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LIST of ESSAYS
In Defense of Jargon
How can I tell if my book is a first edition?
This is not always an easy task. Each publisher has their own way of indicating a first edition –and that way changes over time. Even when you have reference books like Zempel's First Editions: A Guide to Identification and McBride's A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions, there are exceptions. Sometimes due to an oversight, a publisher does not follow their own "rules". Part of the reason for this is that publishers really don't care much about making a first edition recognizable, they're much more concerned about selling the current editions of their books.
Even when a book indicates "First Edition" on the copyright page, the book may not be a first edition. It may just be a first edition in that format –meaning with those illustrations or with that publisher. It may also be a later printing of the first edition –which in many instances is not considered a first edition for book collecting purposes.
My point is that if you collect seriously (you are putting what you consider serious money into your collection), it behooves you to get a few reference books and do some research. Consulting and dealing with a reputable book dealer is also important. Just by dealing with books on a full-time basis, we know many of the common pitfalls –and quite a few of the less common ones. We also know when to consult reference sources and which sources to consult. Though, over time, a focused collector will get to know his or her specialty better than most dealers.
If a book is a first edition, is it valuable?
Probably not. Every published book, no matter how bad it is, had a first edition. Most books are never reprinted, so every copy of that title is a first edition. The first edition of a book becomes sought after and valuable when it gets reprinted numerous times –especially when the first printing was relatively small.
Among the most valuable first editions are the first editions of early books written by famous authors before they became famous. These were usually printed in small quantities because the author was not yet famous, yet now there is a large demand for these books. The first edition of an author's first book is often the most valuable book of that author. This is especially true in fiction.
The reading habits of a person often determine whether they have accidentally acquired a valuable first edition. In fiction, an adventurous reader who buys hardcover novels by unknown authors is more likely to have a valuable first edition among their books than someone who sticks to best-selling authors. Once an author becomes a bestseller, the first editions become so large that they rarely have value.
IN DEFENSE OF JARGON
Like any field, bookselling has its jargon --and like any jargon, it's often confusing to the uninitiated. Terms have accumulated over the centuries and come from many different sources. Some are printer's terms; some are bookbinder's terms. Yet some bookseller's terms mean different things to printers than they do to booksellers and book collectors. To someone starting out it can seem illogical or even purposely used to confuse those who don't know the terms.
Part of the reason for the terms is that collectors and booksellers are interested in elements of the book that most people don't care about and often don't notice. There aren't any plain language words for some of these terms. On the other hand, there are a lot of terms that could be modernized. I think that is the reason most people look at the jargon in a field, be it law, medicine or bookselling, as a way to keep the uninitiated out --a barrier to keep the merely curious out and a way to make the job look more difficult than it is.
I look at it from another viewpoint. Jargon is the key to the history of any field. If, for example, a field converted their jargon to plain language (which will only seem plain in this century), then new entrants into the field will not learn the jargon and in a surprisingly short time the history of that field will be lost from those practicing it. All reference works from prior to the conversion will soon become unintelligible to those who could learn from them. Just learning the terminology of a field often gives you a history of the field. And who would deny that the history of any field is important --especially one that deals with historical artifacts as bookselling does.
For example, you may come across the term "Quarto" (also Qto and 4to) which is rather anachronistic when applied to modern books, but it gives quite a bit more information than just size when used in describing an older book. It means the book is 11" to 13" tall. It also means the book is squarer than your standard volume and that the printed sheets were folded in four to create 4 leaves (8 pages). It helps identify a specific book bibliographically, even when the size is nonstandard due to trimming during the rebinding process or when the deckle was removed.
John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher) is a good source for the language of book collecting.