Identifying First Edition Books

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Book collectors and booksellers are meticulous in their meaning of "First Edition." In the book collecting industry, "First Edition" is always meant to be the first printing of the first edition of the book. Most of the bookselling associations have a code of ethics that their members follow, and lend great credibility to members of these associations. Notable among these are the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA).

In the collectible bookselling market, it must be clearly stated in the book's description if the book is a later printing or later state of the first edition. The only exception is when the bookseller does not know that an earlier printing or 'state' of the book exists. If the bookseller is unsure if an earlier printing exists, then the book's description should indicate this insecurity.

Publisher's 'First Edition Books'

It is very important for the novice book collector or bookseller to understand that the meaning and use of the term "First Edition" is different in the publishing industry than in the book collecting industry. Many publishers use the term 'First Edition' on the copyright page to indicate a book that has been reprinted without changes from its first printing. It is not uncommon for printers to employ the words "First Edition" on the copyright page on books even up to the eighth and ninth printing.

This use of the words "First Edition" on later printings of books has caused numerous headaches in recent years for book collectors, as more novice and amateur booksellers offer books for sale on the internet. A large number of novice or casual sellers do not distinguish the difference between the collecting definition of "First Edition," and the printing industry's use of the term. This is especially prevalent on eBay auctions, and the prudent potential book buyer should make an inquiry to the seller to obtain exact copyright page information.

Essential Guides for Identifying First Edition Books

For the reader to become proficient at identifying first editions, the following are acceptable authoritative guides:

  • Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions; edited by William M. McBride.
  • First Editions: A Guide to Identification; edited by: E. N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler.
  • First Editions: A Field Guide for Collectors of English & American Literature; A. K. Ward.

Each of these guides will provide solid reference to identifying first edition markings for different publishing houses. These books do not provide first edition 'identification points' for specific collectible children's books.

Identifying Contemporary First Edition Books

In general, on most contemporary first editions, the copyright page will have the words "First Edition," "First Printing," or "First Impression," in conjunction with a numbering or lettering (less common) systems.

It is important to understand that a book with "First Edition" or "First Printing" on the copyright page does not mean it is a first edition book in the collectible sense. Rather, the correct "number line" sequence is of vital importance.


Numbering System: 1 - 10
Numbering System: 0 - 9
Lettering System
In the case of the 1-to-10 numbering system, look for a sequence such as:

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

The true First Edition will include the '1' in the sequence. If the sequence is missing the '1' and the '2', therefore the numbers look like:

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

In this case, the book is the third printing, even if the copyright page includes the words "First Edition." No reputable bookseller would represent a book such as this as a first edition. Informed auction sellers also should not represent a book such as this as a first edition.

In the case of the 0-to-9 numbering system, look for a sequence such as:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

The true first edition will include the '0' in the sequence. If the sequence is missing the '0' and the '1', therefore the numbers look like:

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

In this case, the book is the third printing, even if the copyright page includes the words "First Edition." No reputable bookseller would represent a book such as this as a first edition. Informed auction sellers also should not represent a book such as this as a first edition.

In the case of the lettering system, look for a sequence such as:

A B C D E

The true first edition will include the 'A' in the sequence. If the sequence is missing the 'A' and the 'B', therefore the letters look like:

C D E

In this case, the book is the third printing, even if the copyright page includes the words "First Edition." No reputable bookseller would represent a book such as this as a first edition. Informed auction sellers also should not represent a book such as this as a first edition.


The Children's Picturebook Price Guide includes a list of first edition identifying points for individual Caldecott Medal books, Dr. Seuss books, and several other key books, including Madeline, The Little Engine That Could, and Millions of Cats.

First Edition Identification Points for Key Children's Books

At the Collecting Childrens Picturebooks blog, we have started a category for listing detailed first edition identification points for key children's books. We are posting photographs of the key points, since we find the visual to much easier to remember. We intend to post a book a two a week, so check back to this website frequently.

We have an index to the blog posts at First Edition Identification Points for Key Books.

A small sample of the first edition books we have posted:





© Stan Zielinski
A serious collector having fun with fun books.


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