One thing that distinguishes the book collector from the casual reader is a preference for owning first editions.
What is a First Edition?
A first edition is the format a book took when it was first made available for sale.
The ABAA glossary of book terms states:
First Edition: “All of the copies printed from the first setting of type; can include multiple printings if all are from the same setting of type.”
Collectors distinguish between a first edition (the first printing of a book) and a modern first edition (which more-or-less applies to books printed from 1900 on -- although, the exact definition is open to debate between dealers).
What is a First Printing?
The first printing is the first batch of books printed from this first setting of type. For a small press, this might be the only printing a book gets, so all copies are first edition, first printings. (The ABAA glossary is a master of understatement when it says “Every printed book has a first edition, many never have later editions.” For others, there might be dozens of printings, especially if a book becomes wildly successful. (Witness the current trend to keep popular young-adult novels -- Veronica Roth’s Allegiant and John Green's Turtles All the Way Down, for two recent examples -- in hardcover for years, rather than replace the hardcover with a paperback edition a year after first publication.)
How Can You Tell if a Book is a First Edition?
In general, books before 1900 did not indicate first or subsequent printings. The best way to determine first printings of older books is by the date (usually on the title page), however the practices differed wildly between publishers in this period, so the best advice for pre-1900 books is to consult a reference guide (such as the ones listed at the end of this article) or simply to seek advice from an ABAA member.
Copyright page for The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown 2005) indicating a first edition (middle of the image) and first printing (number line at bottom).
When western publishers began indicating printing numbers on the copyright page of their books in the mid-1900s, they adopted various methods. Some print the words "First Printing" on the copyright page of the true first printing, and remove the designation on subsequent printings -- but not all do this. By the later half of the 20th century (as the theory of “mass-market hardcovers” increased the sales numbers of hardcover books), many American and British publishers included a row of numbers on the copyright page to indicate printing:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
but the order of these numbers varied by publisher. 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 indicates a first printing, as do the same numbers in the opposite order, and oddly so does this configuration with the odd numbers on one side and the even on the other:
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
The unifying factor is that the lowest number indicates the printing, so
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 and
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 and
3 5 7 9 10 8 6 5 4 all indicate a 3rd printing.
Copyright page for The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon Books, 2013) indicating First United States Edition (original publication being in the UK, the author's home) and first printing using the number line with even numbers to the left and odd to the right.
Just to make things more confusing, some publishers add a year to the printing number (usually seen in best-sellers which were reprinted frequently -- several times per year), leading to lines like this:
88 89 90 91 92 10 9 8 7 6 -- meaning 6th printing in 1988
Unless a collector is seeking to collect one copy of every book published within a certain year, we can assume there will be little interest in specific printings of the huge bestsellers likely to require this notation.
Copyright page for Allegiant by Veronica Roth (Harper Collins, 2013), which indicates the printing number on the right, and optimistically includes year notations on the left (anticipating many and rapid reprints for this hotly anticipated final book in the Divergent Trilogy).
For more information on methods of indicating first editions, see this informative article by ABAA-member Quill & Brush...
The bottom line is beware of placing blind faith in the words "First Edition." Publishers occasionally/frequently (delete according to how charitable you're feeling) leave the "First Edition" or “First Printing” notation on the title page when ordering a new printing. So, if a book’s copyright page says:
First Edition, First Printing
10 9 8 7
it's the 7th printing, not the first.
As every publisher has their own ways of doing things, the above advice serves as a general rule, but doesn't always hold. Confused? Who wouldn't be! Thankfully, there are a number of excellent books by long-time book dealers which detail how individual publishers denote first editions. One of the best is Allen and Patricia Ahearn's Collected Books: The Guide to Values, which includes a trove of information on 19th century and 20th century publishers. Another classic is Edward Zempel and Linda Verkler's First Editions: A Guide to Identification. Professional booksellers keep these on hand for reference, as there are simply too many publishers and too many different notations to keep straight otherwise.
A page from Collected Books: The Guide to Values by Allen and Patricia Ahearn
Most collectors prize the first edition, first printing because it was the way the book first appeared.*
To confuse matters, a “first state” is a term for the first printed form a book takes (each state referring to a minor change or group of changes to the type or paper). Usually, this is the first edition/first printing. However, occasionally errors are caught after the first printing ships. Depending on the severity of the error (one end of the scale comprising a single typo and the other whole chapters of the book being bound in the wrong order!) the whole print run may be pulped and reprinted -- without removing the “first edition” designation. (Publishers, like anyone else, prefer to sweep their mistakes under the carpet.)
If any books have been shipped to stores when this level of error is discovered, they are usually returned immediately, making surviving examples of some first states quite rare indeed! If you collect the unusual, the very rare, or the unique, then certain notorious first states may be of great interest. For example: the first state of Franzen's The Corrections had pages 430 and 431 transposed.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux. (2001). The first issue (pages 430 and 431 transposed) of his National Book Award-winner, in the first issue dust jacket, without the Oprah seal. Fine in a fine dust jacket with the slightest crimp to the crown. First Edition. Hardcover. Signed three times by Franzen: once on the title page, once on page 431 (with a frowny face); once on the erratum slip laid in explaining the error (with a smiley face). This copy was offered by Ken Lopez - Bookseller, but is not longer available.
Most collectors do not get over-excited about first states, but as in any human endeavor, there are purists who pursue first states with a near-religious zeal. The choice of whether first states are something you want to collect depends upon your interests, collecting goals, and budget. Whether first states are "worth it" can be a bone of contention among booksellers and collectors. Famed book collector John Carter, in his classic guide to the terminology of the rare-book world, ABC for Book Collectors, described people who obsess over first states as "Point-Maniacs" -- beginning his page-long analysis of the uselessness of such activity thus: "These are the collectors who do not merely love POINTS but love them to excess." Another phrase he defines is "Issue-Mongers" -- booksellers who focus on first state points for profit's sake, declaring "The issue-monger is one of the worst pests of the collecting world, and the more dangerous because many humble and well-intentioned collectors think him a hero to whom they should be grateful." So, Carter clearly didn't think obsessing over first states was worth his time.
If you do go in for collecting first states, expect to attend a lot of book fairs and get to know a lot of dealers, as advice about, and the "secrets" of, first states are often kept close to the chest. In a market where anyone on eBay can pose as a book dealer, some antiquarian booksellers prefer to share their knowledge with serious collectors in person. Which is why we at the ABAA encourage you to get to know our members. Call a store to talk about a book you are interested in. Ask questions; request pictures. Go to book fairs and get to know antiquarian booksellers. The internet is a convenient method to source books you've been hunting for, but, though we guarantee the authenticity of our members' listings and have built a secure and robust ecommerce site, the internet cannot fully replicate the knowledge-sharing, camaraderie, and trust engendered by meeting dealers face-to-face.
Why Collect First Editions?
There are numerous reasons to collect first editions. Physically, they usually come without irritating "Winner" or "Nominee" stickers with which later printings are often defaced (although some might consider these award nominations an enhancement -- the publishers certainly hope so!), and they are perhaps less likely to be marred by cheap "staff pick" or price stickers. (When I was a bookseller, some of these stickers added by trade book stores used glue that marked the cover, and some publishers occasionally coated their dust jackets with a glossy substance that retained the ghosts of price stickers quite horribly -- I’m looking at you, Penguin Putnam!) But, most collectors simply want a copy of the original, the unassuming book that had not yet won awards, gained notoriety, or climbed the bestseller list. They want a copy of The Great Gatsby before it was “Gatsby!,” a copy of The Satanic Verses before it set the world on fire, or The Corrections before it bore the Oprah seal of approval. Once you have a first edition, first printing of a book you desire, you can do no better -- unless it’s signed, but that’s another story, and one which brings a whole other set of issues with it…).
Thankfully, there are several useful guides that detail the intricacies of first editions, and any book collector, casual or dedicated, will want to read some of these, if not keep them on hand for reference:
First Editions: A Guide to Identification by Edward Zempel & Linda Verkler
Collected Books: The Guide to Values by Allen and Patricia Ahearn
How to Identify and Collect American First Editions by Jack Tannen
A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride
ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter
* (This of course, overlooks, ARC/AREs -- Advance Reading Copies/Advance Reading Editions -- which are paperback printings of a soon-to-be-published book distributed free of charge to booksellers and reviewers in the months before a book is officially published. These are often based on uncorrected proofs, usually lack illustrations (if any), and may or may not include the final cover art, dedication page, etc. Some people enjoy having these in their collections for curiousity value, but collectors do not consider these the first state.)
Note: It should go without saying that condition often trumps printing. Unless a book is exceedingly rare, most people will value a later printing in excellent condition over a first edition in tatters (exceptions are made for First Folios and the like...). The presense or absense of a dust jacket will also greatly affect value and desirability.
Gallery: a few first editions from among our member's current listings:
by Vladimir Nabokov
Paris: Olympia Press, 1955. First edition. 188, ; -223,  pp. 2 vols. 12mo. Green printed wrappers, priced Francs : 900 on back wrappers. Spines toned, lower portion of spine of first volume worn with small loss. Dated 1.X.1955 on the flyleaf of volume I in an unknown hand. Very good. Morocco backed slipcase, cloth chemises. First edition. 188, ; -223,  pp. 2 vols. 12mo. The Nabokov Cousins: 'Lolita' Signed. This copy with ownership signatures of composer and cosmopolitan Nicolas Nabokov (1903-1978) on the flyleaf of each volume. With the signature of his first cousin the author on the flyleaf of the first volume: "Vladimir".
The cousins got to know each other when the aristocratic Nabokov family arrived in Yalta in the aftermath of the Bolshevik coup, and their paths crossed repeatedly during their new lives in exile. Vladimir invented himself as one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century; Nicolas pursued his musical studies and achieved renown as a composer. Nicolas accepted a position at Wells College in Auburn, N.Y., in 1936; when war broke out in Europe, he was in a position to assist the German composer Hindemith and the Austrian artist and designer Victor Hammer in fleeing the Nazis. He also helped his cousin Vladimir, who sailed from France for America in May 1940. For The Return of Pushkin, first performed in 1948, Vladimir prepared the English text.
Lolita gained worldwide notoriety for its author upon publication in 1955. Nicolas later wrote his cousin, "I never told you how much I liked both Pnin and Lolita and how happy I am about the success of the latter. The only thing that troubles me is that due to my vagrant, erotic past, people often think that Humbert Humbert is a portrait of me! I suppose that the way to profit by it is to say it openly and go on a lecture tour through American high schools and girls' colleges under the title 'How I did It' ..." (quoted in Giroud p. 313). The cousins met regularly through the 1970s. Juliar A28.1, issue a. Provenance: from the estate of Nicolas Nabokov.
Offered by James Cummins Bookseller.
by Truman Capote
New York: Random House, 1958. First Edition. First Edition. A collection of the title novella and three short stories: "House of Flowers," "A Diamond Guitar" and "A Christmas Memory," with the title novella serving as the basis for the 1961 film directed by Blake Edwards and starring Audrey Hepburn in perhaps her most iconic role. Near Fine in a Very Good dust jacket. Jacket has a couple of short closed tears at the extremities, one closed tear at the front joint, a hint of fading to the spine panel, and mild soil. Overall, an attractive copy of Capote's best known work.
Offered by Royal Books.
by James Baldwin
New York: Dial Press, 1964. First Edition. Hardcover. Baldwin's seventh book, a play set in a small town in the Deep South. "Before the play begins, a twenty-year-old Negro, who has been living in the North since he was fourteen and who has become a drug addict, comes home to recover and rebuild his life. He is killed, and the play pivots on his murder." An attractive copy of a title typically found well-worn. First Printing. Octavo (24cm); black cloth, with titles stamped in teal on spine and front panel; dustjacket; 121pp, . Fine in a very Near Fine dustjacket, unclipped, with some trivial rubbing to extremities.
Offered by Lorne Bair Rare Books.
by Herta Müller
Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1995. First edition. Box. Fine condition. Oblong 24mo . (2) 94pp. (4 1/8 x 5 5/8") Original illustrated burgundy box with black lettering on cover, with 96 heavy paper stock cards laid into black compartment. Red lifting strap. Flyleaf with Rowohlt emblem and illustrated title leaf. Contains 94 leaves with poetry collages on heavy card stock. Patchwork of written and pictorial elements. The script is cut up and placed into a checkered pattern of each leaf with pictorial elements rendered in photographic and artistic images. The repetitive grid stands for surveillance and spying, threat and fear, escape and exile on one hand, friendship and treason on the other. Leaf No. 19 is captioned "Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm" giving the collection its title. The first line: "Land wie die Tür zum Grab... (Land like a dor to the grave)," with a dimly lit image representative for interrogation rooms or graves, is indicative for the tenor of this work depicting violence, cruelty and terror of the oppressive regime of Romania. Müller is the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Price in Literature. Text in German. Flyleaf with minor wear at left corners.
Offered by Eric Chaim Kline Bookseller.
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Bogota: Editorial La Oveja Negra. Very Good in Very Good dust jacket. 1985. First Edition. Hardcover. First edition. Signed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez with signature officially notarized & stamped in Bogota on November 27, 1985. One of only one thousand copies. This copy in the non-limited trade jacket. Separation at front gutter. ; 8vo 8" - 9" tall; 335 pages.
Offered by William Chrisant & Sons Old Florida Bookshop.
by NIkki Giovanni
New York: William Morrow, 1972. Book. Very good condition. Hardcover. First Edition. Octavo (8vo). xx, 69 pages of text. Hardcover binding with minor sunning to the extremities, and moderate spotting to the top edge of the closed pages. Price-clipped dustjacket is slightly sunned and shelfworn; protected in archival mylar. Several pages with a few spots of foxing in the top margin; otherwise clean and unmarked. With a foreword by Ida Lewis. First edition, first printing.
Offered by Kurt Gippert, Bookseller.