How To Identify a First Edition

You’re garage sale hopping on a Saturday, looking for neat things to bring home. You spot a box of books but can’t tell if anything is worthwhile. You’ve heard of that author, never heard of that one, that one’s got a cool cover, how do you know which is better than the other?

Many people will buy books because they want to read them, of course, but if you’re looking to start a collection, you don’t just want any old book to add to the shelf. How can you tell which of those hundred books may be valuable?

You don’t necessarily want to start with your favorite author. Likely, they’re well known and their books are common. Authors such as James Patterson or Nora Roberts are so famous that their books are printed in the millions; this means they retain little value as there’s nothing rare about them. There’s also the other end of the spectrum where you find the author who only wrote two books in her lifetime, over a decade ago, and nobody today knows who she is. Those books may be rare but they are not at all desirable.

The sweet spot is the author who started writing 10-20 years ago who was unknown when he started but whose name is growing today. Examples of this:

Dan Simmons. His first book came out in 1985, titled Song of Kali. You can bet that when Song of Kali came out, no one knew who he was and that book changed hands for years with little collectible value. Today, the TV show The Terror coming out on AMC is based off his book. A first edition copy of Song of Kali is now worth $100.

Donna Tartt. She recently wrote The Goldfinch which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her first novel, The Secret History, came out in 1992. A first edition of that is now worth $35. It’s not as high as the Dan Simmons I mentioned because Song of Kali only has 7 collectible copies available on Amazon where The Secret History has 30 available, making Song of Kali more rare.

What’s crazy about landing valuable first editions is that you almost have to happen on them by accident. It can happen because you saw early titles in a bookstore and thought it looked interesting. You hang onto it for several years while the author’s career blossoms and you wind up with something worth more than you paid. Or else it’ll happen after the author’s career explodes but the person selling it doesn’t realize what they have. This is what’s going on at garage sales. So-and-so is selling her grandma’s old box of books for 50 cents a piece and you snag that early Anne Rampling because you know what it is (Anne Rice’s pen name in the 80s). Otherwise you’ll pay someone who is selling it specifically as a first edition and you’ll pay market price (which is fine if you’re in it just to have it).

So you see something in that box at the garage sale that you suspect is better than the others. How can you tell if it’s collectible? First, it should be hardcover. There can be nice paperbacks out there of course, but collectibles will be hardcover. However, books that sold well had multiple printings so there are hardcovers out there that are third or seventh printings, or more. Open to the copyright page, right in the beginning on the back of the title page (all the fine print), it’ll have the year the book was printed and the publishing company and some other jargon.

The easiest and most sure-fire way to tell is to see “First Edition” printed there, such as how we see it at the very bottom of the copyright page of Rant by Chuck Palahniuk.




Sometimes the words “First Edition” are not stated. The next easiest way to tell is the line of numbers that’s also visible right above the words “First Edition.” If that line of numbers goes all the way down to a 1 that means first. If it stops at, say, 2, such as in the copy of Lamb pictured below, it is a second printing.

Also be

Dean Koontz book club v first edition

ware of book clubs which can be deceiving. Book club editions are mailed to members after being produced as cheaply as possible. A first edition of Watchers by Dean Koontz is worth $60 and if you search on Amazon the cover will look just like the photo over here ->
but that’s a photo of a book club copy. The most telling way is the difference in size. See how much smaller it is versus an actual first edition?

In 2002, Christopher Moore wrote Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. The edition below is styled like a Bible, but notice the copyright page. It says “First Edition” on it, however the number line does not go down to a 1, it stops at 2. The indicator is on the year printed. It shows “Copyright 2002, 2007.” This means the book came out in 2002 and this edition is from 2007. It’s labeled as a first edition because it is the first printing in this style. If there is more than one year printed, it is not a first edition.




I found this copy of Misery by Stephen King and initially thought I’d stumbled on a first, but not quite. There is not a lot of information on the copyright page, the clue was the price printed in pounds on the inside flap. It’s a first UK edition, which is still unique and worthwhile, just not a true First.




But what about really old books? The use of the number line began in the early 1940s. Almost every single book printed should have a date on it and you can rely on the single or multiple dates, even in old books. If you have a book that has 1898 on one side of the page but 1904 on the other, it was reprinted in 1904. If it truly has only one date and it’s a title you recognize (such as The Call of the Wild by Jack London, 1903) it’s honestly a good idea to just go for it. Even if it turns out to be a second printing, those kind of things are simply neat to have.

The photo below is a first UK edition of The House at Pooh Corner, an original by A.A. Milne, 1928. There wasn’t much in formation on the copyright page again; books like these take research because you must absolutely sure of what it is. It may be something of serious value. What’s below is a true First Edition valued around $3,000. Experts have already identified the traits of these special firsts and details such as exact height, board color, page numbers, and inscriptions must match.




Most of the $3,000 books have already been swept up but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some desirable and unique items for cheap. Also, just because it’s a First Edition doesn’t automatically mean it’s valuable, most of the time that’s not the case. It’s when you get those authors who are famous now but didn’t used to be that you can find value. But as far as just enjoying the authors you like and hanging onto those special pieces, they are the kind of valuable that matters to you.

Happy hunting!

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