how to tell if a book is a first edition

How to Identify a First Edition

How to find valuable books at garage sales and thrift stores and how to know they're true first editions.

How To Find First Edition Books

Last year, I went to a book sale put on by a nonprofit organization, thinking I could find some cool stuff for my collection. To my dismay, when I arrived, the line was down the block. And when they threw open the front doors, it was like a mad dash to the lottery. People came in groups with bins, hand trucks, and scanners that pinged them the exact price a book was selling for on Amazon.

It was a rather surreal experience as people literally ripped open boxes, tore tables apart, spilled shelves, crawled over top of each other, and elbowed their way to the most promising displays.

After an hour of chaos, suddenly everyone disappeared. I looked around, realized that was the sign every book had been scanned, and left with my Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Chabon, and August Derleth first editions.

I developed my book-homing skills in the years before everyone grew scanner-savvy and courses everywhere promised you could make bank by reselling on Amazon. Because of my years hand-pricing collectibles, I can pick a single good book out of a hefty stack of pulp. What did I do differently than the other scanners? How did I know how to find first edition books?

Where to find first edition books

Book Sales

First of all, I want to say that unless you’re interested in scouting and selling in bulk, I would avoid the highly-advertised book sales. They’re packed full of very competitive resellers. The place to go where you can browse leisurely is truly the good ol’ garage sale.

But, if you insist, here’s what I did differently than the scanners: looked only for aged fiction by authors with a cult following.  Doing that does require a certain level of knowledge–you have to know your authors. Super famous authors like James Patterson and Nora Roberts won’t cut it. Their books have been printed millions and millions of times. They retain very little value because there’s nothing rare about them.

The trick is to be able to say, I know that author’s name but I’ve never heard of that title. Pick it up and look at the copyright page. You’re looking for evidence it’s a first edition (covered below) and proof that it’s an early book by a now-known author. Typically, an author’s previous titles will be listed next to, or shortly after, the copyright page. If there are more than 3-5 titles listed, it was likely printed after that author made a named for themself and is not a sought-after edition.

Resellers generally do not look for these books because they can make easier, more streamlined money on nonfiction. Having a scanner does not help you pluck obscure fiction titles. A scanner does not know how to identify a first edition.

Garage Sales

Yard sales are my preferred venue for browsing used books. Thrift stores have wised-up to scanning their incoming books to optimize value. The ones that don’t, are regularly sifted through by scanners.

You may be wondering, why wouldn’t resellers and thrift stores pick up on these treasures I’m telling you about? Well, it’s because they depend on a scanner to tell them what’s good and what’s not. If, for example, you’re holding a hardcover copy of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, Amazon will give you the prices for all of those hardcover editions. Those prices can get down into the $1 and $2 range. If a seller wants to specify a first edition, they need to mark it “Collectible” and this information (at least as far as my experience goes) does not ping on a scanner.

You may have precedence over the nice nonfiction at a yard sale but nonfiction is updated and reprinted and out-marketed so quickly it often gets devalued as fast as it gets printed (however, if something makes you say, ooooohhh, then by all means, nab it).

What you’re looking for is still the same at the garage sale versus the book sale: the sweet spot of the author who started writing 10-20 years ago when they were unknown but is a rising name in their genre today.

There are plenty of fiction writers out there who published two books and called it quits. Those books may be rare but they are not at all desirable.

Examples of What to Look For

Dan Simmons. His first book came out in 1985, titled Song of Kali. You can bet that when Song of Kali came out, no one knew who he was and that book changed hands for years with little collectible value. Recently, a TV show called The Terror, named after his 2007 book, came out on AMC. A first edition copy of Song of Kali is now worth $100.

Donna Tartt. She recently wrote The Goldfinch which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her first novel, The Secret History, came out in 1992. A first edition of that is now worth $40. It’s not as high as the Dan Simmons because, at the time of this writing, Song of Kali only has 7 collectible copies available on Amazon where The Secret History has 30 available, making Song of Kali more rare.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

What’s crazy about landing valuable first editions is that it often happens by accident. You bought an early title in a bookstore, umpteen years ago, and hung onto it until now because it was a good story.

Meanwhile, said author’s career has blossomed and you wind up with something worth more than you paid.

This is what’s going on at garage sales. So-and-so is selling her grandma’s old box of books for 50 cents a piece and you snag that early Anne Rampling because you know what it is (Anne Rice’s pen name in the 1980s). Otherwise you’ll pay someone who is selling it specifically as a first edition and you’ll pay market price (which is fine if you’re in it just to have it).

How to Tell if a Book Is a First Edition

So you see something in that box at the garage sale that you suspect is better than the others. How can you tell if it’s collectible? First, it should be hardcover. There can be nice paperbacks out there of course, but collectible first editions will be hardcover. Books that sold well had multiple printings so there are hardcovers out there that are third or seventh printings, or more. Open to the copyright page, right in the beginning, on the back of the title page (all the fine print), it’ll have the year the book was printed and the publishing company and some other jargon.

The easiest and most sure-fire way to tell is to see “First Edition” printed there, such as how we see it at the very bottom of the copyright page of Rant by Chuck Palahniuk.

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk

Sometimes the words “First Edition” are not stated. The next easiest way to tell is the line of numbers that’s also visible right above the words “First Edition.” If that line of numbers goes all the way down to a 1 that means first. If it stops at, say, 2, such as in the copy of Lamb (pictured below), it is a second printing.

Also beware of book clubs which can be deceiving. Book club editions are mailed to book club members after being produced as cheaply as possible. A first edition of Watchers by Dean Koontz is worth $60 and if you search on Amazon the cover will look just like the photo below but that one is actually a book club copy. The most telling way is the difference in size. See how much smaller it is versus an actual first edition?

Book club vs first edition

In 2002, Christopher Moore wrote Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. The gift edition below is styled like a Bible, but notice the copyright page. It says “First Edition” on it. We can tell it is not a true first edition primarily because the number line does not go down to a 1, it stops at 2. But you can get tripped up if it had gone down to a 1. That would be a first edition of the gift edition. Not a first-first. The indicator is on the year printed. It shows “Copyright 2002, 2007.” This means the book came out in 2002 and this edition is from 2007. It’s labeled as a first edition because it is the first printing in this style. If there is more than one year printed, it is not a first edition.

Lamb by Christopher Moore Gift Edition

I found this copy of Misery by Stephen King and initially thought I’d stumbled on a first, but not quite. There is not a lot of information on the copyright page, the clue was the price printed in pounds, rather than dollars, on the inside flap. It’s a first UK edition, which is still unique and worthwhile, just not a true First.

Misery Stephen King First UK Edition
Misery Stephen King UK First Edition
Misery King First UK Edition

But what about really old books? The use of the number line began in the early 1940s. Almost every single book printed should have a date on it and you can rely on the single or multiple dates, even in old books. If you have a book that has 1898 on one side of the page but 1904 on the other, it was reprinted in 1904. If it truly has only one date and it’s a title you recognize (such as The Call of the Wild by Jack London, 1903) it’s honestly a good idea to just go for it. Even if it turns out to be a second printing, those kind of things are simply neat to have.

How to Tell if a Book Is Valuable

How can you tell if a book is valuable? One word: research.

These days, prices are entirely determined by the online market. If someone is interested in purchasing a collectible edition, they will look around to find the cheapest price for the best condition. That’s what you have to go by to value your books.

Amazon is obviously the big behemoth, but they’re not a very good collectibles market, in my opinion. I check them, of course, but I prefer to rely on the knowledge of sellers on AbeBooks, Biblio, Alibris, and Ebay.

In looking at these sites, if you’re researching something remarkable, experts will already have defined certain details that mark a first edition because some can be very hard to tell. Dr. Seuss books come to mind. It used to be impossible to tell if a Dr. Seuss was a first unless the dust jacket came with the book. Now, collectors know precisely which elements make it a first edition, some as obscure as the color of a character’s shorts or the size of the title.

Below is a neat example. It’s a first UK edition of The House at Pooh Corner, an original by A.A. Milne, 1928. There wasn’t much information on the copyright page but we must be absolutely sure what it is–there are thousands of dollars on the line. Experts know how to identify a first edition and have already named the traits of these special firsts and details such as exact height, board color, page numbers, and inscriptions must match. Elements we can identify that match The House at Pooh Corner first edition notes: rose cloth boards, gilt letters on the spine, and illustrated end papers, among others.

It is a true First Edition, valued around $3,000.

The House at Pooh Corner First UK Edition 1928
House at Pooh Corner first edition board papers

Admittedly, it’s harder and harder to find books valued in the thousands (without paying thousands). But that doesn’t mean you can’t find some desirable and unique items for cheap. And even so, part of collecting is simply having books you love to look at and hold and brag about. Some of my most prized possessions are not my most expensive. Enjoy the authors you love and hang onto those pieces, they might go up in value someday, and they might increase in sentimental value even more.

For more on sleuthing treasures out of the dusty stacks, check out my post on hidden gems.

Happy Hunting!

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