Skip to content

How To Identify A Book Edition

Something which ought to be a simple process, yet frequently is not.

First editions or special editions are often the most sought after by investment book collectors. This is because publishing can be a bit of a gamble: No publisher wants to print fifty thousand copies of a book and only sell a few thousand. Hence the initial print run is usually relatively small. This is particularly the case with unknown authors as it is difficult for publishers to assess the likely demand.

Ultimately, the market forces of supply and demand apply: A publisher may feel a book by an unknown writer has only limited potential, hence a small print run is ordered. If that writer subsequently becomes well known, and there is more demand for his/her books, then the demand for earlier first editions will exceed the numbers printed.

Those who collect for knowledge, or for the sake of reading, generally place less importance on the edition: Indeed, a revised, expanded or updated edition might be more attractive to such collectors.

Fiction books however, rarely change substancially between editions, which makes the first edition of these all the more important.

Some older books have no print date or edition details and therefore require further research. Others might have a publication date on the title page, but no stated edition. These too need further research – don’t just assume a book is a first edition simply because it only has one date. If the information you need is not included in the front of the book, check the back endpapers before you spend valuable time researching, as the details are occasionally printed there.

Modern books tend to have a publishing history page (often on the back of the title page).

Whether you collect old or contemporary books, it helps to familiarise yourself with the methods used by different publishers when indicating the publishing history, as there is no real uniformity.

Commonly used today are number lines. These became popular shortly after the Second World War. They invariably reveal the print run number and sometimes the year of publication.

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

The three examples above are all 1st editions, 1st printings, but publishers often format their number lines in different ways which can be confusing. To add to this confusion, when a new print run is undertaken the lowest number on the line is removed:

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

Above are all 2nd printings …..

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

…. while these are 3rd printings.

And so on.

Be aware that publishers sometimes include the words “First Edition”, but don’t always remove these words on subsequent print runs. Technically, the edition is a first until such time as the printing plates are changed, so there is nothing wrong with including these words. But it does complicate matters for collectors as the most sought after books nowadays are frequently referred to as “True 1st Edition”. Translated, that means 1st edition, 1st printing (see below for example).

Letter rows can also be used to indicate the printing number:


1st edition…….


3rd edition.

There are also variants of both the number and letter lines:

Some number lines include two digit numbers to denote the year of printing:

81 82 83 84 85 86 - 9 8 7 6 5 4

Published in 1981, the 4th printing

Sometimes a printing number may be moved from one end of a line to another to indicate a new printing

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9  (1st printing)

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 (2nd printing)

Or a single letter might appear:


to denote the 7th printings

Remember, the words “First Edition” will often appear on the publishing history page – but this doesn’t mean it’s a True First Edition:

First Edition

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

… this denotes the third printing.

Crazy, but some publishers begin the print line with a number “2”.

Bear in mind that facsimile editions will include the original publishing history, but are clearly not first editions.

Also, some books can be published by multiple publishers, particularly where export markets are concerned. You might therefore come across terms such as the following:

Originally published by……..

UK 1st Edition

US 1st Edition

First translated edition

Advance review copies usually have all the right information on the publishing history page and you might consider them even truer first editions. However, dust jackets or covers are usually marked “Advance” or “Review Copy” and are not considered as desirable as the 1st commercial edition.

It’s important to glean as much information as you can from between the covers of a book. This might include checking any introductory text pages (Introduction, Preface, etc) as these will sometimes help identify when a book was published, if the information is not included elsewhere.