What Exactly Is a ‘First Edition’?

In the last post, we talked about the misprint in the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Now, ‘first edition’ is one of those book terms that is instantly recognisable to the general public, but it can also be one of the most confusing. So what exactly is a first edition?

It’s not as simple as ‘the first batch of books’. So, let’s start by understanding ‘edition’. An edition comprises all the copies of a book printed from the same setting of type (the particular arrangement of the letters). The first edition, therefore, is the very first group of books printed for a specific title, before any major changes to the text or page layout are made. Get it?

#tbt (That’s ThrowBack Typeday)

In the old days of letterpress printing from movable type (the loose little metal letters, imagine like the keys on a keyboard), the printer would carefully arrange the type for a set of pages in a wooden frame, called a forme. They then put the forme into the press and printed enough sheets to correspond with the planned number of copies of the book. The printer would then dismantled the forme, and reuse the type to create other pages.

Back in those days, metal type was expensive and space-consuming, so printers owned limited amounts. They rarely kept the type standing in the forme for long because it was needed for other jobs. Thus, the second printing of a book was almost always a second edition, because the type had to be set up again.

The terms first impression and first printing apply to modern books. They are the result of late nineteenth-century technological advances, such as stereotyping and lithography, that made it possible to store printing plates and create identical reprints of books months or years later.

For example: a publisher preparing a brand new book sets the type and prints 1000 copies –this is known as the first edition, or first impression. The book is a commercial success and he (or she!) decides to print additional copies a few months later. If he reuses the same setting of type the next group of copies he prints is called the second impression. These copies usually look the same as the first impression, but collectors don’t consider them true first editions. We so we don’t describe the book as ‘first edition, second impression’.

Rather than describing the book as ‘first edition, second impression’, we just say ‘second impression’. Likewise, when we say ‘first edition’ we always mean ‘first edition, first impression’. The only difference between the terms impression and printing is that the latter is generally applied to books published in the United States, while impression serves for books published elsewhere.

Print runs that post-date the first edition and use a different arrangement of type, or whose contents have been substantially altered, are later editions – 2nd, 3rd, etc., also called reprints.

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