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Terms of Trade
When is a printing not an edition? And why is it important?
The history of the printed book spans over 500 years, and in that time there has been surprisingly little change in the terminology of the trade. It's a colorful jargon, full of words like "yapped," "bastard title," "conjugate leaves," "tipped in," and of course "first edition." The tricky thing is that the jargon, which hasn't changed, is deeply rooted in the manufacturing process, which has dramatically changed.
The term "first edition" is generally accepted to mean something quite a bit more specific than it did long ago. Traditionally it described the content of the book, and would indicate that the work in question was unrevised-that the text read exactly as originally published. But nowadays when a collector says she wants a first edition of "The Great Gatsby," she is referring to the physical book itself. Indeed, she wants one of the actual books from the first run of the presses-preferably in a fine dust jacket thank you very much.
In the old days, when a book had to be typeset with hundreds of thousands of tiny bits of moveable type, the first edition almost always had only one printing. You just didn't go back set all that type again without good reason. And if there was justification for reprinting, the author would probably take the opportunity to make revisions to the text. Such revisions would obviously affect the content, and the result would be called the second edition, corrected edition, or something similar. Under these manufacturing circumstances a "first edition" would by default almost always refer to a copy from the original printing. Content and precedence were very closely linked.
Things have changed. Modern processes have removed all the major barriers to reprinting. When Oprah chooses a book for her book club and the publisher rushes to reprint, the resulting flood of copies into the stores are all identical in content with the first copies printed, but no collector would call them first editions. You can no longer determine precedence of one copy over another by the content. Now you have to examine physical characteristics, namely the methods the publisher uses to indicate first and subsequent printings. I prefer the term "first printing" over "first edition" to describe precedence, though common usage is against me and the former is not entirely correct either.
As a rule the first printing of a book is the most desirable. As with all rules, there are many exceptions. Placing too much importance on first editions or first printings can actually produce an inferior collection. Charlie Everitt was a book dealer in the first half of this century who was legendary but not famous. His fascinating memoir, "The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter: A Rare Bookman in Search of American History," contains an anecdote illustrating this point. One day a regular customer came into Charlie's shop and said, "Mr. Everitt, when you sell me a book it must not only be a fine copy, it must also be a first edition."
Charlie replied, "Well Sir, you must not know very much about books."
"What do you mean by that?," asked the customer.
Charlie named a particular book on the customer's want list, the content of which was somewhat inferior in it's first edition. "It's only when you get to the revised and enlarged third edition that you have a real cornerstone book," he explained.
"I guess I shouldn't have said first edition. I should have said best edition," his customer admitted with a smile.
So why all the focus on firsts? Well one reason, which has already been alluded to, is precedence. First printings have the closest proximity to the author's hand. This might sound silly, but what it means is that the author probably had the most control over the appearance and content of the book in its first printing. As a side note those collectors who seek manuscripts, proofs, and author notes are taking this idea a step further.
Another reason to collect first printings is that they are usually less common than reprints. Anyone who collects knows that most of the pleasure is in the hunt, and therefore you want something with enough scarcity to make it a little challenging.
My favorite reason for collecting first printings is nostalgic. There is something enchanting about holding a favorite book in your hands, knowing that you're seeing and experiencing it exactly as its first readers did. This is the real thing, the genuine article. This book has passed through many hands, maybe changed lives, maybe changed the world. And you've got an original copy!