Why Do People Collect First Editions?

March 28, 2011.

In a recent post we talked about the meaning of the term first edition. Today we’ll answer one of the biggest questions about them: Why are first editions valuable or sought after by collectors? We’ll also provide tips on determining whether your book is a first edition.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that very few first editions are actually valuable. A book’s market price is dependent on many factors, including condition, scarcity, and demand. For instance, the Harry Potter novels are very popular, but so many first edition copies were printed of the later books in the series (12 million for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) that even fine copies are worth next to nothing. On the other hand, some books that are scarce on the market are of little monetary value simply because there is no demand for them. And a first edition that sells for thousands of pounds in fine condition may have almost no value if it is damaged or missing pages. Additionally, books that are not first editions can be considered collectible for a variety of other reasons  –  if they are inscribed by the author, have been owned by a famous person, or are specially bound or illustrated. Early printings with significant corrections or changes to the content can also have value. Differences between the first six editions of The Origin of Species demonstrate important changes in Darwin’s thinking over time, making them all appealing to collectors.

First six printings of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

Nevertheless, first editions do exert a profound pull which reprints do not. Why? Primarily because a first edition is the physical manifestation of a particular moment in the life of a novel, and it can also reflect a significant time in the wider culture.

To begin with, writers often participate in the production of the first edition. They may make corrections and additions up to the last minute in cooperation with their publisher, and they might have a say in how a book is designed and who illustrates it. In one of the most famous examples, the original artwork commissioned for the dust jacket of The Great Gatsby in advance of publication influenced Fitzgerald’s ideas about the novel, and in August 1924 he wrote to the publisher, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”

First editions also embody the relationship between a book and its readers. These were the first copies read by critics and the public, and they made or broke the authors’ reputations. John Keats was said to have died in part because of the bad reviews of Endymion, while the first editions of Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Darwin’s Origin of Species made their authors into household names overnight. Owning a first edition allows a collector to  experience vicariously a book’s emergence on the literary scene.

Title page of the first edition of Endymion by John Keats, 1818.

First editions can also take us back to particular cultural moments. Novels such as Tropic of Cancer, Ulysses, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover invoke the controversy that surrounded them. They remind us of the groundbreaking publishers who violated obscenity laws, and the spirited individuals who smuggled copies over borders to share them surreptitiously with friends.

Ulysses first edition, first printing 1922.

Similarly, book designs become seared into our collective memory, triggering complex associations of time and place. The dust jacket for The Great Gatsby is one of the most coveted on the market because it is a defining image of the glamorous Roaring Twenties.

The Great Gatsby first edition, first printing 1925.

We hope that this post has illuminated the reasons why first editions are often sought by collectors. Next, how do you tell whether your copy of a book is a first edition? Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • The first thing to do is to check the date and publisher of your copy against those of the book’s first publication. Take as an example The Hobbit. It was first published in 1937 by George Allen & Unwin, so a copy with any dates later than 1937, or released under a different publisher’s name, cannot be a first edition. (Though this does not exclude the possibility that it is a second or third printing published in the same year as the first, as often happens.) If you’re not sure about the date or publishing company then try Googling for information. Wikipedia is also a good enough place to start when looking for this information.
  • Many modern publishers label books as first editions, stating something like ‘first edition’ or ‘first printed in 1997′. This is a good indication that you have a first edition, but it’s not always accurate. It may simply be the first edition produced by that particular publisher.
  • ISBN numbers are 10 and 13-digit numbers used to identify books. These were developed in the early 1970s, so only very recent first editions have them. A book that was first published before 1966 should not have an ISBN number. If your copy does, then it’s a modern reprint.
  • Number lines are another recent development. If your book has a line of numbers in the copyright information then it would typically count down to 1 to be a first edition. Publishers sometimes scramble these number lines (e.g. 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2), but the lowest number is indicative of which printing it is. (The exception to this rule is Random House, which indicates first editions by a number line with 2 as the lowest number.)
  • Some modern books have lists of other titles available by the same author. Make sure yours doesn’t include any that were published later. For instance, a first edition of Casino Royale should not say that any of the other James Bond books are available. Also make sure that the dust jacket does not advertise any later books.
  • Check the dust jacket for quotes from critics and notices of literary awards because these almost never appear on first editions. A copy that says something like “Shortlisted for the Booker Prize” is unlikely to be a first edition.
  • You can also check bookseller websites such as ABE to see whether your copy matches the descriptions posted by booksellers offering first editions. Checking the prices there can give you an idea of the range of values for a particular book.

If you think that you have a first edition of an important work then please contact us. It’s best if you can email photos of the book in question, including images of the binding and dust jacket, title page, copyright or publishing information, and any damaged areas.

This is the second in a series of posts discussing rare book terminology. Next time: Describing Books. Other planned installments include 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.