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A Guide to Understanding
Number Lines in Books

It's Not As Simple as You Might Think

by Craig Stark

#91, 26 March 2007

First edition identification can be a complex and sometimes maddening task, but there's no question that books published in recent years are easier to nail down than those 50, 100 or more years old, largely due to the introduction some decades ago of the so-called number line. The assumption is that number lines (also called printer's codes or keys) designate precise printing states and thus aid significantly in first edition identification.

Example:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

If it begins with a '1,' it's likely a first printing.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

A second printing, and so on.

Here are some common variations:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

Sometimes letters are used in place of numbers:

A B C D E F G H I J

And sometimes lines include two sets of numbers, one referring to printing years, one to printings, but it's all pretty straightforward, right? Something we can at least figure out? Ok, if you think you know your number lines, let's take a test to see just how good you are. Write down the printing state of each of the following (by the way, this is not an open book test):

  1. (Preceded by statement "First Edition.") 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 (Random House)

  2. G6E4C (Orchises Press)

  3. ABCDEFGHIJK 7987 (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.)

  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 (Arte Publico Press)

  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 R 78 77 76 75 (Children's Press)

  6. 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1 (Scholastic Press)

  7. 00 01 02 03 04 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 (Osprey)

  8. 1 2 4 6 8 A 9 7 5 3 0 (Random House)

  9. 12 14 16 18 20 19 17 15 13 11 (Rodale Press)

  10. 76 2M 12735 (Brigham Young University Press)

Answers:

  1. First printing. This one should be easy for experienced booksellers. For many years, Random House was the only publisher to designate first printings with a number line beginning with a '2.' However, the statement "First Edition" or "First Printing" or something similar must appear above the number line for it to actually be a first printing. If it doesn't and the number line begins with a '2' or more, it's a second or later printing all day long. [EDITOR'S NOTE: There may also be instances when the number line begins with a '1' and is a much later printing. See explanation in #8 below.] However, in response to complaints from collectors, Random House has, in recent years, begun the practice of using the same "First, etc." statement followed by a number line beginning with a '1.' Fortunately, the statement is still removed on the second printing, so the RH principle is intact (with exceptions noted in #8): If the number line begins with a '2' and has no "First, etc." statement immediately above it, it's a second printing.

  2. Third printing. This requires some puzzling out. Remember those SAT or ACT questions that required you to supply additional numbers or letters to the end of a sequence? Well, think in those terms here - for that matter, use this approach when faced with any number-line puzzle. Here, there are alternating letters and numbers in the code, stepping down by twos. The full sequence would then become G6E4C2A - i.e., a first printing. Since the 'C' is showing last in the example, it's a third printing.

  3. First printing. At first glance, given that the letter sequence begins with an 'A,' this looks like a no-brainer, but what gives one pause is the number line '7987' that follows the letter line - which doesn't really look sequential at all. This is a publisher-specific quirk. The first '7' designates the decade of printing (1970s), and the specific years follow. This book was printed, therefore, in 1977.

  4. Second printing. Though the initial number line begins with '1,' here again there's publisher idiosyncrasy in play. The first sequence of numbers designates the printing year, the second sequence the actual printing.

  5. Reprint. Looks like another no-brainer at first glance, but what's that pesky 'R' sandwiched between the two number groups? In this case, sadly, 'R' means reprint. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Inserted letters may also mean other things. See further explanation below.]

  6. Third printing. If you got this one right, you're either an unusually knowledgeable bookseller or a savvy Philip Pullman collector. There's an infamous printer's error on third printings of Pullman's The Subtle Knife in which the '2' was dropped but the '1' inexplicably added back in. I didn't include this as a trick question but rather to illustrate that printing errors occur with some frequency - and of course this can confuse the heck out of us.

  7. Second printing. Double digit (sometimes 4-digit) number sequences, in my experience, always refer to printing years, not printings, though I'll leave the door open for exceptions. The first sequence of numbers indicates that the book was printed in 2000, the second that it was a second printing. Also, if there are two sequences of numbers in a number line, the printing year sequence usually - but not always - precedes the printing sequence.

  8. Eleventh printing. Another adorable Random House quirk. In this case the initial printings 1-10 were exhausted and a new number line was inserted to take up the 11th and subsequent printings. Of course, instead of making it easy for us and starting the new sequence with '11,' an 'A' is inserted in the middle or sometimes at the beginning of the line which now begins with a 1! - to indicate that a second grouping of ten printings has arrived. When this sequence is exhausted - and it sometimes is - a 'B' is inserted and so on. Not surprisingly, there are many Random House 11th printings erroneously presented as first editions.

  9. Eleventh printing. Sure, this makes sense, but I included this example because it's strangely dissimilar to what we typically encounter. Few publishers plunge as deeply into multiple printings as Rodale Press does, and it's common for their titles to exceed 10 printings. Like the Random House example above, this is a case of the first number sequence being exhausted and a second being introduced with '11' - which is what we would've preferred that Random House had done!

  10. First printing. Ok, this actually was a trick question. This is a printer's code used by a small press that rarely progresses to later printings. I included it to illustrate that some things that look like number lines aren't necessarily. This is decoded as follows: The printing year is 1976, the print run 2,000 copies ('M,' in this case, is the Roman Numeral for 1,000), and the job number - which means nothing to us - is 12735.

Using Number Lines in First Edition Identification

Many of us have seen this bold statement more than once: If a number line begins with a '1' (or 'A'), you have a first edition. While this may be so in a majority of cases, there are so many exceptions to it that assuming this can get you into trouble in a hurry. There are publishers, for example, who designate first printings with both a number line beginning with '1' and, say, a "First Published in ... " or similar statement and, when issuing a second printing, drop the statement and retain the number line beginning with '1.' Others may retain the statement and drop the '1.' In some cases, both are retained! In yet other cases, some or all of us this deception may be included in a subsequent book club edition.

And there are more variations as well. Consider the New American Library. The following NAL number lines all begin with '1' but refer to totally different animals, only one of which is a first edition:

First Printing, [Date]

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

First Printing, Revised Edition, [Date]

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

First (current imprint) Printing, [Date]

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

If you think this is a pain, consider the POD or print-on-demand book that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Obviously, if a publisher prints only one book at a time, only the very first book printed is the true first edition. All others are also-rans - and not so designated!

And then there is the messy situation of various states of the first printing (referring to changes made during the first press run) or variant issues of the first printing (referring to changes made to some copies after the first printing is completed, such as laid-in errata sheets). In these cases, a number line is powerless to assist.

Generally, it's safest to think in terms of number lines being starting points in the process of first edition identification, not definitive designations, though in many cases they can be. Recall that first edition identification is a process of assuming that what you have in hand isn't a first edition until all other alternatives are exhausted.

For a detailed discussion of edition state terminology, see this: http://www.bookthink.com/0003/03beid.htm

Right Justified, Left Justified and Centered

For those curious, the reason number lines vary in format and/or position on the copyright page, sometimes beginning with '1' and right justified, sometimes a '10' and left justified, and sometimes split into two numerically converging lines and centered (and these aren't all the possibilities) has much to do with publisher's preferences. The idea is to make it easy on printers - and forestall errors - in that it's easier to remove something than it is to change or insert something.

This right justified (or flushed) number line, for example ...

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

... becomes ...

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

... on the second printing simply by removing the '1.' All other numbers retain their original position on the page, and no other changes are required.

Similarly, a centered number line ...

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2 0

... is adjusted from either end, depending.

And there's always somebody (in this case ABC-Clio, no doubt inspired by Random House) who has to make it more difficult:

99 98 97 96 95 5 4 3 2 1

Miscellaneous Codes

Booksellers are often puzzled by number lines which contain extraneous symbols, usually in the form of letters. In most cases these letters reference the manufacturer or printer of the book - as opposed to the publisher. 'RDD' appearing anywhere in a number line, for example, is an acronym for R.R. Donnelley & Sons, a venerable Chicago-based printer responsible for the highly collectible Lakeside Press series, which appears on all HarperCollins books from 1994 forward.

The reason for including these codes is purely practical: If a publisher uses more than one printer for a given title, it's a simple task to assign credit for returns to the appropriate manufacturer.

Another possibility: If you see a 'C' or 'P' somewhere, especially if enclosed in parenthesis, these likely refer, respectively, to case bound (hardcover) and perfect bound (softcover) editions. And of course there will be always be letters that defy any immediate explanation. A rule of thumb: Added code letters are usually irrelevant for purposes of determining printing state, though the Children's Press 'R' (reprint) and Random House 'A' examples cited above are notable exceptions.

Sometimes the inserted symbol is itself a number:

12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 1 1 2 3 4 5 6

In this case (Scholastic), the additional '1' at the beginning of the second number line indicates the first printing state only. After the first printing, this number is deleted, along with the '1' next to it:

12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1      2 3 4 5 6

If you're getting the impression that publishers and printers could care less about the problems we booksellers face in determining edition state, I've done my job. In almost all cases the system is what it is because it's convenient for them, not us. Even in cases where publishers seem responsive to our needs, they often ultimately aren't - for example, it would have been better if Random House had left well enough alone and not changed its system. Now we have to remember two things!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
editor@bookthink.com

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