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By: Tom Banks
How do you know if a book is a first edition? Since criteria for indicating a first edition varies from publisher to publisher, there’s no easy answer. To complicate matters, some publishers do not identify their first editions at all, or have used varying methods over the years. That said, there are some general guidelines one can rely upon to identify many first editions. If you find yourself purchasing a certain publisher’s books very often, you would do well to familiarise yourself with the methods that publisher uses to identify its first editions. There are many ways that publishers identify their books as a first edition. Some common ones are: “First Edition,” “First Printing,” “First Published,” “Published,” or “First Impression” appears on the copyright page.

A number line such as 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1, or something similar. The date on the title page is the same as the date on the copyright page. There is no designation for a first printing, but later printings are noted on the copyright page. Number lines have been commonly used in the post-World War II era. The line commonly is a series of numbers (ex: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 or 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2. Occasionally a letter line is used (ex: a b c d e). Generally speaking, if the “1? is present, the book is a first edition (first edition, first printing). For the second printing, the “1? is removed, so the “2? is the lowest number present. For example, a number line that reads 5 6 7 8 9 indicates a fifth printing. Occasionally a number line will be accompanied by a date line. Example: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 80 81 82 83 84 indicates a third printing, published in 1980. Confusion enters the situation when one encounters both a “First Edition” designation and a number line. For example, the copyright page may read “First Edition” and be accompanied by the number line 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2. In this case, one of two situations may apply: The book is a first edition. The “First Edition” line will be deleted by the publisher for the second printing, leaving the line beginning with “2.” or the book is a second printing. The publisher neglected to remove the “First Edition” designation, by policy or by error. In these two situations it is best to consult a guide to first editions, or a bibliography.

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