The first edition refers to a book's first printing run. For some blockbuster titles, this can be as many as 50,000 copies or more. But for older books, or books originally published by small imprints, the first run may have been as few as 100 copies. For books that have subsequently become desirable or prized for their place in literature, the first edition is almost always published in a smaller, and thus more collectible, print run.

Beyond sheer scarcity, first editions are also collected because they are considered to be the closest a reader can get to the author’s original intent for his or her work. Thus, first editions are sought if a book has been changed for the second printing. Changes include new prefaces, text corrections or edits, and changes to a book’s format or binding.

Especially collectible are first editions of books that went on to win any of the numerous literary prizes that the publishing world annually bestows upon itself. For example, “Where the Wild Things Are” earned Maurice Sendak a Caldecott Medal in 1964 for being a distinguished picture book for children, but it was published in 1963, so covers of the first edition do not feature the famous Caldecott seal like subsequent editions do. Similarly, Frank Herbert’s science-fiction masterpiece “Dune,” from 1965, won both a Hugo and a Nebula award in 1966, but the cover of the first edition reflects none of this.

In general, there are as many types of collectible first editions as there are collectible categories of books. After the 2009 film “Julie & Julia” revived interest in chef and author Julia Child, prices for first-edition copies of her 1961 cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” soared, although it’s a safe bet that the movie-fueled demand will not be long-lasting. Not all first editions need to be vintage to be collectible. For example, the success of the recent “Twilight” vampire movies has made first-edition copies of Stephanie Meyer’s 2005 novel of the same name quite collectible.

The other thing to consider when collecting first editions is the country where a book was originally published. First editions produced for readers in the writer’s home country are usually more collectible than those printed in foreign countries. The most famous example of this is probably J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” which was published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. in 1997 before being re-titled by Scholastic in 1998 for the U.S. market as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” That first Bloomsbury edition numbered around 1,000 copies, which is why copies of this edition routinely sell in the six figures.

Novels from the 19th century present the collector with a number of unique challenges. First, the paper and binding is obviously very old, so caring for a first edition from that time period requires attention and effort—it may not be wise to simply shove a first edition of “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens onto a crowded bookshelf. The other issue particular to Dickens is that many of his books were initially serialized, which means there is typically a first edition “bound from the parts” as well as a “first edition in book form.”

The other problem with 19th-century novels, especially the early ones, is that books were routinely rebound to make the covers more attractive than their originals. During rebind...

Modern first editions are books from the Edwardian era through contemporary times. The quality of the dust jackets of these editions can have a large impact on the value of modern books, in no small part because the artwork on them is sometimes as highly regarded as the writing within. Famous covers include those for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925), John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939), and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951).

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