Books: How to Identify a First Edition

Dates & Publishing Houses


When we look at books, it can sometimes be difficult to find value with a cursory glance. If we look more closely at the details of the book, we can not only learn more about the book itself but when and where it was published. Knowing When a book is published is key in determining whether a book is a valuable First Edition or a less valuable, more common edition. The Where of book publishing is important as well, as some books will be published under one Publishing House and later secondary and tertiary printings can be carried out by other Publishing Houses.


Copyright Dates 

us book seal

“The First Congress implemented the copyright provision of the US Constitution in 1790.

The Copyright Act of 1790, An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Securing the Copies of Maps, Charts, and Books to the Authors and Proprietors of Such Copies, was modeled on the Statute of Anne (1710). It granted American authors the right to print, reprint, or publish their work for a period of 14 years and to renew for another fourteen. The law was meant to provide an incentive to authors, artists, and scientists to create original works by providing creators with a monopoly. At the same time, the monopoly was limited in order to stimulate creativity and the advancement of “science and the useful arts” through wide public access to works in the “public domain.” Major revisions to the act were implemented in 1831, 1870, 1909, and 1976.”

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1891: International Copyright Treaty

“Because American copyright law applied only to American publications, European authors were unable to profit from the publication and sale of their works at extremely low prices during the nineteenth century. The so-called “cheap books” movement, spread rapidly by small upstart publishers after the Civil War, threatened the “courtesy principle” of gentlemanly price-fixing adhered to by the large, established publishers such as Henry Holt. By the 1880s cheap books flooded the American market. By 1890 authors, publishers, and printers’ unions joined together to support an international copyright bill (Vaidhyanathan, 50-55).”


Where to Find a Copyright Date

When looking for a copyright date in a book, look on what is called the “Copyright Page”. The Copyright page typically also has the title of the book, author’s name and Publishing Company. This is usually within the first 2-3 pages of the book. When you are on the Copyright page, look for the words “First Edition”. This will fluctuate depending on the publishing house, but most publishers will print this on the Copyright page. However, just because your book says, “First Edition” does not automatically mean it is a valuable first edition.


 “First Edition” means different things to collectors and to publishers. To collectors, it refers to the very first version of the physical book to be printed. For publishers, “first edition” may just mean the first version of the text, without significant revisions. Many publishers will print the hardcover edition of a book and call that a first edition, then prints the same text in paperback and call it the first edition as well. Unless the author or publisher makes changes to the text, adds something (like an appendix or author’s note), or revises the text, there is only one edition from format to format.

Print Run Number

print run number book

“Print runs are a way for collectors to identify which “first edition” is truly the earliest version of the book to exist in the world. Print runs are the set number of copies of the book printed at one time. You can have a large print run or a small print run—it’s completely up to the publisher and, generally speaking, the size of a Print Run isn’t shared with the public—but the print run number is easily found on the copyright page. It is a sequence of numbers, usually 1–10, and printed in descending or alternating order. The lowest number found on the page is the print run number.”


book id numbers          book id numbers          book id numbers        book id numbers

Correctly identifying a book as a First Edition, First Printing can greatly increase the value of the book. With these simple guidelines, you should be able to correctly identify any First Edition, First Printings you may have in your collection.

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