The art of identifying first editions is a relatively complicated one, in part due to variations between publishers. Alibris publishes a full guide to the issue as does Bookseller World and you might consider picking up a copy of A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride, but here are some hints to get you started:
- Start by looking at the dust jacket or wherever the price is normally located. If there isn't a price tag, chances are it's a Book Club Edition and is probably worthless. The dust jacket may even be labeled "Book Club Edition"
- Go to the Copyright page. Look for the words "First Edition" or "First Printing" or look for a string of numbers for instance these from my copy of Attila the Hun by John Man:
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
If the number "1" is the first in the sequence, it's a first edition. If not, even if it says "First Edition 3 5 7....", then it's not a first edition. Some publishers use letters instead and "A" replaces "1." The one exception is Random House, which does write "First Edition 3 5 7...." for its first edition. Confused yet?
- When the numbers are missing, editions are labeled as such. However, if the copyright says something like "First Penguin Edition 2009" and then below the title the word "2010," it is not the first edition. Basically, if there are ANY dates later than the first edition date on the page, it's not a first.
- As the book rises in rarity, be more wary of fake dust jackets. This issue is handled well on artbusiness.com, and I suggest you take a look there before buying a 1st edition Great Gatsby or Color Purple, but for the moment it pays to double check dust jacket information with the copyright page for rarer books.