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I’ve often written about my love affair with our town’s charity book store, the Book Cellar. Proceeds from this wonderful little shop benefit our public library, so buying there makes me feel both lucky and virtuous. I could never have assembled my extensive library of appraisal resources without it.

So it seems fitting that my latest find is a book about book collecting, Modern Book Collecting by dealer-collector-author-bibliographer Robert A. Wilson. Over the years Wilson assembled several of the world’s finest author collections of works by modern writers, and his love both for their writing and for the physical book is evident everywhere in this wonderful practical guide to collecting. I can’t really improve on his own writing so what follows is simply an extended quote from one of the many underlined passages in my well-read copy.

Before describing the ways in which major publishers mark (or fail to mark) their first editions, a word about terminology may be in order. “Edition”, “printing.” and “issue” are all words used by publishers, bibliographers, and booksellers. However, they are not always used in the same way or even consistently, especially by publishers and booksellers.

To bibliographers (who try to be accurate in all things) an “edition” means all copies of a book printed from a single unchanged setting of type. In the publishing life of a book, the first copy off the press is a “first edition” and so is the five hundred thousandth, even if the latter has a different binding or was printed five years later–so long as the original typesetting remains unchanged. A “printing,” on the other hand, means only those copies produced during a single press run. “Impression” is synonymous with “printing.” Thus an edition may incorporate a whole series of printings. An “issue,” finally, is a still smaller category than a printing. Sometimes during a press run the printer may discover an error, stop the press and correct it, then go on to finish the printing. Or a publisher may choose to bind the completed sheets at a different time in different materials. A bibliographer describes the differently bound copies, or those with an error and those without, as two separate issues…

To publishers, “printing” is the key term. Most of them are today fairly careful to indicate the printing a particular copy belongs to. They are much less careful in their use of the word “edition.” In publishing usage a “new edition” implies a complete revision or updating or recasting of the book and its contents. But before the book actually goes into a “new edition,” many textual changes of greater or lesser importance may be introduced silently at the time of a new printing…

Because of this fairly free and easy attitude toward the words “edition” and “printing” in publishing today, book collectors and dealers have come to regard “first edition” and “first printing” as synonymous. A book listed in a catalog as a first edition will as a matter of course be a first printing. (Some scrupulous–or overhopeful–dealers may list a book as, say, “First edition, fifth printing,” which may be technically accurate but unappealing to a collector with no interest in anything but the first printing.)

It will be noted that more and more American publishers are adopting a system of ascending numbers printed on the copyright page, sometimes along with the words “First Edition.” These words and the numeral “1” are then removed from the plate at the time of the second printing so that the number series now begins with “2.” In this system there is no need for any resetting of type.

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

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