By Allen and Patricia Ahearn
A first edition is the first printing of a book. It's true that a first edition may have one or more printings and that a second edition will normally be noted only if there are actual changes, usually major, in the text. But for a collector, a first printing is the only true first edition.
Within the first printing there can be differences that make the earlier books in the printing more valuable than the later books in the same printing. These differences are identified by "points," which are discussed elsewhere.
If it's difficult to explain book collecting in general, the reason for collecting first editions is even more difficult to explain to those who are not afflicted with the mania. Bob Wilson, in his book Modern Book Collecting, deals with the question when he comments on book collecting in general:
A great many people over a great number of decades, have written pamphlets, whole books even, to justify the collecting of books. This seems to me to be an unnecessary exercise. If you are predisposed to collect books, you don't need any ex post facto justification for having done so. And on the other hand, if you are not convinced before you start, the chances are that no argument is going to win you over.
Now, we believe there is a little more logic and reason in book collecting than this, but Wilson's argument is not without merit. At any rate, for a collector, the first edition/first printing is the most desirable. It's the edition the author actually saw through production and the closest in time to the writing, and therefore the edition most likely to represent the author's intent. This may seem a minor point, but one has only to read Ray Bradbury's Afterward to a later edition of his book Fahrenheit 451 to become aware of what can happen to later printings or editions.
Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with 400 (count 'em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe ... into one book? Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy ... Every story, slenderized, starved, blue-penciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story ... Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel... All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers It's my game, I pitch, I hit, I catch, I run the bases ... And no one can help me. Not even you. I can only assume that many first edition collectors do not want to take a chance with their favorite authors.
First editions are normally identified by publishers. Each publisher has its own method of identification. Many publishers have changed their method of identification over the years; a few have been so inconsistent that one has to resort to individual author bibliographies to be sure one has the true first.
The Quill & Brush was established in 1976 as an outgrowth of a part-time business run by Allen and Patricia Ahearn who started collecting and cataloging books in the early 1960s. The Ahearns have over 45 years of experience in the field. The Quill & Brush specializes in first editions of literature, mystery/detective fiction and poetry, as well as collectible books in all fields. Allen and Pat Ahearn are the authors of Collected Books: The Guide to Values (Putnam: 2002), and Book Collecting 2000 (Putnam: 2000).
The article is published on the www.qbbooks.com and is presented here by permission of the authors. Thank you very much.