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A Guide to Understanding
Number Lines in Books

It's Not As Simple as You Might Think

Questions and Answers

by Craig Stark

#91, 26 March 2007


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

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

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


  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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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