Frequently Asked Questions

Rarity does not simply mean that something is old or hard to find. A rare book is one that is important, desirable, and scarce. An important book had a profound effect when it was printed and continues to be influential. A number of factors can affect the scarcity of a book, including printing history, the number of copies printed or sold, the quality of the paper and binding (the more fragile the book, the less likely it will survive in fine condition), any controversy surrounding the book, its popularity (or lack of it) and its genre. For example, children’s books, read and handled by children, are difficult to find intact. Early herbals, law books, cookbooks and Bibles often bear the marks of extensive use as well.

An edition includes all copies printed from the same plates or setting of type without substantial change. The first edition consists of all the copies printed from the first setting of type: it is the first public appearance of the text in book form. Any edition can appear in multiple printings, and each printing includes all of the copies produced from the same plates or setting of type at a given time (for example, an edition may include 1000 copies, 500 printed in November, and another 500 printed in January from the same setting of type).

States are created when publishers make minor changes to the text, illustrations, dust jacket or other elements of a book before publication. Sometimes, for example, a typographical error is corrected during the course of printing, or the caption is changed on an illustration.

Issues are created intentionally by the publisher to produce copies that differ from the rest in some way. These copies are treated as a separate unit, such as in the case of a large-paper issue, or when a new title page is substituted after publication. While priority among the different states of a first edition often cannot be determined, a first issue always precedes a second issue. In some cases, collectors may prefer a later issue. For example, the second issue of Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps includes the poet’s moving homage to the fallen president Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The first issue does not include this poem because it was completed before Lincoln’s death.

Sometimes the statement “first edition” needs to be qualified. The phrase “first American edition,” for instance, indicates that the book was first published in another country and this is its first appearance in America. The “first English edition” is a book’s first appearance in Britain, while the “first edition in English” is the first English-language edition of a book that first appeared first in a different language. Some books are issued by the publisher in two forms: a first trade edition, the mass-produced copies for sale in stores, and a special or limited edition, produced in small quantities, often in a different binding or issued with a page signed by the author (called a signed limited edition).

There is no one standard way to determine edition. Many publishers do not consistently identify their first editions, especially in the 19th century or earlier. Those that do identify first editions will use various methods. Some publishers print the words “First Edition” or “First Printing” on the copyright page. Others use a special symbol or series of numbers to mark the edition. Many works require individual author bibliographies to confirm that they true first editions. Bibliographers study an author’s printed works to record the physical characteristics of the books, including the binding, typography, and content. The variations they record—the color of a cloth binding, a misspelling on a particular page, or the price on a dust jacket—are called points. Points are often essential in determining the edition, issue or state of a particular copy. Our cataloguers work from an extensive library of reference material and check carefully to determine the edition (and issue or state, if appropriate) of any book.

Again, it depends on the book. A limited first edition is printed in a specific number, which is usually recorded on the limitation page. In other cases, publisher’s records may mention the number of copies printed, or an author may include the size of a first edition in correspondence. For the most part, however, the exact number of copies is unknown.

A very general rule in book collecting is that the first edition is the most desirable, but there are exceptions. This is often the case with non-fiction, especially historical works and narratives of travel and exploration. In these areas, a second or later edition may be preferable because of added material, such as maps, illustrations or previously unmentioned information. Later editions can also be greatly improved in format and organization. Bibliographers will often designate a “best edition,” an edition preferred over the first for its superior organization and content. In literature, there are also many books that collectors prefer in a later edition. For example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous “Sonnets From the Portuguese” appears in the second edition of her Poems, not in the first edition. In the case of some important and early works a first edition may be nearly unobtainable, so later editions are a collector’s only practical choice. Similarly, some collectors prefer collecting first editions in English. Sometimes true first editions in the original language are unobtainable, or an English-speaking collector may prefer to collect books he or she can read, or a particular work’s impact in English rivals the impact of its first publication. Collectors of modern first editions generally look for copies as close as possible to the work’s first appearance. Again, there are exceptions: a beautifully bound set of an author’s works can complement a collection of first editions or a later edition of a favorite work with association or signed by the author can be special in its own right.

Dust jackets or dust wrappers were originally designed to protect a book in transit—just until it reached the safety of an owner’s library. The first recorded use of a dust jacket goes back as far as the mid-nineteenth century, but they were generally discarded after serving their initial purpose. Very few early jackets survive.

In the early twentieth century, however, dust jackets developed from simple coverings to art forms and promotional aids that became integral to the book. Because collectors of modern first editions generally prefer a copy as close as possible to the first appearance of the book in every way, most prefer a dust jacket when obtainable. Some dust jackets are exceptionally scarce, such as those of The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.

Condition of the dust jacket is key to the value, just as it is in books. Since they are made of paper, they are extremely fragile. Though no longer designed only for protection, dust jackets are the book’s first defense against sunlight, humidity, handling, dust, and other stresses. Naturally, they can show substantial wear: chipping, fading, darkening, staining and tears. They are still often discarded, and many are more fragile and prone to wear than others. For example, they may be light colored and show soiling quite easily, or made of a particularly fragile paper and prone to chipping or fading. Just as the difference in value between a modern first edition with a jacket and a copy without one can be considerable, the difference in value between a poor jacket and fine or near-fine jacket can be substantial.

The importance of condition in book collecting cannot be underestimated. Copies in exceptional condition are at a premium, and the oft-repeated adage is that a collector should buy the best possible copy that he or she can afford. Often, that means a copy in “fine” condition. But it is also important to keep in mind the particular title, its printing history, and its scarcity. A very modern signed first edition might be obtainable in “mint” condition, but a mid-nineteenth-century narrative of Western exploration printed in America will probably not survive without at least some foxing, wear or repair to the binding. For some very scarce books, a “very good” copy may be the best a collector can hope to find.

The specific history of a copy from the printing press to your shelves is its provenance. There are a variety of indicators, including bookplates, owner signatures and gift inscriptions. Sometimes the provenance has been recorded within the volume; at other times it is found in separate records. While the provenance can sometimes add to a book’s value (if it belonged to a famous historical figure or came from an esteemed library), in most cases it simply adds to the interest of the book. Unfortunately, the vast majority of books do not have a traceable provenance: they have been passed from owner to owner throughout the years without note. On the other hand, copies that can be directly linked to their authors generally do have (often considerable) enhanced value. Presentation (given by the writer to someone) and association copies (belonging to someone connected with the author) are usually more valuable than regular copies. In the case of presentation copies, the length and content of the presentation is important. Consider, for instance, this inscription in a first edition presentation copy of The Sun Also Rises: “To Sylvia with great affection—Ernest Hemingway, Paris, November 1926.” Hemingway was a faithful patron of Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, a key gathering place for the “Lost Generation” writers. The association is extraordinary, creating an enormous increase in value of an already desirable rarity.

In general, books are designed to last, since they are meant to be read. They should be handled with care and usually require little maintenance, but there are some important guidelines. Books should be kept in a relatively stable environment, one that is not too hot, too cold, too dry or too damp. Very high humidity can damage books, warping boards and encouraging mold. Books must be kept away from direct sunlight, which will destroy leather bindings and fade dust jackets. A protective acid-free clear mylar jacket should be kept on all dust jackets. Sometimes, with more fragile books, a protective box or slipcase can be made. It is also recommended that periodically, perhaps once a year, some leather bindings be dressed with special leather dressing and gently buffed to keep the leather supple.