The definition of a “first edition” and the categorization of a book as a “first edition”, have long been loosely coupled to disassociate a book’s true value from such a classification. Fredson Thayer Bowers, an American bibliographer and scholar of textual editing, gave us the modern definition of a “first edition” in his book Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949), as follows:
“…the whole number of copies printed at any time or times from substantially the same setting of type-pages, all issues and variant states existing within its basic type-setting, as well as all impressions.”
The definition, has allowed many antiquarian book dealers to suggest in perfect innocence, that a book published a century after the author’s death, would probably be a “first edition’’, thus establishing the book as rare book. A quick search using the Advanced Book Exchange, lists over 1000 books by Charles Dickens published after 1970, a century after his death, as “first editions.” There are also 20 signed first editions of the Holy Bible, which begs the question, “signed by whom?”
Often times, the phrase “first thus” is used to describe that the book has been previously published in some form but still satisfies the criteria coined by Bowers. Some sellers use it frequently creating confusion on how one would know if a book is a “first edition” or just another reprint. The same doubt is also generated by the phrase “true first”. Both are redundant pieces of information which without some kind of expanded explanation of the particulars of what makes the book significant, should not appear in any book description. In fact, books should not be described as “first editions” until all other possibilities are exhausted.
Complicating matters further, criteria for indicating a first edition varies from publisher to publisher. Some publishers do not identify their first editions at all, or have used varying methods over the years. They may also use editions as well as printings. Edition refers to the copies of a book printed from the same setting of type, while going through several press runs, or printings. The use of “First Impression”, indicates first printing of the first edition, which could be the best indicator of a pure “first edition.” They may also use special codes that require to be deciphered, such as number line or a letter line (ex: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 or 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2 or a b c d e).
Does any of this matter? It should most definitely matter if you are a type of book specialist or serious collector of rare and valuable books. There are people that while not falling into these categories, wish to obtain a first edition of a prized book for obvious and various reasons. The pure distinction between a “first edition” and a “reprint” is the fundamental argument to be concerned with. If I am buying a book categorized as “first edition” only to find out that it is another reprint, I should be truly outraged.
There is an expression in the Greek language that encapsulates the misuse of the “first edition” terminology entirely. “Imish” conveys two meanings when attached to a verb or noun: past tense and doubt. “First Edition Imish” (“supposedly First Edition”), could solve the problem if designated to be printed on any potentially unconfirmed “first edition.”