Foundation" SIGNED AND INSCRIBED "For Laura Jean a passionate Southern gal Isaac Asimov", "Foundation and Empire" SIGNED AND INSCRIBED "For Laura Jean a persistent Southern gal Isaac Asimov", and "Second Foundation " SIGNED AND INSCRIBED "For Laura Jean a married Southern gal Isaac Asimov". Ah, to have been a witness to THAT book signing, where the sparks were obviously flying ! All three books stated Gnome Press First Editions, "Foundation" in dark blue boards withred lettering at spine, thinner and narrower paper and with dust jacket too large for this thinner book, although stating First Edition 1951 on CP is actually the 1954 2nd Edition. Book is Very Good, pages browning, slight toning to edges of end pages, top edge dusty, in a Very Good dust jacket, priced $2.75 front flap, small chips at spine ends and flap fold tips. "Foundation and Empire", 1952, is First Edition, First State in original red cloth, in Second Issue dust jacket in blue tones. Book is Very Good, pages uniformly browning. In Near Fine dust jacket, small chips top and bottom edges rear panel at spine. "Second Foundation", 1953. is First Edition, First State in original light blue boards, spine stamped in brown, Very Good, cloth a bit rubbed at spine ends, light toning to end pages at edges, top edge soiled, in a Very Good dust jacket, 1/2" chip top edge front panel at spine, light edge wear and soiling. Overall a Very Good set, with unique Asimov inscriptions, of this towering classic of the science fiction genre that continues to remain fresh and current. . SIGNED AND INSCRIBED BY AUTHOR. First Editions. Cloth. Very Good/Very Good. Illus. by David Kyle, Edd Carter, and Ric Binkley . 8vo - over 7¾" - 9¾" tall. Presentation Copy.

Offered by Dale Steffey Books.

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