How to spot a first edition

Alex Manson-Smith 19 December 2021

First edition prints of a book are hard to find due to their small numbers, but it's possible if you look hard enough...

We tend to assume that first editions are the preserve of rich people and experienced book dealers. And, to be fair, when it comes to the likes of Dickens and Austen, we’re probably right.

But first editions from writers like Zadie Smith, Stephen King, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Philip Pullman all have value, and it’s perfectly possible that you have one tucked away on your own bookshelves. So, how do you recognise a first edition? And, if you find one, what should you do with it?

To start with, it helps to explain what constitutes a first edition. Unless the author is a big name, publishers are taking a risk when they print a book. That means they’ll usually start with a small print run, since they can always print more if the book sells well. This first, small run is the first edition.

Later runs are usually referred to as first edition, second printing. If there are changes to the book (a new cover, say, or an extra chapter), it’s now a second edition.

How to spot a first edition

Here’s the kicker—it’s not easy. Each publishing house has its own way of indicating a first edition, and they’re not always consistent about it. But there are certain ways to check:

• Read the copyright pages

With any luck, the publisher will have made it easy for you by printing “first edition” or “first printing” on the copyright page. You may also find that later editions refer to additional printings.

• Check the number line

On the copyright page of any book, you’ll see a line of numbers. Look for a “1” as often this indicates a first edition.

• Check the date

If the date on the copyright page matches that on the title page, this is a good sign.

• Are there mistakes in the text?

Sometimes a first edition isn’t labelled as such, but there may be errors in the text that were later corrected.

• Call an expert

If you’ve a feeling a book might be a first edition, but can’t be sure, call someone who knows. Blackwell’s has a rare books department that will happily assess any book you think may fit the bill, at no charge. If they consider your book sufficiently important, they’ll travel to you.

To find out more, read Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. Still, it’s worth remembering that every book on the planet had a first edition, so not all of them are valuable. So, how do you recognise the ones that are?

As you’d expect, it’s the rarest and most sought after first editions that attract the most money. These are the titles where only a small number were printed before the book went on to untold success—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being the most famous example. By the time her second book came out, Rowling was a massive name, meaning later books in the series had huge first runs and are less valuable to collectors.

"As you’d expect, it’s the rarest and most sought after first editions that attract the most money"

Naturally, a book’s condition is key to its value, while dust jackets are more important than you might think. After the First World War, these became a vital part of the package, rather than just a way of protecting the pages. For a book to fetch maximum price, the dust jacket needs to be in perfect nick. The book should also have its original binding. Admittedly, this isn’t such an issue with recent titles, but it’s something collectors take seriously. 

Let’s say you’ve found your first edition—where should you sell it? Thanks to the internet, buying and selling old books has never been more accessible. Sites such as Abe Books, eBay, and Biblio will give you a good idea of what’s in demand, along with how much your own books are worth.  

Can’t find any first editions on your bookshelf? Well, you can always change that. Unlike, say, bitcoin, it’s never too late to get into collecting books. The trick is to stay on top of new releases, especially those from debut authors creating a buzz.

To maximise its value, take your copy along to a literary festival and have the author sign it. But be sure to keep it immaculate. If you want to make money from books, then buy them and enjoy them, by all means—but best not actually read them.

How much are modern first editions worth?

Got a first-edition copy of one of these hiding on your shelves? Here’s how much you can expect to get for it.

                                                                                                                 Estimated value

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling                       £4,478-£112,714

The Shining by Stephen King                                                                   £1,152-£3,165

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood                                               £317-£1,216

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell                                                                    £311-£573

The Help by Kathrynn Stockett                                                                  £38-£458

White Teeth by Zadie Smith                                                                       £27-£134

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn                                                                   £69-£115

Source: Biblio.co.uk

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