Opinion: First editions offer enduring appeal for book lovers

Row of antique books and first editions on a wooden library shelf

Printed books are still much in demand - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Andrew Lindsay-Bullock, head of books at Keys Auctioneers & Valuers, explains the collector appeal of literary first editions.

For many people, the main appeal of a book is the content – the characters, the story, the language – rather than the physical book itself. But that is by no means a universally-held view, which is one of the reasons that printed books are still much in demand despite the invention of the Kindle and other electronic reading devices.

For collectors, the ultimate manifestation of the love of the book as an object is the first edition. But why should a first edition be more collectable than any subsequent reprint of a book, especially as publishers sometimes invest more in design and printing for successful titles once they know that the title is going to be a bestseller?

Close up of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol which is for sale at Keys December book sale

In Keys December Book sale is a rare third edition of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, sought after because of its exquisite hand-coloured illustrations. It has a pre-sale estimate of £600-£900. - Credit: Keys Auctioneers

The main draw of the first edition is that it is the closest the reader can get to the author’s own actual intent. This is the first time that their work will be introduced to the world, so they tend to be much more involved in the production of a first edition than in subsequent editions. They may have a say in how the actual book looks and who illustrates it.

The first edition is also the ‘purest’ form of the book, unsullied by marketing claims about the number of copies sold or the number of awards won (because, obviously, these are things that can only happen after the first edition is published).

Rare limited edition first edition, signed by Ian Fleming, which is for sale at Keys Auctioneers December sale

A limited edition first edition of Ian Fleming’s ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, numbered 233/250, and signed by the author, which has a pre-sale estimate of £4,000-£6,000 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers

For authors who are still in the early stages of their careers, first editions tend to be produced in relatively small quantities, adding rarity to the attraction. Beware, though, not all first editions are rare. For example, by the time that later Harry Potter books were published, the first edition print runs were huge – 12 million for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

So what should you look for if you want to start collecting first editions? The first thing is to ensure it really is a first edition. There are various ways of doing this, including checking that the edition date is the same year the book was first published. Sometimes authors will change publishers and their new publisher may then issue a first (for them) edition, which is not the same thing at all.

Illustrated first edition of Frankenstein which is for sale at Keys Auctioneers December sale in Aylsham

In Keys December Book Sale is a first illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ dating from 1831, which has a pre-sale estimate of £2,500-£3,000 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers

Secondly, check whether the book has an ISBN number. These only started being used in 1966, so a book published before then should not have an ISBN number in the first edition.

Another obvious clue is that first editions shouldn’t list subsequent books in a series. If your first edition Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone lists the other books in the series, it’s obviously not a first edition (if it is genuine, then congratulations: only 500 were printed, and one sold for £68,000 last year). 

Of course, rarity and monetary value are two reasons why so many people like to collect first editions. But for the true book lover, the main attraction will always be the close connection with the author themselves and their mindset at the time of writing.

Keys’ next book sale takes place on Thursday and Friday, December 9–10 at its Aylsham salerooms and live on Keys’ online bidding platform KeysLive. For more details visit www.keysauctions.co.uk

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