The secrets of valuable first editions

When it comes to modern book collecting, edition is everything — with 'first edition' being the gold standard.

Mike Selby

When it comes to modern book collecting, edition is everything — with ‘first edition’ being the gold standard.

A brand new copy of ‘The Great Gatsby’ can be had for either $10 (paperback) or $14 (hardcover). A first edition of this book will cost a mere $300,000. While not every first edition of every book published is valuable (130 million of them have been printed since Gutenberg), some do appreciate in worth as time goes on. Even recent authors such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and John Grisham have first editions of their first books commanding high prices.

Far more difficult than trying to raise the needed capital to purchase a first edition ‘Gatsby’ is the unenviable task of trying to identify a first edition ‘Gatsby.’ This is because of something called “points of issue” — a fancy term for human error. Printing a book is a collaborative and complex process, and occasionally something goes wrong.

In the first printing of Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ it was noticed the word “stopped” on page 181 was printed as “stoppped.” This was corrected halfway through the book’s initial print run. So half of ‘The Sun Also Rises’ first editions have “stoppped” on page 181, and the other half have “stopped.” This change in “stopped” is the book’s “point of issue.”

So while one may have a first edition of Hemingway’s book, it is not a true first edition unless it has the misspelled “stoppped.”

This particular point of issue can also be referred to as a second state, a second variant, or a second imprint. Madness.

‘The Great Gatsby’s’ point of issue is actually on the book’s dust jacket. Halfway through the printing, it was noticed the “j” in “jay Gatsby” was lowercase. Yet instead of halting printing, a capital “J” was at first drawn over the small one. The inefficiency of this was soon replaced with a capital “J” stamp. This first edition now has three separate states: one with a small “j”, one with a hand drawn “J”, and one with a stamped “J”.

If only it ended there. While printing of the dust jacket wasn’t interrupted, the printing of the book was stopped numerous times. Words were changed (“chatter” to “echolalia,” “northern” to “southern,” and “sick in tired” to “sick and tired”), creating a first edition book with four variant states, with a three variant state dust jacket.

Not even Dr. Seuss is immune to points of issue. The first edition of the 1937 classic ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street’ is currently priced in the five-figure range. What could possibly have gone wrong in printing 32 pages? Just as the dust jacket was being printed, it was noticed the boy on the front of the cover had white shorts, while inside the book he is wearing blue. It is only the first edition first state (white shorts) and not the first edition second state (blue shorts) which is worth the large dollars.

Typos and shorts are not the only points of issue to be found. Hemingway’s ‘Men Without Women’ had a paper change during its initial printing, causing the later first edition state to weigh considerably more. Lew Wallace dedicated his novel ‘Ben Hur’ to “The Wife of My Youth.” Realizing this made her sound deceased, he corrected it to “The Wife of My Youth: Who Still Abides With Me.” Collectors consider the first dedication to be the “true” first edition of the book.

Not all printing errors are considered points of issue. Mistakes in binding, pages inserted upside-down, or even reversed illustrations for some reason don’t count. Collectors of modern first editions actually consider these mistakes to make the book worthless. More madness.

(The titles above can be read in various editions and formats at the library for FREE.)

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library