To a collector, first edition always means first edition, first printing. To a publisher, though, First Edition may mean any copy (and thus, any printing) of a title before it was substantially revised.
So technically, nearly all contemporary works of fiction are first editions. A book may have the words “First Edition” on the copyright page, and yet have a number row that identifies it as being a 22nd printing. This is what confuses people, including many people selling books on the Internet. They see the words “First Edition” or “First American Edition” – but completely ignore the printing. Then they go on eBay or Amazon Auctions and say Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, First edition! Then you bid $100 on it, get it in the mail – and find out it’s a 7th printing or something! Or maybe you don’t even know to look and see that it’s a 7th printing, and you think you’ve got a gem of a rare book, when in fact it’s not worth any more than what you could have bought it for at Barnes and Noble or Chapters, which is $17.95. This hurts buyers, and it hurts the knowledgeable booksellers. When a reputable bookseller says a book is a First Edition (with no other qualifier), he should mean that it is also a first printing.
What matters is the printing of the book. And for a collector, the most valuable is almost always the first printing of the first edition.
The Harry Potter Books
Here’s the first thing you should know: ALL of the American editions of the Harry Potter books state “First American Edition” – even for later printings! Many publishers do this. It does NOT mean that the book is a first edition in the collectible sense of being a first printing. With few exceptions, the first printing of any given title will always be more valuable than a later printing.
This doesn’t mean a later printing is worthless, just not worth as much as a first printing. Some people desire or just plain have to settle for later printings because the first printings are very expensive. In these cases, any printing is better than no printing at all. In fact, I’ve personally seen later printings of the UK Harry Potter books go for over $100. Many people don’t care whether a book is a first printing or not: they just want a copy – any copy – and will pay quite a bit to make sure they get one. (Ultimately, of course, a book is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it.) But for those who have deep pockets and are willing to pay a lot of money for one of these books, your money is better spent (and, in fact, better invested) in buying a true first edition, first printing.
So How Much Should I Expect to Pay?
For instance: the first UK printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was listed on the Net by a reputable UK bookseller at $10,000.00! That’s ten thousand dollars. And it sold! The first US printing of this book (released as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) sold on eBay for $1275.00, though there’s a copy on the Net now for $4900.00. Naturally, if you can’t afford this kind of money (I know I can’t), a later printing is your only option if you want the book at all.
The US first printing of the Deluxe Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is selling for up to $5,515 on Amazon, depending on the dealer. The first printing is incredibly scarce. The UK first printing/first issue of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is going on the Net for up to £950.00.
(These prices are not written in stone, but are mentioned to serve as a general guideline for what to expect on the high end. It’s always possible you might find a considerably lower price for any of the above. On the other hand, history dictates that the prices can only go up.)
More on the variants and the so-called “Preferred” variants
An interesting and humorous note: I’ve seen many booksellers calling their second issue books the “preferred” edition, simply because the text has been corrected and copyright assignment fixed. There is no such thing as a “preferred” edition. What these sellers really mean is that they got socked with a stack of second issues instead of first issues. You see this same sort of ploy when a bookseller uses the phrase “as usual” such as, “Spine sunned, as usual.” What this means is that their copy is sunned, not that every copy is sunned, and therefore it’s not usual at all.
Samet Bilir writes about technology trends, digital camera reviews, and photography, such as Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3 and Nikon 5100. To read more articles from him visit his website at chi-photography.com.