What is a First Edition?

February 25, 2011.

‘First edition’ is the rare book term that is most instantly recognizable to the general public, but it can also be one of the most confusing. What is a first edition?

An edition comprises all the copies of a book printed from substantially the same setting of type (the particular arrangement of the letters). The first edition, therefore, is the very first group of books printed for a specific title, before any major changes to the text or page layout are made.

In the old days of letterpress printing from movable type (the technique that Gutenberg invented and first used in 1455, which was more-or-less unchanged until the middle of the nineteenth century), the printer arranged the type for a set of pages  in a wooden frame called a forme, then put the forme into the press and printed enough sheets to correspond with the planned number of copies of the book. He then dismantled the forme and reused the type to create other pages.  Metal type was expensive and space-consuming, so printers owned limited amounts. They rarely kept the type standing in the forme for long because it was needed for other jobs. Thus, the second printing of a book was almost always a second edition, because the type had to be set up again.

Type in a forme at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp.

In our catalogue descriptions you may have seen the terms first impression and first printing. These terms only apply to modern books. They are the result of late nineteenth-century technological advances, such as stereotyping and lithography, that made it possible to store printing plates and create identical reprints of books months or years later. For example: a publisher preparing a brand new book sets the type and prints 1000 copies–this is the first edition, first impression. The book is a commercial success and he decides to print additional copies a few months later. If he reuses the same setting of type the next group of copies he prints is called the second impression. These copies usually look the same as the first impression, but they are not considered true first editions by collectors, so we don’t describe the book as ‘first edition, second impression’. Instead, we just say ‘second impression’. Likewise, when we say ‘first edition’ we always mean ‘first edition, first impression’. The only difference between the terms impression and printing is that the latter is generally applied to books published in the United States, while impression serves for books published elsewhere. Print runs that post-date the first edition and use a different arrangement of type, or whose contents have been substantially altered, are later editions - 2nd, 3rd, etc., also called reprints.

Another term that relates to editions is issue. Different issues occur when small mistakes, such as spelling errors, are corrected after some copies have already been put up for sale. A number of books may already have been printed and sold, so some first editions have the error, while copies that are shipped out later do not.  Any small change the does not substantially affect the layout of the book, and by which it is possible to determine the order in which the books were released to the public, is known as an issue point. These can refer to corrections to the text,  binding, or dust jacket. Usually, collectors prefer to have the first issue of a book complete with errors, but there is some leeway depending on the publishing history of the particular book and the collector’s preferences. When Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was first published, the wrong sort of white paint was used in the decoration on the covers and it began flaking off almost immediately. This was quickly corrected by the publisher, Macmillan, and now collectors who want a first edition can choose between a copy with flaking first issue binding, or the more attractive second issue.

First edition, first issue Just So Stories with flaking white paint.

First edition, second issue Just So Stories with correct white blocking (and with faded spine panel).

The term state is similar to issue in that it refers to small changes within a print run, however, state has no bearing on the chronology of a book’s release. If there are multiple states of a text then all were released concurrently and none takes precedence over the others. For instance, when Boswell’s Life of Johnson was printed some copies had the mis-spelling “gve” on the inner forme of sheet S (line 10 of page 135). During printing, the compositor (the worker who filled the forme with type) noticed the error and corrected it part-way through the printing process. All the books, including those with the error, were then delivered to shops at the same time, so it was luck rather than timing that determined whether a customer got a book with “gve” or “give”. Because differences in state are not indicative of chronological precedence they do not significantly alter a book’s collectability or value.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, first edition.

Other terminology related to first editions includes:

Special editions & first trade editions: Sometimes a publisher produces a limited edition of a book in addition to the copies that are intended for the mass market. Limited editions have small print runs (usually a few hundred to a thousand copies) and are often larger, specially bound, or signed. If the limited edition appears first, then the mass market edition is referred to as the  first trade edition. Though first trade editions are not true first editions, they can be just as collectible. In 1930 Rockwell Kent brought new life to an American classic when he illustrated Moby Dick. The true first edition of this book is the large, three-volume limited edition of which only 1000 copies were printed. The trade edition was published the same year in a smaller size suitable for casual reading. The trade edition reached a much larger audience than the limited edition, and it contributed significantly to a resurgence of interest in Herman Melville. Today these trade copies are highly sought-after by collectors.

Rockwell Kent Moby Dick, first edition (limited edition).

Rockwell Kent Moby Dick, first trade edition.

First appearance in print: Used to describe a work, usually a poem or short story, that was first published in a periodical. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land first appeared in October of 1922 in The Criterion, the literary magazine that Eliot edited. Later that year the first edition was published by Boni & Liveright in New York.

First appearance in print of The Waste Land, The Criterion October 1922.

First edition of The Waste Land, Boni & Liveright 1922.

First UK edition/first US edition: These terms refer to the first printing of a book in a country where it was not originally published. Though first US/UK editions are collectible, the true first edition is almost always the most desirable. Returning to The Waste Land, the first edition was published in New York, and the following year  Leonard and Virginia Woolf hand-printed 460 copies at the Hogarth Press–the first UK edition. Both versions are sought after, but the Boni & Liveright edition can be worth more than twice as much as the Hogarth Press edition.

First UK edition of The Waste Land.

First English language edition: The first edition translated into English. These are usually less valuable than the true first editions, but they do have appeal for collectors who want to obtain all the significant editions of a book. Below, the first edition and the first English language edition of 100 Years of Solitude.

First edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Buenos Ares 1967.

First English language edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, New York, 1970.

Editio princeps: The first printed edition of a book that originally circulated in manuscript form. The Illiad and The Odyssey were transmitted verbally and then in handwritten copies for thousands of years before Gutenberg, and they were first printed in Florence in 1488. Most editio princeps editions were published within the first century or so after movable type was invented.

Editio princeps of the works of Homer.

That concludes some of the most common terms related to first editions. In the next post in this series we’ll discuss the value of first editions and tips on how to identify them. If you have any questions about first editions or other rare book terminology then please leave a comment or contact us and we’ll do our best to answer in a future post.

This is the first in a series of posts discussing rare book terminology. Next time: Why Are First Editions Valuable? Other planned installments include Describing Books, Book Formats, Condition, and Understanding Catalogues.

Laura joined Peter Harrington in 2009 after completing a master's degree in book history at the University of London. Her special interests are science and medicine, modern literature, and the book culture of the medieval and early modern eras.


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  2. Susan Osborne

    Sep 24, 2013

    As a complete beginner to book collecting I found this post interesting and useful. I await the next with anticipation

  3. Rand Peck

    Mar 01, 2014

    This cleared up many of my questions. Thanks.

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