Those little printing edition numbers in books, obsolete?

I have a book that says on the title page that it is electronically set, and then says
First printing, October 2008
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Are those lower numbers still of use?

My understanding was that in the days of lead handset and then metal printing plates that the numbers would be removed or flattened, one by one from the outside of the list, whenever a print run was made. This system put the print run numbering in the hands of the pressman.

Seems now, though, with short runs and on-demand printing, with its ability to continually touch up errors, that the system would be replace by software increasing the number. The numbering is now in the hands of the word processor person pushing a print button.

Well, I suspect that they will continue solely because that is how they’ve always done it.

But for many books, print on demand doesn’t work. It’s a relatively expensive process, especially for a book that you want distributed widely.*

On-demand printing has its place for small press books and short runs. Longer runs are much more expensive. No potential bestseller is going to be done on a POD basis.

*In economic terms, POD costs the same per book printed. The first book on a press, OTOH, is extremely expensive – with costs of typesetting and setup a part of the price – but from book #2 on, the only costs are ink and paper. The POD single-book price is higher than that. Thus, there is a point where it is more cost-effective to use a press.

I’m not sure what you mean. If the number line is used - and there are several variants - then somebody has to go into the file and remove the line that says “first printing” when a second printing is done. And then remove the 2 for the third printing and so on. And if there are more than ten printings - which happens for many popular paperbacks that are reprinted over and over - something has to insert a new number line, say 11 through 20, and then start removing those.

I’ve never heard of anyone automatically incrementing the number and I certainly don’t know myself how it could be done although I know next to nothing in that field. However, most books that use a number line come from major publishers doing large print runs rather than short-run presses. Some person in the publishing firm would be the one to change the file or tell the printer to change the file when they are told to print up another 5,000 or 50,000 copies. The accounting office needs to know these things.

Minor errors are often corrected even during a single printing. Various publishers have various ways of handling editions and printings. It takes time to print out a large edition and there are many cases in which an error is caught and corrected without the print number changing. That’s what creates “points” in first editions.

Some smaller presses were notorious for never changing the first edition line no matter what. The pioneering science fiction publisher Gnome Press only put out two or three stated second printings out of 86 titles. Even so, on the rest of the first editions the boards used for the cover would change colors, styles, or materials, the dust jacket might change entirely, and the number of other titles mentioned on the back incremented regularly. Some internal changes are also known. Nobody kept any track of these changes so nobody knows today in most cases which is the “true” first edition.

I’d like to hear from anybody who knows of an automated number line change. Otherwise, it’s some human opening a file, making a change, and resaving it before sending it to the press.

Oh, and the number line will stay because the author gets a huge thrill out of seeing it change. You don’t get that from PoD or electronic publication.

I have a paperback copy of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” that doesn’t have any edition numbers on that page. That makes a bit of sense since it also looks like it’s never been re-typeset in the digital age; the printing quality is pretty poor, like a 2nd generation photocopy.

Printing lines themselves are fairly new, with general use dating from maybe the late 80s. Paperbacks might not have started using them regularly until the 90s. I wouldn’t expect to see them on a 1961 book, even in paperback, unless the reprinting was extremely recent.

It’s not true that they were common in the lead type era. Almost all the older books I know of spelled out the words 6th printing or something similar. A few publishers used a letter line instead of a number line, though, in hardbacks.

Pocket Books was unique, to my knowledge, in providing the entire printing history for some of their books. For a popular mystery, that might use up an entire page. Take Ellery Queen’s Double, Double, because it’s the first one my hand fell on.

Little, Brown edition published June, 1950
1st printing … April, 1950

Dollar Mystery Guild edition published October, 1950
1st printing … October, 1950
2nd printing … June, 1951
3rd printing … July, 1951

Condensation published in Toronto Star Weekly in 1951

Pocket Book edition published July, 1952
1st printing … May, 1952

The Pocket Book printings could go into the dozens.

Those were absolutely invaluable for bibliographic purposes. They also showed how formal publication dates and printing dates varied, which give an understanding of how points could arise. Unfortunately, they stopped doing them in the early 50s.

Some publishers did do a complete history of month and year of printings for hardbacks as well. There are thousands of publishers, and each had a house style.

The use of the number line is for a simple and useful trick. It isn’t for use with lead type as such. But rather it is derived from the nature of the printing plates that are used in the presses. These plates are huge, and a single plate will print many pages. If you look at a typical book you see how the book is bound from sections of pages stiched through their middle, and then assembled into a book. That set is printed by two plates, one for each side. You only need a dozen or so plates for a book.

The plates are metal, and use a lithogrphic process to delineate where the ink adheres. These inked areas are where a layer of hydrophobic material is deposited. Printers use a mild abrasive stone to remove imperfections from plates, by simply polishing off the hydrophobic material. Thus trivial changes to the plate can be made after the plate is made.

Once a print run is done, you can store the plates for a possible next printing. The numbers work very simply. For the next printing the printer polishes off the number of the previous print run, mounts the plates in the press, and proceeds with the run.

If that’s how it works, please explain this line in “Chasing Smoke”-Bill Cameron

12 11 10 09 08 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

The first digits represent possible years of publication. Since the last one is 08 that means the book was published in 2008.

Are first printings more valuable than 12th printings?

Yes probably 99.9% of the time.

Virtually all collectors want the earliest possible edition of a book. Look at any booksellers page. I like because it’s a metasite that searches many others and compiles the hits. For just about any possible book you can name, sorting by highest to lowest puts first editions on top and other editions at the bottom.

What are the exceptions?

A few collectors try to collect all printings and editions of a particular title. A first printing normally is larger than a 12th and so will be easier to find in the future. A signed - or better, inscribed - copy, is usually more valuable even if it’s a later edition. A 12th edition might have a particular rare and valuable error. Some books are spoiled, withdrawn, corrected, added to, or enhanced with pictures, forewords or other apparatus, so that a later edition might be a more valuable for scholarly purposes or a better read or just the definitive edition.

Still, first editions are first editions. It’s the original book straight off the presses, the first exposure of those words to the world. It has historicity, the way a gun that belonged to a famous outlaw is a better draw for collectors than an identical version of the same gun. At one time in recent history, stumbling across any copy of certain books was a rare and wonderful day. The Internet made finding first editions a trivial matter. The race now is to the finest, most complete, earliest, rarest, signed, inscribed, whatever version of any particular book, since that’s the only draw that can entice buyers who can go to bookfinder and see 50 copies competing for attention. So a 12th edition can be sold for a penny plus postage while a first may go for hundreds of dollars. The free market at work.