The term first edition traditionally refers to all copies of a book printed with the same or substantially the same setting of type. However, the precise meaning has slight, but significant, variations in the fields of bibliography, book collecting, and publishing.
The classic explanation of edition was given by Fredson Bowers in Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949). Bowers wrote that an edition is "the whole number of copies printed at any time or times from substantially the same setting of type-pages," including "all issues and variant states existing within its basic type-setting, as well as all impressions."
Over the years, Bowers's definition of edition has been slightly streamlined by other bibliographers. What remains, however, is the core: an edition is all copies of a book printed "from substantially the same setting of type," including all minor typographical variants.
In the lead type era, printers usually did not have enough type to keep an entire book set up and ready for printing. As a result, nearly every time a book was printed, it had to be reset and that created a new edition. From time to time, in the middle of printing a book, an error in the text or a piece of broken type would be spotted, the presses stopped, and the problem fixed. These minor changes introduced typographical variations in the finished books. Some books would contain the mistake or broken type while others would incorporate the changes. These changes do not constitute a new edition.
In the modern era, books are typeset electronically, and a book may go through hundreds of printings using the same setting of type. Publishers often use the same typesetting for the hardcover and trade paperback versions of a book. While these books may have different covers and small changes to the title page and copyright page, from a bibliographer's standpoint, they are technically part of the same edition.
Book collectors' definition
Book collectors generally use the term "first edition" as shorthand for "first edition, first printing" (or "first edition, first impression" in the United Kingdom). Often post World War II books include a number line aka printers key that indicates the print run of an edition.
Bowers defines a "printing" as "the whole number of copies of an edition printed from identical type-pages at any one time." Book collectors do not consider a second printing of a book using the same typesetting to be a first edition, although bibliographers do.
The term "first edition" does not have a standard definition in the publishing world. Publishers use the term for their own purposes, with little consistency. Publishers of trade books may mark a book "first edition" on the copyright page, but this may mean that it is the first edition by the current publisher, ignoring previous versions, or it may be the first edition with a particular set of illustrations or editorial commentary. Textbook publishers often use the term edition to distinguish between revisions of the text.
Sources of confusion
A common complaint of book collectors is that the term first edition is used incorrectly. Typically, this complaint centers on the use of the bibliographer's definition in a book-collecting context. For example, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye remains in print in hardcover. The typesetting remains the same as the 1951 first printing and therefore all hardcover copies are, for the bibliographer, the first edition. Book collectors would use the term first edition for the first printing only.
When a first is not a first edition
The word "first" in "first edition" might seem to refer to absolute chronological priority of publication, but in collecting and bibliographical terms, this is often not the case. "First edition" most often refers to the first commercial publication of a work between its own covers, even if it appeared earlier in another form such as in a periodical or advance copiesóbound galleys, uncorrected proofs, advance reading copiesósent out by publishers to book reviewers, booksellers, and others in the literary or public relations fields.
As an example, the complete text of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea appeared in the September 1, 1952 issue of Life magazine, yet the generally accepted "first" edition is the hardcover book Scribner's published on September 8, 1952.
A further distinction is sometimes made with the term "first trade edition," referring to the earliest edition of a book offered for sale to the general public in book stores. For example, Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle was published in two variant forms. The first trade edition was published by Doubleday, Page and was sold in bookstores. The other, published by the Jungle Publishing Company, was a "Sustainers' Edition" sent to subscribers who had advanced funds to Sinclair.
Proofs as first editions
A small number of book collectors, particularly in the science fiction field, hold that the earliest bound advance copies of a book, typically an uncorrected proof or an advance reading copy, is the true first edition. This view points out that these books are printed, bound, and distributed, albeit not widely, by the publisher to a reading public consisting of reviewers, wholesale book buyers, etc. This view is held by a small minority of book collectors and an even smaller number of bibliographers.
- Bowers, Fredson. Principles of Bibliographical Description, Winchester and New Castle, Delaware†: St Paul's Bibliographies and Oak Knoll Press, 2005 (reprint edition, first published in 1949).
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