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First Editions, Altered States
Small changes can have a big impact on a book's value


Most people, even with no particular bookish bent, know that there is something special about "first editions"—at least to collectors—and that some of them can be quite valuable. Identifying first editions can be easy or hard, depending on the book and the publisher, and often requires some specialized knowledge. No doubt this challenge, combined with the prospect of finding something of value lends the whole business a certain mystique. But did you know that the ability to identify a book as a first edition might only be the first step?

When is a first edition not a "first edition?" It happens when unstated changes are made during production of the book. Suppose a spelling error is noticed halfway through the first print run. The presses may be stopped, the error corrected, and then printing resumes. That spelling error is an issue point, or simply a "point," and to book collectors it creates two distinct "states" of the first edition. The earlier state will be more valuable than the later, even though both are technically first editions.

It may seem like hair-splitting, but the value implications can be dramatic. Suppose you have a first edition of Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises." If you go to page 181, line 26 and find the word "stoppped"—misspelled with three ps—your copy is probably worth thousands of dollars more than copies where that error is corrected.

Probably the most notorious point in American publishing occurred in the first American edition of Twain’s "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It seems that an unknown printer rather vulgarly altered the illustration of Silas Phelps on page 283. Several were printed and some bound before this bit of priapic mischief was discovered. Individual copies of this plate exist, but it is believed that no copies of the book were released with the plate bound in. But you never know... Such a copy would be worth a small fortune if ever found.

But it is a common misconception that errors or irregularities in books make them more valuable. Unlike stamps or coins, such is not the case with books. The only significance of issue points is their ability to establish a chronology within the first edition. It just happens that the significant points are usually printing errors, because logic points to a "before" and an "after" in those instances. The assumption is that "stoppped" was noticed and changed to "stopped" rather than vice versa, and collectors place a premium on the earlier state.

There are examples of points that show chronology without being errors. It used to be common for publishers to bind in advertisements for their other titles at the back of a book, and often a bit of detective work will indicate a priority between different lists of advertised titles. The first states of some of Thoreau’s books are identified by this type of point.

There are also examples of points from which no chronology can be determined. There are many instances involving different colors of binding cloth, variations in stamping on bindings, or differences in paper. Unless there are publisher records that indicate a chronological order for this sort of design variation there is really no way to establish priority among them. In these cases there is little or no difference in value between the various states.

Issue points are not as common as they once were. The speed of modern book production makes it less likely that an error will be noticed or a change made before the entire first print run is completed, bound, and out the door. And of course a point is of no consequence in a later printing (our lawyer friends would say "The point is moot!")

Authors are not as close to the printing process as they once were either. It was not unheard of in the past for some authors to so closely shepherd their books that they might even have a page of type reset during a print run because they wanted to slightly rephrase a certain passage. You can imagine the issue points this sort of author could cause, to say nothing of the curses from the pressroom.

Most of the issue points on currently published books involve the dust jackets rather than typography in the book itself. Jackets and books are manufactured separately and often in differing quantities for the respective first printings. There are some interesting considerations regarding issue points and dust jackets because they can easily be switched around between different copies of the book. Tune in next month for a discussion of dust jacket points.

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