On What is First Edition in General and Whether Indiespensable Issues are First Edition Specifically

I read, with a lot of amusement, a remark on the legitimacy of Indiespensable issues as first edition from a blog, and thought I'll share my views on first edition and whether Indiespensable issues are actually first edition.

First things first, what is a first edition? Very simply put, it is the very first state of a book, i.e., the first edition first printing. Usually, edition number will increase only if there are material changes to the content, like rewritten chapter or extensive inclusion, when the book goes from first edition to second edition. Clearly, second edition is not first edition, and, while exceptions exit, is generally of not much value. Note that correction of minor printing or typographical errors are generally not considered edition change.

What then is printing? For a new book that is printed for the first time, that'll be a first edition first printing of a specific size, say 50,000 copies. This is reflected on the copyright page with a full line number with "1" as the smallest number but exceptions exist. If the book sells well, the publisher may order for addition copies to be printed. Assuming there is no material change to the book (correction of a few typos, maybe), this second batch, say of 20,000 copies, will be first edition second printing. Again, the number line will be updated with "2" as the smallest number.

The first edition that collectors go for is the first edition first printing. First edition second printing are usually of very little value compared to the first printing. and third printing onwards typically have negligible value. But there are exceptions. The third printing of Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise", for example, is very sought after because it has a tipped in page with the author's signature. Clearly its desirability lies in the signature rather than the third printing, which is merely incidental.

This is all that is indisputable about collecting first edition, and first edition means first edition first printing henceforth. But things get a little sticky from here due to, among others, chronological precedence, editorial work, and author's nationality.

The first factor is chronological precedence. Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch", for example, was first published in a translated Dutch version before its American and UK editions came to the market within a short time. All three versions were published by the same publisher, Little, Brown. So the Dutch version is the first edition by chronology. However, since the editorial work for the book is likely done by Little, Brown in America, the American version is the first edition by bibliography. Alice Munro's "The Progress of Love" is another example. The last criterion is the author's nationality, and some collectors regard the version issued in the author's native country as the most desirable first edition. Applying this, the American version of "The Goldfinch" wins out again. Similarly, the Canadian version is usually regarded as Alice Munro's true first edition, and for Salman Rushdie, the UK edition.

The weight given to these three factors are relative. Where an American writer with an American publisher publishes a first edition simultaneously in America, UK, and a third place, then the American edition will be the most desirable first edition. If the same American author with the same American publisher publishes the first edition outside of US first followed by the US within a reasonable time, then the US edition still retains its desirability due to the editorial and nationality considerations. But if the US version comes out after an unreasonably long delay, say a year, then the outside-of-US version lays stronger claim as the first edition.

Sometimes, multiple versions of the first edition are issued by the same publisher. Typically there will be a first trade edition issued for the mass market. It usually comes in hard cover with a dust jacket. And then there will be a signed limited edition issued with a different design, usually in slipcase and without dust jacket. A good example is John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy. In this case, the signed version is usually more desirable but there are, again exceptions. Willa Cather's "One of Ours", for example, has a dust jacket first trade edition and two variants (normal and deluxe) of signed limited  first edition; a copy of the first trade edition with a very good dust jacket will be at least as valuable as the deluxe copy because its dust jacket is now very rare.

Sometimes, multiple versions of the first edition are issued by different publishers. Again there will be a first trade edition issued by the main publisher and a separate signed limited first edition issued by a different publisher, usually Franklin Library or Easton Press. The latter is in radically different form compared to the first trade edition, and is usually bound in leather with gilt edges. Some regard Franklin Library as the chronological first edition but there is really no telling, and based on the editing publisher criterion, the first trade edition is the bibliographical first edition. In terms of desirability, the Franklin/Easton version typically commands a premium due to scarcity and signature. Examples of such arrangement include works by Philip Roth. It is worth mentioning that Franklin Library also issued limited first edition that are not signed. Finally it is important to note that the Franklin/Easton signed limited first edition must be distinguished from the limited signed edition that are not first edition.

Some bookstores have a subscription program that delivers signed first trade edition to subscribers on periodic basis. Examples include the Strand box and Powell's Indiespensable. The Indiespensable goes one step further by providing a customized slipcase to go along with the book. As for the signature, it is sometimes on the title page and sometimes on an additional tipped in page. And here's the remark that argues that Indiespensable is not first edition:

"I had a sub to Indiespensable until I realized many of the selections aren’t first editions (which doesn’t seem to hurt the asking prices on the resale markets.).

Indiespensables are specious: A first edition doesn’t vary in time or form from the initial print run.

The first edition of Tinkers was a paperback.

Add-in signed pages, as are found in Indiespensable books (usually two or more pages), violate first edition imprimaturs.

(By the way, signed add-in pages means the author never held or touched the book, but merely signed loose sheets in another location that were later shipped to publisher and added to the book. Powell’s has a profit motivation for that.)

In one Indiespensable, the author signed a dust jacket made “exclusively” for the Indiespensable edition. In other cases, Powell’s asks the publisher to remove the first edition dust jacket from Indiespensables to fit the book into a slipcase. Changes to dust jackets void a first edition.

As someone said, Indiespensables are book club editions.

In some unusual cases, a book club edition is the first edition because it preceded the trade edition (e.g., Susan Sontag’s, In America, and at least one book by Philip Roth printed privately before the trade edition), but Indiespensables aren’t those."

I find the remark unconvincing at best and parochial at worst. We already know that it is not uncommon for a title to have vastly different first editions in varying formats. Also, book club edition refers to mass publication of a title, usually of less desirable paper quality, different boards, dust jacket without price, and sometimes of smaller size, for book club subscribers at reduced price. Indiespensable usually issues the exact first trade edition with the added service of tipping in a signature page, and that makes it non first edition or a book club edition? That’s really twisted logic.

If we follow this logic, that will make a lot of very valuable publisher issued signed limited first edition - often issued in slip case, without dust jacket, and have totally different board design - pseudo first edition? The first that comes to mind is Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: do we take the signed limited first edition or the traded first edition to be the true first, considering they are vastly different in form? That’s a real silly question since both are equally desirable.

What then of the same for the Frosts, the Faulkners, the Updikes, the Roths (Franklin or trade to be the first), and the Morrisons, just to name some? Clearly they are all first editions (and definitely not book club edition) that can be further distinguished as signed limited first edition or first trade edition. The Indiespensable one would simply be a signed limited first edition issued by Powell’s Indiespensable.

Ultimately, the value of the first edition is determined by its demand. As for whether an author really touched a signed book, that’s really puritan hair-splitting. Cormac McCarthy’s first edition of No Country for Old Men sells for 50 bucks, but copies that are identical except for a tipped in page with his signature sell for 8 to 10 times more. And McCarthy most likely never touched those books, but what does it matter?

If one wants to play first edition collection as an investment game, then the real question to ask is not which is the true first edition, but which first edition version of a title is most desirable. If offered at the same price at the secondary market, I’ll always go for the Indiespensable issued Tinkers or The Goldfinch over their flat signed first editions: with the Indiespensable ones, at least I have a much better chance of getting an authentic signature.

Indiespensable issued "Mr Splitfoot" is the same as the first trade edition in every aspect...
except for an additional tipped in page with the author's signature. And that makes it a non first edition or a book club edition? I think that's ludicrous, and the secondary market agrees with me.


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