Identifying First Editions

As you start collecting books, you'll need to be able to identify whether or not a book is, not only a first edition but, a first printing.

The term "First Edition" holds different meanings for publishers and for collectors.  Publishers will deem a book a First Edition if no edits have been made to the book from one printing to the next. For this reason, you might see the phrase "First Edition" on the copyright page of a book, even if it is the third or fourth printing. You might also see Book Club Editions list themselves as "First Editions." Later printings, and Book Club Editions are not considered "First Editions" by collectors.

Book collectors only consider the first printing of a book as the First Edition. Many times you will see book sellers and book collectors refer to a book as a 1st/1st. This means it is a first printing of a first edition.  

So how do you tell if it's a first printing of a first edition? 

The Copyright Page

Open any book to the copyright page (like the one shown below). The copyright page is usually located toward the front of the book. Usually on the reverse side of the title page. In some rare instances, it may be located at the very end of the book. 



The copyright page provides a great deal of information regarding the publishing of your book:

  • Publisher name, address
  • Copyright date
  • Library of Congress and ISBN information
  • Edition statement (doesn't always appear)
  • Printing number (usually referred to as the "number line")
  • Printing year (may not be included)
  • Printing location (sometimes identified by a number)



You'll want to note several things on this page:

The Copyright Date:  

In most books the copyright statement will appear at the top of the page. It will use language like, "Copyright © 2001 by [insert name here]." 

Sometimes the copyright notice will state something like, "published in the United Kingdom 2000." This indicates that it was published first in the U.K. (& unless your copy is the U.K. copy, you don't have a true first - but we'll get to that in a minute). Sometimes it will state that the book was simultaneously published in two countries (ie: "simultaneously published in Canada and the United States, 2010"). Most times, though, it will just state one copyright date.   

In older books, it may list a number of years (ie: copyright 1953, 1961, 1974...) - in this case you're looking for a book that only lists the oldest date. If there are multiple dates, then it's not a first edition or first printing.

The Edition: 

Some books will include a "First Edition" statement either at the bottom of the Copyright page or somewhere towards the middle of the page. You want to look for the phrase "First Edition." 

Books that state they are the "First American Edition" or "First U.S. Edition" may've been published elsewhere prior to this edition being published. In some cases, the publisher will stipulate the country if they are publishing a title simultaneously. Some publishers will also use the term "First Published" followed by the date. 

The Number Line: 

Towards the bottom of the Copyright page there will be a string of numbers (or letters), known as the number or letter line.  There are several variations on what this may look like, but in general the line should contain a set of numbers from 1 to 10 (note: if it contains higher numbers like 24, 25, 26... then you're well into later printings): 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10  -or-  1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2  

This is sometimes followed by another set of numbers that could look like: 

0/0 01 02 03  -or-  14 15 16 17

The first set of numbers indicates the printing. Look for the lowest number in that string, that will tell you the printing. For example, a number line that looks like this:

  2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10   -or-   3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 

would indicate that the book is a 2nd printing, because the lowest number in the number line is "2." 

The second set of numbers indicates the year in which your particular book was printed. The lowest number here indicates what year the book was printed in (in this case 0/0 = 2000. 01 = 2001... 14 = 2014, you get the idea).  

In the case of letters you will see A B C D E F G....  If the number 1 or the letter A appears in the number line, this is a first printing. 

There are, of course, exceptions. Random House, before it's merger with Penguin, started their number line with a '2' (as in: 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10). In this case, the first edition is identified by the statement "First Edition." In the subsequent printing, that statement will be removed and only the number line will indicate which printing the edition is in.

The Dust Jacket

The Dust Jacket Flap

Next, you'll want to flip back to the inside front cover jacket flap. Check the upper right corner or the bottom of the flap. Does it have a price listed?  If not, then it is most likely a book club edition and of lesser value. 

Can't tell if there was a price on the inside jacket flap because someone "clipped" the corner? (known as price clipping). Don't assume this means there was a price listed there at one time. Gift givers of a certain generation made it a habit to clip the corner, not only to disguise the price, but sometimes to disguise the fact that it was a cheaper edition of the book.  IF something is price clipped, there are still ways to tell if the book is a book club edition. 

Note: if something is price-clipped, the value is reduced.




The Back of the Dust Jacket

Turn your book over and take a look at the back cover. Does it have an ISBN box (that little box with a barcode or two)?


If the answer is no, you may have a book club edition or a book published before 1985-ish. Strange as it may seem to some of us, ISBN barcodes didn't gain in popularity until the 1980s / 1990s. Prior to that an ISBN number (sans barcode) would have been found either on the front dust jacket flap or on the copyright page.

If there IS a barcode box on the back of the dust jacket, does the box contain two barcodes (a larger and a smaller)? AND, is there a number over that smaller barcode? While this isn't really indicative of a first edition / first printing, it does tell you that it is a trade edition rather than a book club edition. If there is no number over the small barcode, or if there is no small barcode, then it may be a book club edition.

Book Club editions are *usually* worth far less than first trade editions. There are some exceptions, but that is a deep, deep rabbit hole. If you're interested in learning more about this, then you'll want to check out my series of eBooks on the subject matter. In a few rare instances, the book club edition was the true first. In most cases, however, their value is quite low.



Identifying Book Club Editions


  • Look at the bottom of the front or back flap of the dust jacket - sometimes it will state BCE (Book Club Edition) or  BC / BMC (Book of the Month Club)
  • Turn the book over and look for the barcode on the back cover. BCEs may show just one barcode, whereas standard edition books will have a smaller barcode next to the primary barcode. Above that smaller barcode is the price code. If the book doesn't have that smaller barcode or if the price code is missing, it's most likely a Book Club Edition.  *A note here: Older books, say those printed prior to 1980, may not have a barcode on the back jacket at all. Sometimes the barcode can be found on the inner front flap, and sometimes there is simply no barcode. In this case, look for the other clues that a book might be a Book Club Edition. 


    This shows a book club edition barcode in which the price code is missing above the smaller barcode.
  • Other times there will be a date on the back flap - (eg: "picture taken 1980" or "artwork © 1982") compare this date to your copyright date, if the copyright is 1970 and the date on the dust jacket is 1980 - While this may not be a clear indicator that you have a book club edition, it does indicate that it's not a first edition.
  • Take off the dust jacket all together and look at the back cover. Some publishers will blind stamp (a small debossed mark) the back cover with a publisher trademark or some other image/logo to indicate that the book is a BCE.
  • Note the size of the book. Book Club Editions are usually smaller than the standard edition. 
  • They're also usually printed on cheaper/thinner paper. 

You can read more about identifying book club editions here.


True Firsts

You may see some book sellers claim a book is a "true first." Most authors, unless they're really famous, have their books published first in their native country. i.e. Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first published in Sweden, then later translated and published in the U.K. before it was released in the U.S. and Canada; J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was first published in the U.K. before they changed the name and published it in the U.S. the following year. 

The true first edition is the one that was actually published the earliest. In some cases, a true first edition may beat out other printings by only a couple of days.



Another term you might see is "First thus" or "First edition thus." This means that the book being described has been published previously (usually by another publisher) and it is being reprinted as a new edition. 

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been reprinted hundreds of times by a variety of publishers. With each new publication, someone can claim that the first printing is a "first thus" edition.

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