First Edition Boot Camp

by Craig Stark

#3, 6 October 2003

Okay, you knew you could only put this off for so long. When you first starting selling (or collecting) books, it didn't seem to matter much, and maybe it didn't matter at all if you bought or sold books primarily for content - the ideas, information, entertainment, etc., contained between their covers. Many beginners live on this low-dollar diet. More experienced sellers sometimes do as well, especially those who specialize in non-fiction and sell in venues where the listing process is efficient, but if you've focused at all on growing your business, chances are you've evolved well beyond this.

A year, maybe three or four years ago, you might have been content to buy a book for $1 and resell it for $3. Today that same contentment may come only at a higher price - maybe $25. Or $50. Isn't it funny how, when prices rise, things that weren't important before now become crucial? Yes, content still matters, but suddenly condition begins to matter as well, sometimes hugely, and so do things like, gulp, edition state. What seemed simple before no longer is.

Sooner or later, all amateurs who decide to turn pro need to face and ultimately answer the question, what is a first edition? Prefer to pass? Well, this isn't Monopoly. Dice can't be rolled; difficult areas can't be hopped over; it's combat. Things must be met face to face on the ground they're on. Fought. Marched through. For those who refuse to do this, a price will be paid, and in some cases, especially if you're entertaining the idea of becoming a professional bookseller or building an outstanding collection, it could be dear.

Welcome to first edition boot camp.

Before we shave your heads, we need to "unzip" what in fact is a compressed question, consisting of two parts. First, what do we mean by the term "first edition," and second, how do we determine if a particular book is a first edition? The first part is at least answerable on the basis of consensus, on how most of us use the term, which of course is the same standard dictionaries use. No problem here. The second part is often answerable in particular if not general terms but still, sometimes not answerable at all, and if you're going to crazy in this business, this is the most likely place for it to happen.

In this article we'll answer the first part of the question, then discuss why it needs to be asked in the first place. In the second article, recognizing that the second part cannot be answered completely or definitively, we'll attempt to at least simplify things, present universal principles to the extent that they apply, and point you in the right direction for more specific information.

Answer To Part I

What do we mean by the term "first edition?" First, it depends on who you ask. Ask a printer (or publisher), and "first edition" applies to those books that were printed using a single, mostly unchanged setting of type, sometimes through multiple print runs. By this definition, books printed years apart or in different bindings would technically fall under the umbrella of "first edition" as long as the original (largely unaltered) plates were used to print them. Only when the plates are replaced or changed by a significant percentage does the resulting book become a second edition.

If we could stop here, life would be simple. Distinguishing a first edition from a second edition, in printer's terms, isn't always straightforward, but it usually is because there are clearly observable changes made between editions and accompanying evidence to establish which changes were made and when. Problems begin, however, when we ask a collector (or bookseller) the same question. The forest that at first glance appeared to consist of a single, uniformly-green species of tree becomes on closer examination an arborist's variegated nightmare of endless families, sub-families, genera, sub-genera, and sub-species - that is, the bibliographic terms "printing," "issue," "state," "variant," etc., come into play, sometimes rear their monstrous heads. The game gets dirty.

For a book to be a first edition for a collector, it may not be enough that it was printed with the first set of plates. It may also need to be the first printing from the first set of plates. Worse, if the collector is fussy (and some would say that fussiness defines the collector), it must not only be the first printing from the first set of plates but also the first state (or issue) of the first printing. In other words, if a single letter of type loosened at some point during the first print run and was corrected only after a number of sheets were printed, only those sheets printed with the loosened letter (which no doubt would've produced a faint impression) and later bound into books would constitute the "true" first edition. If you consider the implications of this for a moment, it becomes all too clear how difficult the process of identification can be. Things like variant binding cloth, textual corrections, insertion of advertising, and so on can and will wreak havoc on our attempts to identify a "true" first edition.

And - it gets worse. Unfortunately, exceptions to even this horrifically constricted definition exist, some all but defying reason. A book that post-dates the first printing but contains the first appearance of, say, illustrations by a more collectible illustrator than originally illustrated the text will sometimes be referred to, with the full weight of bibliographic scholarship behind it, as the, ahem, first edition.


Why the Question Needs To Be Asked

So, why is any of this important? What difference does it make if a book is or isn't a first edition? Books are written to be read, and as long as their content remains essentially unchanged from edition to edition, shouldn't that be all that matters? Some sellers, even some collectors, think that it most decidedly is enough and cheerfully proceed. eBay, to name one venue, teems with them, and though they might not be getting rich, they're very, very busy, as are the penny-ante dealers at Amazon Marketplace.

But if you're what is typically thought of as a serious collector, no way in hell do you settle for anything that isn't the first breath of life. Collectors are not only fussy by nature but also - let's face it - nuts.

Believe it or not, however, this insanity makes a perverse sort of sense. The chief reason that collectors want the first appearances of the books they love is because this connects them in some sort of intimate manner with the persons who created them and/or the events or context they were created in. In short, by acquiring the first of the first of the first of the first, ad infinitum, the collector gets as close as possible to the life force, or spark, that created it and can, in a once-removed sense, relive or at least bask in the aura of its creative glow, a glow that sometimes backlights the imaginations of future readers for decades to come. And don't we all know that creation shakes hands with eternity? These can be momentous matters.

As silly as this may seem from one point of view, from another it makes perfect sense and also explains the sometimes almost frightening determination of a collector to acquire a piece for a collection. As moths are drawn to light, so are collectors drawn to their light. The very source of it. What devoted collector, for example, of Ernest Hemingway doesn't long to be sipping a rum St. James with the young, then keenly hungry writer sitting at a table in a modest Paris café, cold, wintry rain pelting the windows, writing one true sentence after another in a notebook? This is purity - and light - the stuff dreams are made of. Collectors may be mistaken that they can own it, may in fact be deluding themselves, but this won't stop them from trying.

Hemingway's first collection of stories, In Our Time, can be purchased at Amazon this moment for $8 new. ISBN# 0684822768. Used copies are much less. The book is complete, every word faithfully reproduced from the original. If you fan it open in front of your face, it smells fresh. The cover is glossy and colorful. Crisp. It exudes newness. Reading it, especially if this is your first trip into Hemingway's mind, might be an eye-opening, even life-changing event, and what reader wouldn't be content to start this adventure with this copy of this book? Well, putting aside readers for a moment, a collector wouldn't touch it, and if you bought it to resell - well, good luck.

A Hemingway collector, however, salivates at the very thought of owning one of the 170 Three Mountains Press privately printed copies published in 1924 - or better, one of 300 copies of Three Stories and Ten Poems privately printed by Contact Publishing Co. in 1923, even though it contains only 3 of the 15 stories that appear in the final Boni & Liveright format of 1925. Musty and threadbare would do fine, thank you. Tens of thousands of dollars? Yes, and to some it would be worth that and more to touch a copy Hemingway himself may have touched, however humble its appearance, a copy that was at its very worst intimately contemporaneous of all the magic that 1920's Paris was.

Yes, it makes sense.

Once this is acknowledged, it also makes sense to know how to distinguish $10 copies from $10,000 copies of the same book, assuming that you're serious about selling or collecting books. The first step in acquiring this knowledge is to learn how to talk the talk. Key terms must be defined as precisely as possible because they will lead us to our final destination - a confirmed identification.

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