First Edition Identification

by Craig Stark

15 April 2013

When All Else Fails, Look at the Publisher's History

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Recently, I acquired a book by an author who was a household name in the early part of the 20th century but has long since been forgotten - James Oliver Curwood. Curwood was not only prolific, penning some 26 books in 19 years; he was also popular. One novel in particular, The River's End, sold over 100,000 copies, and according to Publishers' Weekly, it finished fourth overall on the 1920 bestseller list. Seven other Curwood titles also spent time on the weekly PW lists. A partial entry from Kunitz & Haycraft's Twentieth Century Authors:

Critics were largely unimpressed with Curwood's output, often the fate of popular writers. One New York Times critic put it this way: "Mr. Curwood's many admirers will be charmed with it [Green Timber], and the cynics will note again its well worn plot, its group of saintly and uninteresting characters, and the Curwoodian conclusion of eternal happiness to all good people and death and damnation to all the bad 'uns." Something of a hack, he certainly was, but given that his books were typically set in "God's Country" and spun some species of adventurous tale - and were accompanied with colorful dust jacket art and frontispieces - there is at least some collector interest, and early examples are probably worth investigating for edition state. If a dust jacket is present, it will enhance values considerably, first edition or not.

There was no dust jacket with my copy of Curwood's Kazan - apparently one of his most popular and recognizable titles. However, when I first looked at the undated title page, I didn't recognize the publisher, and in fact I couldn't locate it in any of my references, nor could I find any McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie copies online. Was it perhaps an obscure First Edition published prior to the numerous Bobbs-Merrill and Grosset & Dunlap copies that were listed? Oh - and the statement "Copyright 1914 | Cosmopolitan Book Corporation" on the copyright page didn't clarify anything, other than to suggest a possible link to the William Randolph Hearst magazine of the same name. More about that later.

I was operating at a disadvantage here because, as so often happens to us booksellers, there was no relevant author bibliography to consult. If there is a Curwood bibliography, I couldn't find it. Most multi-author bibliographies (such as BAL) focus on "important" writers, and the growth of single-author bibliographies didn't really get any traction until the mid-twentieth century. But even then it was and remains a haphazard thing, primarily because the production of a bibliography is a major, often years-long project that promises little return other than sincere gratitude from a small group of booksellers and collectors. I think they call these labors of love.

Anyway, my approach to first edition identification, as I have mentioned several times in other articles, is not to attempt to identify a book in hand as a first edition but to attempt to establish that it is not one. This approach is usually more efficient and far less likely to produce a false conclusion. So, in the absence of a bibliography, I set out to do just that. My first stop was the Library of Congress to search for a control copy. More often than not, this will return a First Edition, and there may be some issue points in the catalog description that will assist you.

In this case, what this search coughed up were copies issued by two different publishers - The Bobbs-Merrill Co. and Grosset & Dunlap, both with undated title pages but possessing 1914 copyright dates. There was no McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie copy in sight. Now, if you know your reprint publishers, you might assume that the Grosset & Dunlap copy was a reprint, given their somewhat notorious and predatory publishing history, but you may also know that they issued more than a few First Editions, so at this point, it's really too soon to say what's going on.

Of course, many booksellers bypass the LOC step and head right to Google or perhaps a book venue to search for similar copies. There is always a chance that another bookseller has listed a First Edition and may have supplied issue points. This approach, of course, is fraught with peril unless you recognize the bookseller as somebody who knows their stuff. Books misrepresented as First Editions abound in the catalogs of all major bookselling venues. On Abebooks, this search returned 2 Bobbs-Merrill copies, 17 Grosset & Dunlap and no McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie copies. Of these 19 offerings, only one (I am happy to report, actually) mentioned "First Edition," and even this listing hedged on it: "First Edition assumed (not stated and no date on title page, but this publisher [Bobbs-Merrill] does not always so indicate first editions)."

At this point, I suspect some booksellers would give up and list the book as a probable reprint, but I would suggest taking it at least one step further. In this case, there are two possible steps. One, since it seems more likely that the Bobbs-Merrill copies are First Editions, and, since Bobbs-Merrill sometimes indicated their First Editions with a bow and arrow at the bottom of the copyright page during this period (cf. Zempel & Verkler), it might be useful to email the two sellers and ask about the copyright page - though most Bobbs-Merrill First Editions I've seen lack this logo, and this would not likely be productive, assuming you could get a reply at all. A better approach might be to look at the publishers' histories, either dedicated histories (of which there are many from many periods) or other reference books or resources.

In this case a second trip to my reference library produced a one-page history of the other publisher indicated in my book - Cosmopolitan Book Corporation. And lo and behold, look at this from American Literary Publishing Houses, 1900-1980:

"In April 1919 Harold J. Kinsey, formerly sales manager for Doubleday, became manager of Hearst's International Library Company. Later that year the name of the firm was changed to Cosmopolitan Book Corporation. Peter B. Kyne, a well-known author of adventure stories, and James Oliver Curwood, a popular author of wilderness tales, had many works published by Cosmopolitan."

So, we have our answer. Since Cosmopolitan Book Corporation published its Curwood titles ca. 1919 or later and there are ca. 1914 copies of Kazan by two other publishers, we've eliminated the possibility of this copy being a First Edition.

But suppose I'd had a Bobbs-Merrill or Grosset & Dunlap copy instead? Further investigation would be necessary. And this time a publisher history saves the day again. In "The Origins and History of the Bobbs- Merrill Company: Occasional Papers Number 172" available from the University of Illinois Library, we find this (italics are mine):

"As a publisher of the popular book, the firm was foremost in the discovery of new talent. Among its big sellers were first books by once popular authors such as Charles Major, Gene Stratton Porter, Meredith Nicholson, Mary Roberts Rinehart, James Oliver Curwood, Richard Halliburton, Julia Peterkin, Earl Derr Biggers, Pietro di Donato, and Inglis Fletcher."

This confirms to my satisfaction that Bobbs-Merrill, not Grosset & Dunlap, issued the First Edition of Kazan.

Our bookselling work is done at this point, but there is still one small mystery - McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie. Who the heck were they? And why is their imprint on the title page of the Cosmopolitan Book Corporation copy? Look at this from Wikipedia (again, italics mine): "Around 1914 the subscription firm McKinlay, Stone, Mackenzie was authorized to publish an 'edition' using the Macmillan binding decorations." Though this refers to a Francis Marion Crawford book, it's apparent that McKinlay, Stone, Mackenzie was in the business of producing reprints and most likely Cosmopolitan Book Corporation acquired their plates and used them with a small alteration to the copyright page. And finally, lest we harbor any doubt that McKinlay, Stone, Mackenzie's credentials were distinctly on the low-ish side, we have this ad from a ca. 1921 Popular Science that all but trashes them:

Next time you're stumped with first edition identification, try this approach, and you might just nail it.

EDITOR'S NOTE: There are many books you can add to your reference library that will be useful for this kind of investigation. Here is the one mentioned above:

Note that ex-library copies can often be acquired cheaply. I also recommend the following from the same Gale series:

There are also similar Gale references for British Publishing houses.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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