First Editions – Part 1: Defining “First Edition”

Posted by J Wesley Baker on

Image of First Trade Edition Tent Card

A book collector usually starts out as a reader. At some point, a particular author, genre or subject captures the reader’s fancy. At first any printing of a book will do, since the initial desire is just to read the book. Overtime the reader begins taking on the characteristics of a collector – seeking better copies, then better copies with dust jackets and, eventually, trying to obtain a first edition with a dust jacket in the best condition available.

What is the appeal of First Editions?

Margaret Haller provides a good answer in The Book Collector’s Fact Book: “The sober rationale for collecting firsts includes the facts that the first edition of a book is considered to be closest to the author’s original intention, and that the plates, in the case of any illustrated book, are at their clearest and brightest during the first run” (p. 119). Booksellers Allen and Patricia Ahearn, in Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values, provide a similar reason. The first edition, they write, is “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” (p. 7).

What constitutes a First Edition?

One would think the answer to this question is pretty straight forward. After all, given the centuries over which books have been published, the terms should be well accepted by now.

Haller begins with a commonsense definition: “The first edition of a book consists of the entire first run of the press from the same setting of type” (p. 118). That’s nice and straightforward. But for you to have a sense of the difficulties in applying the definition – and the kinds of problems you might run into in a seller’s description – we need to consider a couple of examples of what might happen when a book is being printed. Bear with me as we get into the deep weeds. Understanding the details will serve you well in your collecting.

Example #1:

A book is being printed for the first time, but as the printed pages are coming off the press a mistake is discovered, perhaps a misspelling. The printing is stopped. The type is reset. Then the run is completed. Does “first edition” apply only to the printing prior to the correction, or does it apply to the full run? The printing after the change technically is not “from the same setting of type.”

For this reason, Haller finds it necessary to introduce two qualifying terms. She adds to her definition quoted above, “Within the first edition, however, minor changes may be made, thus creating a first, second impression or issue, or even more” (p. 118, emphasis added). Others have used the terms state or printing in place of impression or issue.

With these terms, the two printings could be described as first edition, first impression (issue/state/printing) and first edition, second impression (issue/state/printing). All four terms have the same meaning: something minor has been changed during the first printing that allows one to differentiate between the two slightly different versions. These changes are called points, something that will be discussed in more detail in a future post in this series on First Editions.

Example #2:

Five thousand copies of a book are printed in the first run. But those copies sell quickly, and a second printing is made in which nothing in the text or binding has changed. Anything after the first printing is not from “the entire first run of the press,” yet H. S. Boutell, author of First Editions of To-Day and How to Tell Them, says a “second edition postulates some alteration of text or format” (quoted by Haller, p. 118). So, can that second printing also be considered a first edition? What if it goes through sixteen printings without any changes? To be fair to Boutell, he would not stretch the collector’s meaning of “first edition” beyond the first run, but some people will apply edition only to differentiate between printings in which changes have been made to the content.

I recently saw a copy of Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage listed as a “First Edition,” but in the fuller description the seller pointed out it was the 16th printing! Certainly, any collector looking for a first edition doesn’t want a printing that far removed from the original. But not every seller will bother adding that salient little detail, some out of ignorance and a few with malice, trying to pass the book off as a first edition when it isn’t.

As these examples demonstrate, when to use printing or edition in a description is not clear cut. As Boutell notes, “these terms are, unfortunately, not strictly adhered to” (quoted by Haller, p. 118).

So, what is a First Edition for a collector?

When a collector is looking for a first edition, he or she is seeking a book from the first printing, not a later printing, even if the text and binding remain the same. To make the point, the Ahearns write that “for a collector, the first edition/first printing is the most desirable” (p. 7, emphasis added). Using both terms might seem redundant but describing a book as “first edition/first printing” removes any doubt of what is meant.

When reading a seller’s description try to make sure that a book described as a first edition meets the collector’s definition. If you as a collector are making an inquiry about a book, be clear on what you want. In either case, keep in mind that printing, issue, impression and state are all terms that can be used interchangeably (see Haller, p. 121).

Looking ahead

Because serious collectors are willing to pay a premium for a first edition of a sought-after book, people selling their books often assume the inverse is true: having a first edition of a book automatically makes it valuable. But is that the case? That is the topic to be taken up in Part 2: All First Editions are not created equal.

 Independent Online Booksellers Association Logo

The Quaint Book Shop is a member of the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA), whose members follow a code of ethics in how they describe their books and conduct their business.

For reliable definitions of book terms, see the glossary available from IOBA website.



Ahearn, Allen & Patricia. Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values (4th ed.). Comus, MD: Quill & Brush Press, 2011.

Haller, Margaret. The Book Collector’s Fact Book. New York: Arco Publishing Company, 1976.

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