The first edition of a book is more meaningful to the world of book lovers than it is to the regular reader. That’s because the first printing is a mark in time of the original views and opinion of the author, even with flaws, but that does not mean that there is a change or correction to any book for there to be more than one edition. The first printing of a book might contain a few thousand copies. As those copies are shipped out to bookstores and sold, publishers will start a second printing to meet consumer demand. But, because most publishers aren’t typically in the business of trading in rare and collectible books, they haven’t necessarily had a strong reason for a unified and consistent way of identifying first editions, so sometimes it might be hard to spot when you’ve come across an actual first edition print of a book.
Professional booksellers and dedicated collectors spend time collecting knowledge and resources on what a particular publisher might use to identify the first printing of a book. Each publisher has their own conventions for what they use to tell the first printing of their books. The specifics of identifying a particular book’s first printing often benefit from the use of reference books, but there are some basic things to look for.
Typically, you will want to start with the copyright page. That page is usually on the verso of the title page. Publishers will often use one of a few methods for showing where that copy falls in the printing history of that book. A number line might show the printing and sometimes the year of publication. The idea here is an elimination game. In most cases, the first number on that number line indicates what printing that copy was a part of. With each printing, the publisher removes a number from the line of numbers. The lowest number on that line often indicates that book’s printing number.
A variation on that theme is the letter row. A is the first printing, B is the second…
Harper and Brothers, one of the many incarnations of the modern day HarperCollins publishing house, used a unique two-letter code between 1912-1922 that indicated the month and year of publication. The first letter, A-M indicated the month, January-December. The second letter, M-W, indicated the year, 1912-1922.
Sometimes the word “First Edition” will helpfully be printed on that page, often described as “First edition stated” by booksellers. “First printing”, “First Impression”, and “First Published” are other ways of publishers stating the first edition. That bold declaration can’t always be taken as authoritative, though. If the word First Edition is on the page with a number line, that number line must be complete. This means that the first number in that line of numbers must start with the first number for that publisher. In most cases, this is predictably a ‘1’, but in one famous example of the arcane nature of publisher’s methods, Random House between 1970 and 2002 began their number lines with a 2 on their first editions that included a number line. Counter-intuitively, a 1 in the number line for that publisher during those years meant a later printing.