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First things first

Why the term “First Edition” should be used accurately

By Roger Gozdecki
Source: O.P. World, March 1998

Let’s conduct an Interloc Quick Search on the following literary classic: Author: Twain. Title: “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Edition: First.

At the time of this writing, the search process yielded at least 30 possible candidates. But interestingly, the publication dates of some of these “First Editions” vary and include the year 1885 to 1923, and 1988!

Repeating the same exercise for almost any other well-known work inevitably produces a similarly bewildering range of dates for the reputed first edition. From time to time, I have even noted the cryptic and contradictory notation “1st / non-1st,” which I suppose could be interpreted literally to mean a second printing.

What’s going on here? Obviously all of these entries can’t be the true first edition. Given the apparently widespread confusion on the part of both sellers and buyers, some clarification of terms seem to be in order.

A true first edition

Many of us first came to appreciate the importance of edition points in college, when we learned, to our chagrin, that the third edition copy of the Sociology 101 text that we cleverly purchased used from our frat brother for five bucks and a six pack would not suffice for the $79.95 fifth edition that was required for the class. Indeed the primary orientation for the general book-buying public has always been upon the latest, and presumably, most current edition of a book.

The same is true for publishers who would much rather be able to trumpet statements like 103rd Printing!” across the shiny pastel jackets of the latest Bridges of Madison County clone, than to aid book collectors in the identification of the by-now hyper-inflated first edition of the same book, published just last May in allegedly miniscule quantities. (Of course this was prior to its run of 38 weeks at the top of the Best Seller list and recent purchase by 20th Century Fox as the next James Cameron project.)

No matter how many times a book is reprinted, however, there can be only one first edition of it. And it will generally be this frequently elusive printing that the majority of book collectors will pursue ahead of all subsequent permutations, revisions, deluxe limited editions, and centennial anniversary printings of the same work.

Let’s be sure about our terms, then. While an edition can technically be considered to be all copies of a work that are printed from a single unchanged setting of type, the first edition of a book is generally accepted to be the first appearance of the work in book or pamphlet form.

To clarify, we could borrow an apt analogy from a vastly more popular collectable commodity. As my 12-year-old son Matt once surmised, while initially embarking upon the acquisition of the world’s finest Anfernee Hardaway basketball card collection, “A first edition is a book’s rookie card, isn’t it, Dad.”

The bookseller’s responsibility

Given that the sale of first editions is the principal focus of the trade in collected books, their accurate identification, aside from all of the basic ethical considerations of business practice, is among the chief responsibilities of a bookseller.

While even dealers with years of experience can sometimes mistakenly identify particular works as first editions, especially when they fall outside of their specialty, no reputable dealer would knowingly sell a book as a first if it isn’t. Unfortunately there have always been many new participants in the book trade who lack the experience to correctly catalogue their wares. The problem of misidentification has been compounded by the existence of a small, but stubbornly persistent nub of dealers who, frankly, caveat emptor, do not possess the appropriate resources, or make the necessary effort, to conclusively authenticate their descriptions. And given the comparative ease with which the untrained and uninformed can hang out a bookseller’s shingle in the nascent cyber-marketplace for books, there are now more opportunities than ever to purchase books that have been incorrectly labeled as first editions.

Bear in mind that if a book does not qualify as the true first edition, it is fundamentally a reprint of some sort and should be counted as such. All other terms, including first American edition, first edition thus, first edition in Ojibawa, first paperback edition, first illustrated edition, and first revised edition, while bibliographically significant perhaps, all imply the existence of some earlier printing which takes primacy in the history of the work.

In this sense, the terms first edition, first impression, and first printing can all be used interchangeably to describe the codex primus that is the object of this inaugural column. However, if the words printing, impression, or edition are employed together—i.e. “first edition, first printing”—they must both agree in order to denote the actual first. Accordingly, when a book is described as a first edition, second (or third, or fourth, and so on infinitum) printing, it is essentially a later edition and should not be considered to be equivalent to the first.

Essential fundamentals

Descriptive bibliography might seem, at times, to be a dismal and uninspiring exercise. Above all else, however, it is an exacting craft, and all conscientious booksellers aspire to employ it honestly, accurately, and definitively. Among all the sins which a novice bookseller might commit, there are few which, in my mind, so deservedly merit an interminable sentence to catalogue perdition, crushed slowly and painfully beneath the weight of an inexorably accumulating stack of references, as is that of describing a book as a “first edition?”

Although I have never purchased a book from someone who qualified their description with a question mark without first safely resolving the issue in my own mind, I can’t help but wonder just how, under the circumstances, an obviously (by their own admission) ignorant dealer is prepared to guarantee this item, or what rights of return the buyer can expect when encountering such ambiguously described material.

For the moment, a discussion of the diverse, and frequently contradictory practices employed by individual publishers throughout the history of the printed word to distinguish their first editions exceeds our present allotment of space, as does an explanation of terms like publishing states and issue points. But it should suffice to say for the time being that these matters are fundamentally the meat of our trade, and they should whet the appetite of dedicated booksellers and collectors alike. Mastery of the bibliographic points associated with books in your particular area of interest will give you an advantage over others who are not equally committed to the cause.

Roger Gozdecki owns The Book Shop, which specializes in Literary First Editions, California & the West, Science Fiction, and Jazz & Jazz Musicians.

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