If first edition is true, to state the impression is unnecessary.
For example, a commonly encountered children’s book by JK Rowling (500 were in the first print run I am told, and many survive) is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997. Obviously not rare; about 20 ‘first editions’ were brought up on a search service at eye-watering prices ranging from £15,000 to £168,000.
The lower price is for a paperback, and that described by its seller as one of only 5015 copies and exceptionally rare!
Descriptions such as ‘first edition fourth impression’ also appear. Surely there are worrying contradictions and confusion here for the buying public?
ATG replies: An impression is a reprinting of the same edition (occasionally with very minor amends). This is possible for modern books because printing plates can be stored and used to create identical reprints later. So if you have a book from the fifth time that the first edition was printed it would be the fifth impression of the first edition. Additional impressions are brought out by publishers when demand outstrips the initial print run. In the US ‘printing’ is typically used instead of ‘impression’.
An edition, in contrast to an impression, occurs after the book is changed in some meaningful way such as when the manuscript is significantly edited or added to, or when a new type setting is used.
Such alterations would typically require a whole suite of new printing plates to be made. For example, a new edition of a text book is often created when the author updates the information after new research.
Among the minor tweaks made to the second impression of the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were corrections to the two errors on the outside back cover of both the hardback and paperback – ‘Witchcraft and Wizardry’ (which on the first impression was incorrectly printed as ‘Wizardry and Witchcraft’) and ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ (which on the first impression was incorrectly printed as ‘Philospher’s Stone’), as pictured here.
Once collectors had spotted this change it was used to show up the occasional fake, whereby the pages from a paperback first edition first impression had been removed and inserted into the cover of the second impression hardback in an attempt to pass it off as a first edition first impression hardback. The number line on the copyright page would usually tell you which impression it is. In the first impression it runs from 10 down to 1, in the second impression it runs from 10 down to 2.
Of course, a collector would not consider a second impression of the first edition a true ‘first edition’. The second impression Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hardback sells for far less than the first impression.
Recent second impression examples at auction this year include those at Bonhams (£5500), Lyon & Turnbull (£4000) and Mullen’s (€5200). A first edition, third impression – the first version to include a dust jacket – sold at Bonhams for £2800 in June 2021.
PS: We understand there were 5150 – not 5015 – first edition, first impressions of the paperback.