Identifying First Editions: The Fascination of Points of Issue

- by Renee Roberts


Smith's Dickens in Original Cloth is the standard for Dickens points of issue.

By Renée Magriel Roberts

Seeking a first edition is an ongoing preoccupation of any bookseller. We all know that the difference between a first edition and a second printing just after the first can be very significant.

For example, in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (London: Macmillan, 1872) prices range from $250 - $1000 for a second printing, but $1500 - $5500 for a first, depending upon condition, binding, and other amenities. The only thing that distinguishes a first and second printing of this book is a tiny typo on page 21: instead of the correct word "wabe" (as in "gyre and gimble in the wabe" in "Jabberwocky"), the typesetter set the word as "wade". A "d" instead of a "b" makes all the difference. Counter-intuitively it is the incorrectness of the typesetter that makes the book valuable, rather than the corrected printing with the intended words of the author.

Now, as it happens, we sold a copy of this book about a year ago acquired from another dealer. When it arrived we noticed a smudge right over the "d" (or was it a "b"?) in what should have been "wade", immediately making us suspicious that somebody had tried to alter the critical letter in order to make the book appear to be a first edition.

We couldn't see what was going on with the naked eye, or even clearly with the magnification we ordinarily use to look at the tiny signatures in plates or other minutiae. So we took the book to our very talented bookbinder who subjected it to a number of other tests. He measured the height of the other "d"s in the book and examined the type style, explaining that if a word is scraped off the page and reprinted it rarely conforms to other irregularities in the type. After the word passed that test we took the book upstairs to an engineer who had a very high magnification light table. Even if a word is scraped off and then reprinted exactly, a light table will show if the paper has been altered. Happily, it was not. The smudge was, after all, just a smudge, perhaps made by somebody pointing out the "point" that made the book a first edition.

This kind of technical determination is a bit extreme, but the necessity of identifying points is all too common, particularly in literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where multiple issues of the same book occurred in the same year (a "first issue" and a "second issue") and the only distinguishing feature is the existence of typesetting errors of spelling, punctuation, additions, or omissions; or a binding difference in the kind or color of material or decoration, the placement of the titles on the binding, the placement of illustrations, any difference related to the dustjacket, collation, or any other consistently distinguishing feature that only occurs in the first issue and was corrected or changed in subsequent issues of the same year.