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All about first editions

Today, first editions are very popular as collectors’ items, especially modern firsts. But what exactly is a first edition, and are all first editions valuable? Here are some tips:

1. There are differences between the first edition, first printing, and first impression.

Although people usually use the phrase “First Edition”, what really counts is the first printing of the first edition – this means, the first time the book is ever printed.

A “First Edition” refers to the first version of the book. This means the first edits and typesetting made by the editor/publisher. First editions can be printed multiple times, and as long as they remain unchanged in both the text and layout, they are still considered first editions. Therefore, you often see this written in books: “First edition, 2nd printing”, which means, the second time the book is printed in its original version.

Sometimes, you’ll see the word “impression” used instead of “printing”. Both terms mean the same thing – “printing” is usually used by American publishers, and “impression”, for the rest of the world.


2. Usually, the first printing of the book that made an author famous is considered the most valuable.

Although every book has a first printing, not all of them are valuable. Books written by famous authors, or writers who are important in their fields of expertise, are naturally more valuable than those by unknown authors.

However, not every first printing by a famous author is valuable.

Let’s take, for example, the Harry Potter Series. The first printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the series and the one that made J. K. Rowling famous, is extremely scarce. A signed copy of the First Edition, First Printing, recently went for about SG$50, 000. The subsequent Harry Potter books are worth a fraction of that.

This is the case because when the publisher, Bloomsbury, first decided to publish Harry Potter, they had no idea it’d be so popular. Therefore, the number of copies printed was fairly small. After the success of the first print run, publishers were more confident in the book and printed many more copies, and printed large numbers for the subsequent books in the series, even in their first printings.

The same can be said for Nabokov’s Lolita. When Nabokov first sought a publisher for Lolita, the book was rejected by most publishers for being obscene and morally questionable. It was only a small French publisher, Olympia Press, that agreed to publish it in 1955, printing only 5000 copies at first. Lolita became a huge success, which encouraged other, more established publishers to obtain the rights to publish it. And so, the Olympia Press editions of Lolita – especially the first printing of the first edition – are much more sought after compared to the others.

3. Dust jackets are important.

Illustrated dust jackets are a fairly recent invention, and came into fashion only in the early 1900s. Before that, dust jackets were used mainly as a protective cover for the book and were usually plain, meant to be thrown away immediately after purchase. In the late 1800s, publishers starting producing decorative dust jackets. And as printing technology progressed, publishers realized it was more cost effective to print beautiful dust jackets and keep book covers plain, rather than placing a design on the book covers themselves. After that, the dust jacket was considered part of the book itself, rather than just a protective cover. Now, a first edition book is generally considered incomplete without its original dust jacket.

There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule. On many occasions, books are considered valuable even when the dust jackets are missing. And with certain books, second editions are as valuable – occasionally even more so – than first editions.

Some wonder why first editions are so sought after, even when there are millions of reprints around – after all, isn’t what matters the content, and not the edition? But first editions have historical value – to cite an example, one doesn’t usually question the significance of the first Bible ever printed. First editions also reflect the independence of thought and spirit of all those involved in printing it – the publishers, and those who first purchased it, who did not rely on others’ opinions before deciding the book was important. If these publishers had not risked publishing the book without a guarantee of its commercial viability, there’s a good chance many events in history would not have occurred; without Rousseau, there would not have been a French Revolution, and without Marx, there would not have been Communism in Russian and China, or, for that matter, the Barisan Sosialis in postwar Singapore.

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