The Science Fiction Book Club (or SFBC) began publishing in 1953. The SFBC is primarily a reprint press, and as a rule the books are not considered collectible except by completists of a particular author. They do make great reading copies since they are often available used and in good condition for less than the cost of new paperbacks and are much more durable. Since SFBC books were never intended for the collector market, they don't carry a statement of printing on the copyright page. Many sellers, however, cite particular gutter codes as evidence that their copies are first SFBC printings.
The general understanding is that the alphanumeric code - for example, "H06" - usually printed on or near the last text page, designates the year (by letter) and the week of the year (by number) when the text was printed. While there is evidence to support this general rule, there are also several apparently contradictory examples and no clear statement from the SFBC about it. L.W. Currey, a leading authority in science fiction and fantasy bibliography, documents numerous examples of first hardback as well as true first editions from the SFBC (Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors - a Bibliography of First Printings of Their Fiction: G.K. Hall & Company, 1979; also, Revised Edition: RB Publishing, 2002. CD ROM). In instances where different copies of a title show different codes, Currey specifies which represents the preferred state.
There exists a handful of SFBC books which are either the true first edition or, alternatively, the first hardback edition, which makes them of more interest to the collector, but in almost all of these cases there is a subsequent trade HB edition which takes precedence for collectors. One exception to this C.J. Cherryh's Hunter of Worlds, which I understand preceded the original paperback edition and has had no subsequent trade HB printing. Another exception: many (most? all?) of the Best of ... collections. The 1977 SFBC edition of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane (code "H21" on page 403) is the true first edition, released prior to the Holt Rinehart Winston 1977 trade hardback, when the latter was delayed due to dust jacket production problems.
In a smaller number of cases - for example, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash - the first trade HB edition is so astronomically priced that it drags the value of the book club edition up with it. The SFBC is also well known for printing original omnibus editions in which multiple titles by an author are released in one volume. Well-known examples are Asimov's Foundation trilogy (first released in 1963, Currey speculates that an "E--" gutter code should exist but otherwise gives precedence first to no code, next to "19G" on page 221); James Blish's Cities in Flight (first released in 1973, Currey gives precedence to "03O" on page 595); and Zelazny's The Amber Chronicles, Vols 1 and 2 (released 1978, possibly code "I51" on page 337/433). In more recent years, the SFBC has started releasing original posters and other memorabilia related to their original omnibus and other reprint editions. These memorabilia might be of particular interest to collectors.
Research indicates that the SFBC stopped using gutter codes in or around 1988 and that it can be difficult or impossible to differentiate multiple print runs of a given title after that time. Harlan Ellison makes a point of acquiring examples of each state of all of his titles and once made an appeal to his readers regarding the SFBC printing of I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay. He had a copy of the January, 1995, first printing and asked his readers for a copy received directly from the SFBC after November, 1995, the date of the second printing of this title. Gutter codes were no longer in use by this time, so only a direct side-by-side comparison between known examples of the first and second printing could determine if there was a way to differentiate the two - for example, a text correction, change to the dustjacket, etc. It isn't known whether a copy was ever found or if any differences were documented.
"In researching this article, I have not been able to find any codification of the SFBC gutter code rules in any of my reference books, nor did searches of or inquiries to two newsgroups (rec.collecting.books and rec.arts.sf.written) reveal an answer. Barry R. Levin at http://www.raresf.com/bnotes.html has a partial summary of some of the SFBC codes. I next examined several hundred listings for SFBC titles listed online, as well as citations in Currey. While the broad outline of the gutter code rules are straightforward, the use of the codes during the transition years of 1971 through 1978 could benefit from additional research.
Following is a summary of my findings.
SFBC titles printed in 1959 are distinguished by an "A" code, and this 1st sequence continues through to "T" in 1978. There is no evidence of "U" through "Z" codes being used from 1979 through 1985. No doubt to make things difficult for bibliographers and collectors, the letter code was restarted, most likely in 1970, with the letter "A" (although I haven't found any examples), but certainly by 1971 the "B" code was being used. The use of the 1st and 2nd code sequences overlapped from 1970/1971 though 1978, with the 2nd sequence apparently used exclusively from 1979 (J) onwards. The use of gutter codes was apparently discontinued by 1988. The overlap period of 1970-1971 through 1978 shows a progression from primary use of the 1st sequence codes in 1971 and 1972 to primary use of the 2nd sequence codes in 1977 and 1978. 1973 shows example of both "O" and "P" codes, while I found no 1st sequence examples from 1974. 1974 showed use of the "E" code and, interestingly, no code, perhaps indicating a transition period (of a few weeks or months) where use of the gutter codes was suspended entirely. 1st sequence examples from 1975 do not show the expected "Q" code; instead there are examples with "-R" - that is, with a numeric prefix followed by the "R" suffix. 1st sequence examples from 1976 returns to the expected "R" prefix followed by a numeric suffix. It's possible that the SFBC decided to skip the use of the "Q" code in 1975, substituting the "-R" code instead. Finally, note the anomalous use of the "PO" code in the 2nd sequence for 1985 in place of "P".
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