What's in a First Edition?

Published on 23 June 2022 at 23:13

Here at Castle Books we specialize in, among other things, first editions. It sounds like a pretty simple thing, but it's surprisingly tricky. What's in a first edition? And how do you tell if something is in fact, a true first edition?


To start things off; what is a first edition?

Biblio.com gives a definition of a first edition as the first commercially available printing of a book. My trustworthy, if aged, ABCs of Book Collecting by John Carter says more generally that roughly speaking it's the first appearance of the work in question, independently, between its own covers. But this word, like many others can have an infinite amount of subtleties collectors will consider. The appeal of the first edition, though difficult to explain to anyone not a book collector, may be seen in one way as this; "it's the closest to the time the author wrote it and it was fully processed and the least likely to have been censored by publishers afterwards." While later editions can expand and correct typos, through many iterations, words, sections, pages and even chapters can be overlooked by publishers who wish to censor more egregious passages.


So what is a true first edition?

Is there even such a thing as a false first edition? It's not a short answer explanation, but I'll do my best. There are 1st US editions, 1st English Editions, and the list goes on for each issue published in a country for the first time. A 1st English Edition Charles Dickens' story will be more valuable than a 1st US edition of the same book, because the Charles Dickens' is English and his first work would have appeared in England before the US. But bare in mind before they were books, Charles Dickens wrote many of his famous pieces in serials. So is the 1st edition the book or the magazine the serial made it's original in? You might call the book a 1st Separate Edition. The first time it's seen between covers of its own, and not published along with other serials or materials.

Then of course, there are 1st editions, 1st printings. When a story first comes out, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone for example, a wise publisher will only print a limited number. After all, they have no guarantee of a books success really until it hits the shelves. Why print 1 million of a book you don't know will sell?  If that sells out well they'll move on to a 1st edition, 2nd printing, 3rd printing, and so forth. But each time they'll likely print a bit more - and more books being in circulation, the price devalues. So a 1st English Edition Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 1st printing can fetch well over $20,000 while a later printing of the same may go for a hundred, or even significantly less.


Summing up

To concisely put it, a first edition has its appeal in being closest to the author's original intent and in being, generally, fewer in quantity than its successors. A first edition published in the language and country of its author is more valuable than an overseas version even if they're published at about the same time. There are exceptions in this rule, but we shan't get to them today. A 1st edition, 1st printing will be work more than it's successors as well.


How do we tell if a book is a first edition? It's not as easy as it simply saying "1st Edition" though that can help. We'll disucss all in a subsequent post.

Inverness Castle, Scotland (Stock Image). This beautiful historic castle is distinguished by being next to the ugliest building in the city.

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