Why do people seek first editions of books?

I understand if you’re a crazy collector, but is a first edition really any different in content from subsequent editions?

So how would you answer this question:

Given the quality of modern printing techniques, why would anyone want to own an original Van Gogh, instead of a high-quality modern copy, which shows the exact same picture?

Only the first editions have the packet of collectible trading cards (plus the stick of chewing gum) still inside.

I think the first edition of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises had a typo that was corrected in the next edition.

From the point of view of a historian:

First editions of books are those who are the most close to the original.

Original = the text as it was created by the author himself and on which all other copies or versions go back to. The original is the first, primair text like it was born in the mind of the author.
From certain texts more then one original (in the different forms in which such originals are transmitted/preserved) came to life.
Some of these are versions of an original reviewed by the author himself. In these cases you have however to look at them as if they are new originals stemming from a more or less different source. (= by changing some of his wordings about the issue the author is at the same time the same yet also different as a source).

First editions are by necessity looked at as being able to represent originals whenever the originals on which they are based on got lost.
Because the first edition of a book is the first book that was made out of the original, it is the one who gives you insight in what the author had in mind when he was writing = what he wrote in his original. And in addition: which of these originals was used as example for that first edition.

First editions are extremely valuable and interesting because of a lot of factors considering formal historical textcritic and text repair etc…

Salaam. A

Alexander Woollcott to George S. Kaufman:

Woollcott (proudly holding a copy of his new book): "Oh, what is so rare as a Woollcott first edition?

Kaufman: “A Woollcott second edition.”

One of the reasons I like them so much was listed by Aldebaran, the text is what the author wrote. I also find, a lot of the first editions are much nicer copies. The cover is often nicer, and the artwork is something chosen by the author, as representative of his characters or story. Acid free paper is fairly common in first editions (more recent ones, anyway), too. I like to know if I take care of a book, it will age nicely, and can stay looking mint for many years.

It’s also interesting to me, to see the changes (if any) made later on. I’ve never even touched a first edition of The Hobbit, and would be afriad to! heh I doubt I’d even want to breath on it. However, I know the part involving Gollum had been changed, and how cool would it be, to see for oneself, how Tolkien changed the book to fit the later book (or some call it trilogy)? A more recent example, Stephen King changed a bit about the first book in the Dark Tower series. I like being able to compare the two, I guess a way to sort of see inside the author’s head. Of course, I love any books, paperbacks included, but try to buy first editions, when I know it’s a book I love and plan on having around for a long time.

I don’t know that this is true. From everything I have read the author has little influence over anything except the “author’s biography” because she provides the information.

Oh please.

The “value” of first editions are 99% of the time artificial. The implication is that I (or whoever originally bought this book) was so astute to recognize this author’s talent I “discovered” him/her before all the rest of the rabble. The little errors and goofs are a charming badge of faux coolness, no more.

Furthermore, from what I’ve been led to believe by publishing business pals, a publisher won’t correct typos, errors and author’s tweaks so easily. Film and plates are difficult and expensive to change. Chances are that a third edition will look and read exactly like a first edition. Going from hard cover to soft cover editions is often where a lot of the tweaking will take place.

Lastly, I would imagine that a first edition (for a new author, especially) is the version least like the author’s original intention. That’s when he/she has no power to impose his/her will. When the book is in its tenth printing, is making money for the publisher like mad, and has turned the author into a star that the publisher wants to keep very happy, that’s when the author can say, “You know Jack, I never did like the way you made me change the third sentence in the first paragraph on page 239. I think we should change it back.” And they’ll change it back.

There may be a half dozen authors in the world who have any say over their cover art and design. That still probably exaggerates it.

And, as stuyguy says, the first edition text is almost always the farthest from what the author intended.

The “why” behind first editions reduces to circular reasoning. Collectors want first editions because that’s what other collectors have declared to be valuable.

If there is a rationality behind this decision, it’s a bit like that of toy collectors, who want their toys as pristine as possible, even in the original sealed package, no matter that it makes the toy untouchable. (Some first edition books are too fragile to be touched as well. Like mint comic books, you’re not supposed to read a first edition - you put it away and buy a second reading copy for the mundanity of looking at the words.)

It’s the sense of having been there at the very beginning, at the first minute that the collectible was available. It’s an attempt to recreate the amazement of seeing it for the first time, that childlike awe and wonder at something so new and special that no words will capture the feeling.

Philip K. Dick once described this as “historicity.” A gun may look to be just a gun. A gun used in an assassination has acquired an intangible bit of history that can never be rubbed off, and so it looks more special than all the equivalent guns of its type in the world.

Similarly, I’m not a fanatical autograph collector, but I understand why some people will go to any lengths to get an author to put a name on a book. It’s good on a paperback reprint: it’s extra-special on the first edition hardcover.

And on a lower plane, the overwhelming majority of books never get a second printing. Those that do are in a tiny class of their own, which gives them a certain meaning. How you rate that meaning will also define how much of a collector’s mentality you have.

Famous paintings, fancy jewelry, antiques of any flavor, and all “collectibles” in general are exhanged as individual sales or at auction on one and only one basis.

The price/cost of anything is that which a willing seller and a willing buyer can agree upon.

The real question is as to why anyone wants to collect anything.

Just because? RIGHT? A mild insanity? Probably!

What are the objects you collect?

The woman to be buried with $20K of Jewelry was a bit insane in my opinion.
Those who robbed the casket…just plain greedy.

I missed this, do you have more?

lots of good input here; I especially agree with Aldebaran and Exapno.

Some people “get” collecting (like me, who collects first editions) and others don’t (like my wife).

Some people “get” the “historicity” of stuff - nice reference Exapno - and others don’t. I remember being at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and seeing the arming pin from Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima - looking at it through the glass, it just felt steeped in the gravity of that event. I still get freaked thinking about it.

For me, even though I first read Dune as a paperback - and remember where I was when I read it as a teen - getting the first edition was a big deal for me. Not only do I love the book for it’s story, but, yes, holding the first edition simply feels cool. Call me geeky or whatever - that’s your call - but as a person who is into the “historicity” of stuff, I love the charge I get. Then, as a collector, the hunt I had to go through to secure a true first (Dune has been a notoriously hard book to identify as a true first until the past few years) had a whole “collector’s thrill of the chase” aspect to it.

Stuy said it was all artificial - sure. Many, if not most, of Man’s pursuits have an artificial, agreed-upon value at best. Sports? Well, if we agree to these rules, this approach to competition and this definition of champion, then we have manufactured a vehicle for emotion, fun and a ton of money. Same with collectibles - here are the rules, the criteria for value and the relative amount people will pay - place your bets and see if that value holds true over time. For me, since I love Dune anyway, I am happy - but also confident that the rules will hold for some time and it will continue to go up in value…

Well one thing is rarity. IIRC a lot of 1st Editions of The Hobbit were desytroyed in a fire. If there are only 500 copies of a book, it is going to be more valauable than a book with 50,000 copies.

The D&D Book “Dieties and Demigods” originally had Cthuhlu (and Elric) dieteis in it. Turs out there were copyright problems so TSR had to redo the book without it. Therefor copies with Elric/Cthuhlu are more values. The books aren’t even that old.


I did not realize this. I did a little hunting (once), since I wondered what King’s reasoning was behind the artwork in the Grant editions of his Dark Tower books, and found a little snip about him choosing the artist himself. I don’t particularly like the style, but assumed it was true, and extrapolated from there. What I do notice, is that the artwork seems to be nicer. I like the full color pages of pictures, and though some paperbacks seem to have them, those are almost as expensive as buying the hardcover anyhow. I guess I have a hard time with believing authors don’t have a final okay on the artwork included in a book, if not taking part in the selection itself. Not doubting you, but would appreciate some elaboration on this point. Either way, I still like the artwork more often than not in a first edition hardcover, as opposed to a reading copy paperback.

Related to the points made by stuyguy and Exapno Mapcase, editors preparing scholarly editions of literary works often prefer to use the last edition seen through the press by the author as their principal copytext. The argument is that deciding that one edition is ‘better’ than the other can be pretty arbitrary, but at least the author probably thought that any changes he or she made were improvements and it is their views which should be respected. Of course, ideally editors of such editions will include details of the variants as well.

Well, nevermind don’t ask, I did some searching, and came up with what appears to be a fairly standard contract and a section detailing artwork control:

Doesn’t sound like the author has much control at all, consider ignorance fought. Flinching under “Publisher has final approval…” heh

You’re not going to believe this, but that is the most amazingly liberal cover art clause I’ve ever seen in a contract. Only a small specialty press would ever give an author even an opportunity to submit art under any circumstances.

I just checked through several of my own book contracts - all from much larger New York houses - and not one had even a single word in it about cover art. Not submitting it, or approving it, or having veto power over a cover I hated (which has happened), or even getting to see it before the cover was completely printed.

I’m glad your example convinced you, but I would kill a first-born to have a clause that wonderful in a book contract.

As noted by stuyguy and others, that’s not always true, especially in genre fiction. I recently read The Black Flame by Stanley G. Weinbaum. (SF buffs, scroll down for the back cover blurb and see who liked him!) The first publication was as a serial in an SF magazine, with large chunks cut. IIRC, the magazine version was published a few years later, but the the current uncut version is from a copy of the original manuscript.

I don’t hunt for first editions, but it is pretty cool to stumble across one by an author I like. Mostly I prefer reading copies; that’s what books are for!

This is about books, so I’ll move the thread to our arts forum, Cafe Society.

moderator GQ