The Questions

Finding a First Edition – Secrets of Book Publishing

First Edition Question – How to Get a First Edition

First EditionsFirst Editions are something of a find when it comes to older books. Back in the day, a publisher would put out the first edition in limited print, say a thousand copies. Then they would run a quick second edition if sales took off and keep a few of the first editions back for special sales, getting the author to personally sign them. These were always hard cover for first edition paperbacks are easier to find.

The reasoning behind this is collectors want these books. The older the book the rarer it will be to get a first edition signed copy. As an example, a signed copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down published in 1972 sells from $6500 to $7200 (new condition only) while the used ones can be as low as $3000. Unsigned drops the price to just over $1000.

Other things will come into effect as well – popularity, mass market, and genre. Also factor in if the author is still alive and if movies were made on the work as well.

How to spot a first edition – old school

Many self-published authors don’t know the edition listings on books and if POD means first edition or not. When you look at the copyright page (usually the second printed page or reverse side of the title page) you’ll see the following:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This is the edition listing. The above indicates a first edition. Drop the “1” at the end and you have a second edition and so forth. An edition is released when major changes happen to a book, ie – new chapters, changes in the content from extra editing, new cover art, awards won and displayed on cover, and a number of other things. This also is indicated in a change of the ISBN.


Books area assigned an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). It is the thirteen digit number you see printed on the back of a book and also on the copyright page. The higher the number, the newer the book. Don’t be fooled though, some publisher have older ISBN registrant numbers than others (see for more information on ISBNs).

If the book you are looking for has changed publishers at least once, then you need to always check the edition number to ensure you are getting a first edition. But some of them cheat, and a book with a new publisher may say first edition, though not be the real first print run of a book. This is where you look for the rights, ie in second print rights near the publishers name in the copyright section.

Another way is looking for the “Originally Published” marker on the copyright. If a book is in its second edition, it must legally show an originally published date on the copyright page. This indicates when the book first came out if they are not still on the first edition.

Enter Print on Demand

The evils of print on demand have made authors into publishers of their own work. Little educated in the publishing world, authors (even seasoned ones like some of my friends) don’t realize that if you change a cover or make edits in the original work, it is now a second edition. If your work was originally with a publisher and they didn’t perform and you pull it back from them, your book must come out now as a second edition (first being with that publisher). The indication of the second edition status must also show on the copyright page.

Ebook Horrors

Ebooks are controlled the same way, but you’ll never be able to narrow it down. Watch out for the self-published author or the ones who use Pay to Publish (also known as vanity press) to get their book out there. They will allow edits of the book and not change the ISBN or edition number. You may ask why this is allowed or even done. It is because the US charges for ISBNs thought a company called Bowker.

Most Vanity Press publishers are located in the US, but not all. Some located in countries that don’t charge for ISBNs still want to have their pound of flesh, and because most authors using search engines see the Bowker site first that says ISBNs cost money, they think it’s standard. Note: Countries like Canada do not charge publishers or authors for ISBNs, they are issued through the Canadian Government by Library and Archives Canada (at the time of this answer).

Signed First Editions – Help!

Getting a signed first edition is not that hard, if you have the money. Making sure you don’t get a fake is harder. First, don’t go to sites with ties to 3rd World countries. If the seller is located in China, India, or South America, it is unlikely you’ll be getting a true first edition signed copy of any book that didn’t come from that country (use the book mentioned above as an example). All signed first editions should come with a letter of authenticity and signature verification letter. If they don’t come with that, then don’t buy it, most likely you’ll get ripped off.

Be ready to open up your wallet on a lot of the really rare books. Signed first editions of some books can set you back thousands of dollars. In my collection I have many first editions of fiction and non-fiction, some even signed. One of my cherished books is a first edition English hard cover of Ben Hur, unsigned (a fake signed edition will destroy the value). Currently it will sell for $4000, but is worth more to me as a collector’s item than anything.

So Where to Buy?

A number of places will offer you the chance to purchase a first edition; just do a Google search for the book with the words “first edition” along with the title. As stated above, be very careful where you buy it. Make sure they supply letters of authenticity, which any seller with valid merchandise will do at no charge.

Leave a Reply