Collecting Rare Modern Literature and Identifying First Editions, By Pom Harrington

Collecting rare books might feel like something of an intimidating project – how does one decide which books are worth buying and which are to be passed
over to wait for a better copy?

In terms of modern literature, the number of books which are published in any given year that become collectable represent a tiny percentage. To achieve this status, they must:

  • be by collectable authors
  • be first editions
  • be first impressions

Of those first editions, or first issues or first states of those impressions. This begs the question: how does one determine what is a first edition, first impression and first issue?  It’s certainly not a new problem – a book published in 1928 called “First Editions of To-Day and How to Tell Them” by H.S. Boutell declares that, “the collector of ‘modern firsts’ buys his books nowadays immediately on publication, wherever possible.”

Boutell canvassed all the publishers he could write to and asked how they determined or signified first editions within their books. As you might imagine, he received a wide range and variety of responses, some plain rude, some obfuscation but some quite helpful.

For your own collecting intentions, it would be perhaps worthwhile to go through some basics in terms of English and American first editions and how one tells them apart.

Transatlantic Differences

As a general rule, it’s fair to say that in English publications they will tell you when they are not first editions; in American publications they will generally tell you somewhere in the book that they are first editions.

For example, the first edition of Brighton Rock, published in 1938, bears this state- ment on the title page: “First published in 1938”; the second impression, which has a dust jacket, tells you straight- forwardly, “Reprinted in September 1938”.

That will be absolutely standard for the vast majority of English publications – a first impression in fine condition would be worth tens of thousands, but because it’s a second impression it’s not worth £1,000.

In America in the 1930s, Scribners, the publishers of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, started to employ the use of a capital A at the back of the title page to designate that it was a first printing.

The use of the capital A is unique to Scribnersm but if it’s an American publication then generally speaking there will be something in the book to tell you it’s a first edition.

The Number Line

A later innovation – started in the mid-1960s and now the most commonly used designation of printing and impression – is the ‘number line’ , which collectors will be familiar with. A good example of where this kind of delineation is applied would be the Harry Potter books, mostly because they were printed very quickly due to selling so well.

The first, second and third impressions all look very similar. So, how to tell which impression the copy in your hands actually is? This is where the number line becomes important. The lowest number in the number line represents the impression or printing that you’re handling. For instance, if your copy has “20 19 18 17”, it’s a less valuable seventeenth printing, whereas if the copy reads “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1”, it is the first printing.

There are very few exceptions to that rule, although I believe that Random House in America used to use a number line down to 2, above which they had the words “first American edition”; they would knock that leg- end down and keep the 2, but it’s very unusual.

Early issues of The Prisoner of Azkiban also contain copyrights given to “Joanne Rowling”. When she objected to this, the publishers changed it to “J.K Rowling”. As you might imagine, those earlier are far more collectable.

The rest of this editorial will be published at a later date.