Close this window to return to BookThink

Introducing the First Edition Column
The Da Vinci Code and Other Matters

by Thomas Lee

#103, 10 September 2007

Millions of Americans collect first editions. These collectors find their books in almost as many places as there are collectors, and for many, the hunt is every bit as satisfying as actually the having the books. Hidden rare books show up at yard sales, book shows, on the Internet, and even in bookstores. Every serious collector has stories about how that "rare find" was bought for next to nothing. It's what makes collecting so much fun. When asked what mattered most about buying books, collectors invariably list the following (in order of importance): being certain a book is a true first edition, condition, and price. It's interesting that the price is not paramount. As a matter of fact, my experience as a rare book dealer since 1984 is that price is often not much of an obstacle when collectors find books they want.

The biggest source of confusion for new book collectors is the question of first edition identification. In book collecting, the term "first edition points" refers to those details present in any given book that confirm it's a true first edition. But not everybody agrees on what a first edition is. To a publisher, a first edition is a first edition until its contents are changed - no matter how many printings have been produced. To a collector, on the other hand, only a first printing is accepted as a first edition. The challenge for first edition collectors, therefore, is to build up a personal body of knowledge that enables them to accurately identify edition states of the books they are looking for. With few exceptions, publishers have little or no interest in clarifying the identification process.

By far the most common question dealers hear from collectors is, "How do I know that this book is a true first edition?" This is exactly why most serious dealers have reference libraries. Understanding that the average collector couldn't possibly afford to assemble a similar set of reference books, the Book Emporium decided, in 1994, to produce a small booklet that put into writing first edition points for roughly 500 of the today's most popular fiction titles (based on its own book sales). These booklets - 500 of them - were given to Book Emporium customers as a holiday gift. In return, we asked that, where inaccuracies were suspected, customers let us know so we could further research questionable points. Collectors are not always aware of it (dealers are), but very often serious collectors know more about certain authors than dealers do. We have a couple of Stephen King collectors who know just about every imaginable detail about King's books. The exercise was so successful that requests for more of these booklets began to be received. At that point we decided to produce an expanded version of the booklet and offer it for sale. Our first commercial edition came out in 1996. Since that time we have produced 7 additional editions, with the most current edition - the 2008 edition - being published just last month.

We titled our book 20th Century First Edition Fiction: A Price and Identification Guide. Although it is commonly referred to as a price guide, it's more accurately described as a guide to first edition identification. Prices are included, but we (as should collectors) realize that prices vary considerably. The guide contains a substantial body of identification knowledge assembled by several experienced book dealers over a period of over 10 years.

As an example of the kind of information found in the guide, consider the entry for Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code:

"DOUBLEDAY/New York London Toronto Sydney Auckland" on the title page. No date on the title page. Copyright page - 14th, 15th, and 16th (of 16) lines - "April 2003/First Edition/10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1." DJ price - "U.S. $24.95/CANADA $37.95". Rear DJ panel has five reviews - by Nelson DeMille, Clive Cussler, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, and Vince Flynn (from top to bottom). Quarter bound - black spine with black boards. The first printing has spelling mistakes on page 152 (on lines 11, 12, 24, and 25 "Lyon" is incorrectly listed - this is later corrected to "Lille") and on page 243 (on line 25 "skitoma" is listed, later corrected to "scotoma"). The true first edition measures 9 1/2" by 6 1/4" by 1 3/8". There is a book club edition that appears to be a first - that is, it has all of the first edition points, including the misspellings, but is not a first. The book club edition measures 8 1/2" by 5 3/4" by 1 3/8". Note: Several reputable dealers report seeing a 2nd state, first printing with "scotoma" on page 243.

The book club edition has fooled many collectors. Here the significant first edition point is the physical size of the book, not the misspellings. I know of more than one collector who has paid way too much for the book club edition (a $5 book), thinking that they had just gotten a deal on a $200 book.

When you have the opportunity to pick up a book, examine it yourself for issue points, there is no problem making an accurate identification - that is, as long as you know what the relevant points are. However, with so many sales being conducted on the internet now, it is becoming more and more difficult to be assured that you are, in fact, buying a true first edition. This is especially true on auction sites, where so often sellers don't know how to identify first editions. In an attempt to address this problem, an unwritten etiquette has developed among reputable booksellers. Dealers will always mention first edition points with statements such as, "First edition stated on copyright page," or "number line to 1" or, in the case of the The Da Vinci Code, "book size 9 1/4 by 6 1/4 by 1 3/8." These statements give the buyer some assurance that the seller knows what he's doing. Where possible, dealers will also include good quality photos of the important first edition points.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2007 by BookThink LLC