In modern western literary tradition a great deal of emphasis is placed on books as physical objects. The pinnacle of the emphasis is the first edition of a well-known author's first work, which is usually from a small print run (sometimes as low as a hundred). Possession of such a book implies that the possessor noticed a, then unknown, literary genius before the rest of the world, or acquired it from someone who did.

First editions of famous works often get very high prices when sold, especially those displaying good literary technique, that have entered the Literary Canon and are full of obscure literary references, but it should be remembered that most books aren't literary or commercial successes and only ever have a first edition. First editions are never read. If you can afford a decent, well-bound edition for your bedside table and a small stack of cheap paperback editions in case a `friend' urgently needs to refer to the work.

The phrase ``extensive collection of first edition's'' is the literary equivalent of ``extensive collection of mint condition playboy's.'' See well-read.

Electronic publishing in platform independent formats through digital libraries obsoletes the concept of the significance of a first edition, by making any copy of any edition infinitely copyable and a cost approaching zero. In such situations the preferred edition is generally the best annotated rather than the first. I agree with wharfinger that certain people love books as fetish objects, however there are a good many geeks who love the delivery mechanism of digital libraries (i.e. their computers) as fetish objects too. Just because they're younger and geekier, doesn't make their fetishes any less valid.

Electronic publishing is completely irrelevant to the "first edition" thing.

First editions usually have more printer's errors than subsequent editions; when I saw David Eggers speak this winter, he waved his copy of that little memoir of his and muttered about having something like ten corrections per page pencilled into the margins. It's not about the quality of the text qua text at all.

The value of first editions is something like fetish value; it's the same impulse that drives me to treasure my original pressing of Lizard by King Crimson. I have a CD to listen to; that's not the point. The point is the artifact. It's a beautiful artifact: I just plain damn well like it.

A book is not necessarily just the words in the book. It's the whole artifact. Some people love books. I mean, they really love them. They don't have this stylish "geek" contempt for the written word and for anything else of value; they just love books. It's not utilitarian or pragmatic at all. It goes beyond the practical value of books as reference or entertainment (I'm shocked and horrified by the Great Grand E2 Book Lotto: How could you do that? How could you deliver your books into the hands of strangers? Don't you love them?!)

Remember when Jimi sang, "Music, sweet music, I wish I could caress..."? That's the best explanation I've seen. If that doesn't make sense to you, you're on a different wavelength. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

viterbiSearcher has a good point about different fetishes for different folks; can't we all just get along?

When a book person raves about having a First Edition of something, they (assuming they know what they're talking about) are actually saying two things: that the book is a first edition, and that it's a first printing as well. A book that is a first edition as well as being a first printing is called a True First.

If you look at the copyright page of practically any book put out by a major publisher, you should see two things related to this discussion - there is (usually, though not always) a block of text reading FIRST EDITION towards the top of the page, and there should be a list of numbers towards the bottom of the page. This number series is the print run information. All first printings are first editions, but not all first editions are first printings.

These numbers can come in various forms that vary from publisher to publisher. For instance, these...

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
are all print run numbers from true firsts (assuming we're not dealing with a book club edition. More on that in a minute). These...
4 5 6 7 8 9
9 8 7 6
33 32 31 30 29
...are not. You're looking for that precious number 1. If it doesn't appear anywhere in the series, it's not a true first. If the book has the last example as print run information and doesn't specifically say it's a first edition on the copyright page it's pretty well set that the book is worthless from a collector's perspective.

There are three other things to keep in mind:

Firstly: Book club editions obey a completely different set of rules: most of them have different ISBNs and different printing standards than their original editions - the paper is cheaper, the binding shoddy, etc. Since they're technically different books the print run numbers start all over again, creating the impression that the book you're holding in your hands is worth way more than it actually is - book club editions are usually almost completely worthless. There are exceptions to this rule - some have extremely interesting dust jackets that can raise their value considerably, but that's not at all common. Certain other things (extra marks on the copyright pages, altered dust jackets, the lack of a price or barcode etc.) help to differentiate the two printings.

Secondly: Country of initial publication matters a great deal. Apart from textual differences (idiomatic expressions, etc.), cover art, introductions and the like, a book isn't technically a first edition if it was published previously in another country - those two versions are treated as separate books with separate ISBNs and separate values. In general, British first editions (for instance) are worth a good deal more money in the states, partially because the print runs are smaller and partially because British editions of books are quite difficult to get over here.

Thirdly: the print run numbers of books published by Random House always start with 2 instead of 1. Why this is, I have no idea, but it's good to keep in mind when hunting.

Most of the value of first editions lies in the condition. And virtually all of the collectors of first editions collect "modern firsts", that is, books published since the novel became popular in the 19th century.

Collectors of first editions tend to collect fiction. Not universally, for sure, but a very large portion of the market is in fiction. The most important works of nonfiction will be collected and appreciate in value, and generally, they are worth something, but not the sky high prices seen for some modern firsts.

The biggest factor in the value of first editions is the condition of the dust jacket - a dust jacket in extremely good condition may easily be worth three times the book that it is on. The dust jacket should, however, be the proper dust jacket for the printing of the book - small changes are often made that distinguish a first printing dust jacket from a later printing of the first edition, and sometimes, there are even variations within the first printing dust jacket. Also, as with sports cards, there is massive difference between the prices of the cards in very good and near mint conditions.

For example, on, a first edition, first printing of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck in "fine" condition with a "fine" dust jacket lists for $12,500, while a copy from the same seller, with slight darkening to the spine of the book, and two minor tears to the dust jacket, repaired, and described otherwise "fine" lists for $6500. A copy in "very good" condition with a " very good" dust jacket lists for $1400. Without a dust jacket, a copy in "good" condition lists for $300, and on eBay a copy of the first printing, in "fair" condition, with a later dust jacket, recently sold for $122.50. This is for a text that can be purchased new, with the same information that is in the first edition, in virtually any bookstore, for a small fraction of the price.

To navigate through this, a very good source is Collected Books : The Guide to Values, by Allen and Patrica Ahern (New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2001). This book, in addition to just listing values, lists the points, that is, the elements that allow one to distinguish between a first printing and later printings, and between first printing and later dust jackets.

Yes, this is a bit ridiculous. But isn't most collecting?

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