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Identifying First Editions, A Primer: In General

This article is Part I of a series; read Part II here: Identifying First Editions, A Primer: The Publishers


The ability to identify first editions is one of the most essential skills for both booksellers and collectors and of interest to some book buyers in general. Unfortunately, it is often not a question of simply looking at the copyright page for the words “first edition.” This primer will help to answer some of the most common questions asked about identifying first editions – including when you can rely on a statement of edition and when you cannot, how can you tell if a book is a first edition when the publisher doesn’t state it, how to identify book club editions and reprint editions, and much more.

Note that this is and will remain a “work in progress.” Hopefully we can add to it with images of specific examples as well as add to the list of publishers. This also applies to our “Points of Issue” page which should be coming soon. If you have comments or questions please write us at A First Edition Primer – suggestions/comments

This particular guide does not try to answer questions like “Why and How to Collect Books” but a brief note is in order. As to why, because it gives you pleasure and/or as an investment. For more you might look at Why Collect Books at First’s Magazine.

As to the how, there is a nice interview with David Klappholtz in the IOBA Standard on Book Collecting from a Collector’s viewpoint. David not only talks about how he became a book collector but some of the mechanics of collecting such as, “How you go about searching for books on the internet?” Although not mentioned specifically in the article itself, one should remember that just in identifying books properly, you also need to know about proof copies, advanced reading copies (ARCs), review copies, original manuscripts, facsimiles, points of issue and other book terminology.

Somewhere in the far distant past, Glenn Larsen had one of the first “guide to first editions” on the web at the site. His guide disappeared sometime in the summer of 2003 during one of those re-organizations which occurs so often on the internet, but Mr. Larsen has graciously offered it as a basis for this First Editions Primer by the IOBA. The original page has been reorganized, added to, and corrected when necessary and modified, using the above cited reference books and the information gained through handling many books by the members of IOBA.

Please note that this guide is meant to serve as an introduction to the identification of First Editions and as an attempt to combine often scattered information in one place. The most definitive source for establishing the precise edition of any book and all of the relevant points of a first printing would be a descriptive bibliography for an author. If you specialize in either selling or collecting works by that author, you should include a bibliography in your reference shelf. However, descriptive bibliographies do not exist for most authors (and even when they do exist, they can contain some inaccuracies).

There have been several books which focus on the usual practices of publishers in identifying first editions: First Editions: A Guide To Identification (Zempel & Verkler), A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions (McBride), and Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values (Ahearn) [earlier books by the Ahearns, “The Guide to Book Collecting” and “Collected Books” are also well worth having]. All of these books should be considered essential to the reference shelves of any bookseller, and all are very helpful to a book collector.

The definition of a first edition depends on who you are talking to. Collectors use the term “first edition” as a short form of “first printing of the first edition” and that is how we will be using this term. Publishers, bibliographers, researchers and librarians use the term “first edition” to mean a book reprinted without changes. However, booksellers offering a “first edition” are describing a specific object – an individual book – and the value of that object is determined by its scarcity, its edition and printing, the demand for that title, and the condition of the copy being offered.


Many publishers focused primarily on reprinting already popular works and, with the exception of juvenile series, they rarely published first editions. These publishers include A.L. Burt, Altemus, AMS Press, Inc. (now engaged in scholarly monographs), Avenel, Barnes & Noble, Blakiston, Bonanza Books, Cassell (in the UK), Collier, Donohue, Folio Society, Goldsmith, Grosset and Dunlap, Hurst, Konecky, MJF Books, Readers’ Union, Saalfield, Sun Dial, Tower, Triangle, Walter Black and many more.

The majority of juvenile series books were first published by these companies, especially Grosset and Dunlap. For some juvenile series, the first editions might be published by A. L. Burt or Altemus, and then Saalfield published reprinted editions. Grosset and Dunlap also published photoplay editions, which are at least “first thus” [first by that publisher or first of a special edition, see Book Terminology for example] and often quite collectible. In addition, while these reprint editions should not be confused with the first editions, they can be sought after by collectors because of their often striking dust jackets. Note that Tower books will often say something to the effect of “First Tower edition” and Grosset and Dunlap will sometimes copy the printing information from the original information on their copyright pages, so use the information on the copyright pages with care.

There are price guides which describe every printing of the Nancy Drew series (Farah’s Guide) and the Hardy Boys series (Carpentieri Hardy and Hardy Investigations) and these are invaluable for collectors and sellers of these books – not so much for the prices, but for the identifying the printing. For other juvenile series and reprint publishers in general, one often has to look for internal clues – for example, which books are advertised in the back of the book or on the dustjacket – to date the copies.


Book Club (BC) editions are generally not first editions and have little collectible value. New collectors are often trapped thinking that they have a first edition when they really have a BC copy. Book club copies often appear to be first edition books but are often worthless. Beware if your book does not have a price on the dust jacket. That is the first sign that close inspection is needed. Book club editions often have a depression on the bottom of the right-hand corner of the back cover. It could be a circle, dot, square, maple leaf, or similar mark. Watch out for the BOMC acronym that stands for Book of the Month Club. You will often find it on the flaps of book club dust jackets.

Also watch out for FEL on books and covers that stand for the First Edition Library, a club that makes facsimile first edition books. FEL books usually come in slip cases and are reprints of famous books.

Heritage Press books are book club editions that can have a bit of value. There are about a dozen titles which stand out from the rest as more expensive but all have minimal collecting value.

The Limited Edition Club (LEC) books are an exception to the above warning as they are highly collectible. LEC books are printed in limited quantities, are signed and individually numbered, and can be of considerable value. For example, several of the LEC titles that are signed and illustrated by great artists and illustrators can run several thousand dollars.

Some General Rules That You Have a Book Club Edition

  • No price on the dust jacket. BUT, some small presses do not price their books and, from Glenn Larsen’s original document, “BOMC did price their books for a while in the 1970’s I believe.”

  • Clipped corner on the DJ. Some dealers/collectors have clipped the “Book Club Edition” statement, typically on the lower corner of the front flap, and/or the upper corner of the front flap where there would normally be a price however some publishers have clipped the price so they could raise it.

  • A depression (circle, dot, square, maple leaf, or similar mark) on the bottom of the right-hand corner of the back cover. BUT, small blind stamps have been used to distinguish productions of the additional printing houses who participated in the production of a particular title. Also, don’t confuse the blind stamp with Knopf’s familiar Borzoi dog logo.

  • “Book-of-the-Month Club Selection” on the spine in early BOMC editions [pre 1930].

  • Laid-in review slips or brochure.

  • Low quality editions (smaller and less dense). Primarily from the Doubleday stable of book clubs and the Literary Guild. BOMC generally had high quality books.

  • “Book Club Edition” printed at the bottom of the front dust jacket flap.

  • A five-digit code, typically black numbers in white background small box, which appears on the back of the dust jacket. These are typically Doubleday Book Clubs (the major ones being Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, Mystery Guild, and Science Fiction Book Club).


See Images for Book Club Editions for images of book club editions. For two good articles on this subject, see the BookThink article on Book Club Editions and the Tom Folio article on Identifying Book Club Editions.

Some book club editions actually are first editions or at least first hardcovers. If you check the LW Currey’s “Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First Printings of Their Fiction and Selected Nonfiction – Revised Edition”, you find listings of first editions with the comment “Issued by the Science Fiction Book Club”. For example Poul Anderson’s “The Dancer From Atlantis” and “the Day of Their Return”. There appear to be 88 occurrences of “Science Fiction Book Club” in the document although some of them occur as part of the “ALSO” statement, indicating it is not a first edition.

Although there are many examples of some BCE’s being fairly valuable because they are first editions or because their trade editions are highly collectible, or … the above statement “Book Club (BC) editions are generally not first editions and have little collectible value.” is very often true.


Many modern publishers use a number or letter system to designate first editions. Publishers using this system have numbers or letters similar to 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 or A B C D E where the 1 or the A indicates a first edition. If the 1 is missing as in 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 then that book is probably a second printing as designated by the remaining 2. Sometimes you will find that numbers appear differently, for example 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2, or in reverse as in 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

Regardless of the way the numbers look, you want to spot the 1 or the A. There are exceptions so check the list of publishers. For example, Random House did use, until roughly 2003, the words First Edition in place of the number 1. Thus a Random House book before about 2003 stating “First Edition” starting with the number 2 is a first edition, first state book.


  • Jonathan Franzen Freedom: the true first will have an ISBN with 374 as the publisher number on both the book and the dust jacket. The false first has 312.

  • The Dogs of Edgar Sawtelle: false firsts will have “smooth” edges; true first has untrimmed edges and the bindings are different.

  • Three Junes by Glass: different ISBN

  • The young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Asher: new edition comes with added bonus material (map on reverse of dust jacket) – and even says on dust jacket that it was a bestseller).

  • Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer prize winning collection – Native Guard: the publisher is not being sneaky here; the “new edition” says on the flap that it is a new edition, comes with a CD , and has a totally different dust jacket. However all of the copies listed as firsts on are either the trade paperback or the new edition (like most poetry titles, not too many hardcovers sold when this first came out). One seller uses the term in a “2nd issue dust jacket” but the entire edition is “different” not just the dust jacket, so the book is not a first….

  • Marlantes Matterhorn was first issued as a trade paperback by a small press so none of the hardcovers are the true first.

  • The Lemony Snicket books: the 1 in the number line was kept even as the prices kept going up on the back cover. Depending on the number, the real firsts have to have the 1 and 8.95 or 9.95 as the price.

  • Jeannette Winterson’s first US of Oranges, a trade paperback in the US: at least three different printings with different prices on the cover; all of which say “first.” The real first does not have a number line.


There are books which are missing the publisher’s usual method of identifying first editions:

  • Faulkner’s Knight’s Gambit published by Random House in 1949. The first edition has no statement of printing.

  • Dangerous Visions, the science fiction anthology edited by Harlan Ellison and published by Doubleday in 1972. No first edition statement on the copyright page, but the first issue (priority A) has a code of N7 in the gutter on page 796, the 2nd issue (priority B) has N40.


  1. Allen Ahearn, Patricia Ahearn & Elizabeth Ahearn Fisher; Collected books : the guide to identification and values; Comus, MD, Quill & Brush Press; 2011. 4th edition. An e-book is also available.

  2. Tony Carpentieri & Paul Mular; Hardy and Hardy investigations Rheem Valley, CA; SynSine Press, 2004. 5th ed

  3. John Carter and Nicolas Barker; ABC for Book Collectors, 6th edition of the ‘with additions and corrections by Nicolas Barker” edition; New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, (1994). A free e-copy is made available for download through ILAB by permission of Bob Fleck, Oak Knoll Books.

  4. David Farah; Farah’s guide; Pasadena, CA (1395 Cresthaven Dr., Pasadena 91105-2734), [D. Farah]; 2005; 20th anniversary edition

  5. The IOBA also has a list of references which includes specialty works for particular authors and much more. See IOBA Reference Works

  6. Bill McBride (compiler); A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions; CT; Mcbride; Seventh Edition (2012)

  7. Michael Sauers; Editions and Printings, How to Tell the Difference: a guide for book collectors.

  8. E. N. Zempel and L. A. Verkler (ed); First Editions: A Guide to Identifications




Amy Candiotti; Pistil Books Online
Peter Dast; Bookworks
Candace Hibbard; The M.A.D. House Artists
Andrew Langer; Andrew Langer, Bookseller
Glenn Larsen. Mr Larsen has graciously allowed the IOBA to use his original guide “A Guide To First Editions” [at Books-Rare, the book collector’s home Copyright 1997 by Glenn Larsen] as a template for this primer. Much of his work has been quoted verbatim. Unfortunately his guide is no longer available except through archives. Click on First Edition Identification to see the page as it was in June 2003.
Sandra L. Morris; Nan’s Book Shop
Chris Volk; (Volk & Iiams, Booksellers)
DeWayne White; White Unicorn Books

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