The Good News
Believe it or not, there is some good news here. In the first place, if you threw a brick through the window of almost any used bookstore, more often than not you'd hit a first edition. Many, many books never merited the publication of a second edition; in fact, many exist only in a first printing state. This isn't always because they're bad. Sometimes books are ahead of their time, difficult to comprehend, have narrow market appeal, or, for one reason or another, simply don't haul readers in. If a book is really, really bad, however, edition state couldn't matter less. Nobody wants it, even if it's 100 years old. Usually.
Right off the top, of course, this eliminates well over half of the book population from our problem table. This is very good news. There's more. In recent years most publishers have moved closer to adopting a universal method of indicating edition state. For example, many now use number or letter strings on the copyright page to indicate first and later printings. Yes, variants still exist, and occasionally detailed bibliographies are necessary to identify them, but the majority of modern books can be readily ID'd using a guide like the one appearing on this website.
More good news. Book club editions can usually (though not always) be identified at a glance as long as one is familiar with a handful of commonly used designations. Huge numbers of BCE's exist, especially in more recent fiction, and if they can be eliminated from consideration for first edition status, we've effectively disposed of another large group of books. The primer on BCE identification that follows this article will discuss these designations in detail.
Two final pieces of good news: as a rule, edition state isn't an issue with non-fiction. More often than not, if non-fiction has value, it's mostly if not entirely based on content. In many cases edition state isn't an issue with fiction either, including fiction that exists in more than one printing state. Why? Well, if fiction isn't collectible - and an awful lot of it isn't - nobody cares.
So, what does all of this good news add up to? It means that most of our identification work will focus chiefly on a relatively small segment of the market - collectible fiction. If nothing else, this at least gives us something that seems manageable.
So far, so good.
The Bad News
There's bad news too, naturally, and sometimes it's very, very bad. 19th century publishers were notorious for practices which almost defy our attempts to determine edition state (and some 20th century publishers aren't much better). Binding material was sometimes changed in the middle of print runs. Red and blue examples of the same book, for example, might well both be first printings; moreover, it's not always possible to determine which color or material was used first. Infinitely worse, first printing elements of the text were often mixed with later printing elements, putting the resulting book in a state of edition limbo. How inconvenient.
Reprint publishers often muddied the water too, especially if they purchased existing stock from the original publisher either as printed sheets or, worse, bound volumes, sometimes with dust jackets. In the case of purchasing previously bound volumes, editions distributed from each publisher are utterly identical, and unless an identifying mark was added by the reprint publisher, only carefully documented provenance or the unlikely presence of a laid-in slip can ever hope to establish origin.
Even in cases of differing binding material, unless one possesses correct bibliographic information, it's all too easy to mistake a reprint for a first edition. Numerous instances also exist of reprint publishers purchasing and using original plates, and again there may be no obvious indication in the final product that a second publisher was involved.
Book club editions, alas, can pose problems too. The words "First Edition" may well appear on the copyright page, for example. Other markings may mislead us as well, but we'll do our best to clear this up in the following article.
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