Carter and Barker provide a precise definition of edition:

An edition comprises all copies of a book printed from the same plates or one setting-up of type. That includes copies printed from electrotype or similar plates made from the setting of type. While the impression or printing involves the full number of copies of that edition printed at one time, i.e. without the type or plates being removed from the press. In 1750 the two terms in effect meant the same thing, as a printer generally distributed his type soon after it had been printed from; and when more copies were required, he then reset it therefore creating a new edition (Carter 87-88).

The reference defines the term edition successfully to search for the original copy of a book printed from the same plate. It enables the collector to seek out a book which has the first plate usage in the printing. However while equipped with this information the book collector requires further evidence for a first edition book and must probe beyond this stage for confirmation.

First Edition
It is common for a book collector to search for a first edition book or the first impression of the book required. Books often contain a number line that displays this print run. The number line is referred to as the printer’s key. It clearly indicates the print run of the book. The first printing of a first edition is of the most collectable value to a collector. As time goes by and it becomes available as a reprint it is possible that it will have changes made to it due to error or deliberate variations. Many original copies vanish through the years. This has occurred with a first edition great rarity called Shakespeare’s First Folio. Michael Alexander reports that a rare edition of the First Folio was sold at auction in the UK. “The book is one of only 220 remaining copies out of the original 750 made in 1623” (Alexander).

It is for this reason that a clear description of edition is of significance. Understanding the meaning is a reliable way for bibliographers, librarians and collectors to preserve a confirmed edition. When the first set-up and plate of the First Edition of a book disappears then it is irreplaceable.

Identifying a First Edition Book
There are many ways to identify a first original printing of a book. The publisher may state the words “first edition” or a “first printing” on a copyright page. This is the page containing all the bibliographical data. A common method for identification used mainly in used in the post-World War II period is by the number lines.

Find the line of numbers on the copyright page. The line sequence is of no importance. The lines will have no discernible order, it depends on the publisher.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 10
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
If there is a number one in the line of sequence this usually indicates that it is a first edition.

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
The number three in the above line reflects it is a Third Printing.

This line below indicates a second printing from 1975:
75 76 77 78 79 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
The above information gives some indicators on how to identify a First Edition book (Richard abebooks).

First impressions of the First Edition
With the increase of mechanisation in the nineteenth century practice moved steadily towards the modern system where type or plates are kept ‘standing’ in case reprints are called for; and the edition, in its strict sense, might therefore be subdivided into a number of different impressions. This may or may not have many changes. This tells us that a tenth impression from the same setting five years after the first would still be part of the first edition. Professor Bowers and others warned about future technology such as the photo-lithographic asking would the same apply in five hundred years’ time (Carter 89).

This is a daunting ordeal for the collector of the first edition particularly in search of a genuine first printed book. The edition in its first-hand state is the attachment a reader likes to have with the author’s original work.

Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th edn. New Castle: Oak Knoll; London: British Library, 2004.
Richard, abebooks. ‘First Editions: How to identify a first edition.’ 24th February 2013.
Michael Alexander, 13 July 2006, ‘Rare edition of Shakespeare’s works stays in Britain after £2.88m purchase.’ 6 March 2013.

Contributed by Mary King.


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