Peter Harrington Rare Books' Pom Harrington has compiled a go-to-guide to get you started on your very own book collection.

Peter Harrington owner Pom Harrington Image via the Telegraph Peter Harrington owner Pom Harrington
Image via the Telegraph

What is a first edition, first impression and first issue?

It’s certainly not a new problem - a book published in 1928 called “First Editions of To-Day and How to Tell Them” by H.S. Boutell declares that, “the collector of ‘modern firsts’ buys his books nowadays immediately on publication, wherever possible.”
Boutell canvassed all the publishers he could write to and asked how they determined or signified first editions within their books. As you might imagine, he received a wide range and variety of responses, some plain rude, some obfuscation but some quite helpful.
For your own collecting intentions, it would be perhaps worthwhile to go through some basics in terms of English and American first editions and how one tells them apart.

Transatlantic Differences

As a general rule, it’s fair to say that in English publications they will tell you when they are not first editions; in American publications they will generally tell you somewhere in the book that they are first editions.

For example, the first edition of Brighton Rock, published in 1938, bears this statement on the title page: “First published in 1938”; the second impression, which has a dust jacket, tells you straight-forwardly, “Reprinted in September 1938”.
That will be absolutely standard for the vast majority of English publications - a first impression in fine condition would be worth tens of thousands, but because it’s a second impression it’s not worth £1 000.

In America in the 1930s, Scribners, the publishers of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, started to employ the use of a capital A at the back of the title page to designate that it was a first printing.
The use of the capital A is unique to Scribners, but if it’s an American publication then generally speaking there will be something in the book to tell you it’s a first edition.

The Number Line
A later innovation - started in the mid-1960s and now the most commonly used designation of printing and impression - is the ‘number line’ , which collectors will be familiar with. A good example of where this kind of delineation is applied would be the Harry Potter books, mostly because they were printed very quickly due to selling so well.
The first, second and third impressions all look very similar. So, how to tell which impression the copy in your hands actually is? This is where the number line becomes important.  The lowest number in the number line represents the impression or printing that you’re handling. For instance, if your copy has “20 19 18 17”, it’s a less valuable seventeenth printing, whereas if the copy reads “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1”, it is the first printing.
There are very few exceptions to that rule, although I believe that Random House in America used to use a number line down to 2, above which they had the words “first American edition”; they would knock that legend down and keep the 2, but it’s very unusual.
Early issues of The Prisoner of Azkiban also contain copyrights given to “Joanne Rowling”. When she objected to this, the publishers changed it to “J.K Rowling”.  As you might imagine, those earlier are far more collectable.

Looking for Clues
There are many other ways that publishers can tell you which printing you are looking at, but as a rule, be sure to look for: the date on the title page,
anything on the book itself that implies the date.

For example, if the book itself isn’t dated, there could be adverts at the back that advertise later books or newspaper reviews of the book you’re holding. These are of course signs that they are later printings. Dust jackets which have reviews of the book are by definition a later printing too, obviously.
Another example of the sometimes complex nature of identifying first editions is The Fifth Column, a play by Hemingway. It was originally published in a larger book called The Fifth Column and other Stories, but the publishers pulled the play out and printed it separately a few months later, just as an edition of 1 000 copies.
Scribners, in an attempt to be accurate, decided that they had printed this play before, and so on the title page, there is no ‘A’. However, it really is the first printing, and in fact the only printing of this play, and is therefore worth thousands of pounds.
Whichever era, author or genre you’re hoping to collect, in every book there are always clues as to the edition, printing and impression of the copy you’ve found.

If you'd like further help in hunting out missing titles in your collection, rare booksellers like Peter Harrington are more than happy to help you in your quest.