Copyright pageThe publishing details for a book are usually printed on the back of the half title or, in some cases, the title page. This page is sometimes called the ‘copyright page‘ or the ‘publishing details page’. Through the years, publishers have used a number of copyright designations to specify the edition or the printing of a particular title. There is no standard specification or legal requirement that a publisher has to list certain copyright information. Because most publishers are not typically in the business of trading in rare and collectible books, they have not necessarily had a strong reason for a unified and consistent way of identifying first editions. As a result, publishers who have been in business for decades have used a variety of printing edition information through their long histories of operation.

Often times the copyright information serves some type of marketing initiative. Publishers have used the ‘copyright page’ to show that a book is so popular that it has gone through 10 printings, when in fact it only had a few copies sold. There is nothing to stop a publisher from skipping over a few printings to boost its popularity. With collectible books, the early printings are usually the most sought after and consequently the most valuable. Collectors, who lack the experience and specialized knowledge of a particular publisher’s practices, may be fooled into thinking that certain early printings are quite scarce when in fact they are non-existent.

During the early the 1930’s, semi-underground literature publisher Jack Kahane, who published some of the works by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Anaïs Nin and James Joyce, mixed serious work with smut, in his Obelisk Press publishing house. He took advantage of a legal hiatus whereby English-language books published in France were not subject to the censorship practiced in the UK and elsewhere. He also took advantage of the lack of any legal requirements to list the various editions or printings sequentially and deliberately skipped over early printings on some of the less popular titles published.

Another publicity stunt employed by publishers is to print statements such as: “Second printing before publication.” In other words, the first edition sold out before the book was even released, but, what it really means is that the book is a second printing if there was a “First printing before publication” published in the first place. While these pre-publication printings, including “advanced review copies,” are technically first editions, they tend to have limited appeal to collectors, who seek “true first”, (a symbolic sign of repetitive redundancy), editions.

A number line might show the printing and sometimes the year of publication in the copyright page. In most cases, the first number on that number line indicates the printing of a particular copy. With each subsequent printing, the publisher removes a number from the number line, thus allowing the lowest number on that line as an indicator of the book’s printing. In some cases, a number is removed from the left side of the line and other times from the right; sometimes the line includes the number ‘10’ and other times the number ‘0’; sometimes the numbers are in sequence  and other times the number sequence has all odd numbers to one side and even on the other side. The Random House hard covers’ line number, for example, when present, does not contain the number ‘1’. The second printings read with the same ‘23456789’ but have no “first edition” specified. Beginning with the years 2002-2003, the publisher sometimes includes ‘1’ in the number row and ‘First Edition’ specified.

Outside the number row the variations in ‘First printing’, ‘First state’, ‘First impression’ and ‘First issue’ designations, proliferate adding more complexity. The most straight forward rule for me is the “reprint house rule”, which applies to the few publishers that do not publish originals. Books from publishers: Sundial Press, Triangle Books, A. L. Burt, Grossett and Dunlap are always considered to be a reprint no matter what they have printed on their copyright page. Now that is simplicity without confusion and mental indigestion!

Quite often publishers neglect to provide the accurate date of edition or printing of the book. They either leave the original copyright date on the copyright page or they fail to provide one. Ideally a book should come with a printing history detailed with dates and actual number of copies in each printing. Many special editions indicate the number of copies produced, but again, there are no guarantees that the information is accurate. I have come across quite a few limited, numbered editions with copies that have no number specified. Sometimes these are identified as the “Not for trade” copies. However, publishers of limited number editions often publish unspecified, unnumbered extra copies for various undetermined other uses. All in all, the lack of standards or legal requirements has led to the creation of what I am calling the “Confusion Page of Anomalies”!


As the pandemic spread and live book fair events shut down around the world, Virtual Book Fairs (VBF) offered a new way to buy and sell books online. At last count, there have been at least a couple dozen virtual fairs organized by IOBA, PBFA, Getman, ABAA, ABA (“Firsts”), SLAM and others. Judging from the variations in the organization of the different fairs, it is quite clear that there is a great deal of experimentation taking place, in the quest to find the optimal setup configuration. Dealers and organizers shuffled around with the number and type of books offered, adjusted the duration of the sale, permitted the addition of new items and so forth. These are the key, adjustable ingredients for a successful show, however, the optimal combination is not necessarily the best option for all three interested parties: organizers, dealers and collectors.

In theory, organizers are interested in two outcomes. First, to maximize earnings by allowing as many dealers as possible to participate, and secondly, to build up interest in attendance by keeping both the dealers and the collectors wanting to come back again and again. These two goals are in fact in conflict with each other. The first is directly related to the number of dealers participating, as well as the fee charged for attendance, while the second stands to benefit from having as small number of sellers selling to a large number of buyers (for the dealers), or a large number of books for sale available to a small number of buyers (for the collectors). While these theoretical scenarios consider only the quantity elements of supply and demand, the more optimal alternative must also consider the elements of quality, scarcity and pricing of the books available for sale. The latter are actually more important in attracting the buyers’ interests.

In practice, our Rare Book Sales Monitor (RBSM) has collected valuable information on the pricing of the offerings, as well as the sale prices of the items that sold. Participating dealers have had almost a year now to fine tune their exhibit approaches to these events, in regards to the selection, uniqueness, visual appeal of pictures and the written descriptions which should express a good story on the importance of the book. However, what the RBSM was able to determine, is that the most important factor to having a good show is pricing. This should come as no surprise since all collectors use pricing comparative information during these shows, which is readily available just a few clicks away.

The more upscale fairs such as those offered by the ABAA, have on average a higher price per item. As a result, the sell-through rates during these events tend to be below average. When comparing the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, for example, which was in November of last year, to the corresponding California International Antiquarian from the first quarter of this year, we see a close to 17% increase in sell-through rates. In fact, the California ABAA show was a much more successful show overall. More items for sale sold at a higher average price, with a higher sell-through rate overall.

The 13.55% sell-through rate is still below the sell-through rates exhibited during other events, such as in those held on Getman’s platform. Shows that are shorter in duration, (day or so,) with less items for sale, do better on average for the participating dealers than those in shows that run for 3-4 days with the option to add more items during the last day of the show. Still, sell-through rates ranging from 50% to 75% are hard to reach for the majority of sellers.

Again, excluded from this analysis is a measure of the quality and uniqueness of the items offered for sale. However, it is safe to assume that while the quality and uniqueness varies from one item to the next, on average this variance is normalized without having significant impact on these comparisons of different configurations held on the same platform.

In conclusion, it seems that physical book fairs allow exhibitors to put hundreds of books on display for sale, while virtual book fairs have a limited display setting. When comparing the performance of standard virtual events with varied durations, numbers of items offered and average pricing, and using sell-through rate as the key measure of event effectiveness, the score is in the dealers’ favor in events with fewer days, less numbers of items, and lower prices. Upscale shows are outliers to this observation as shown by the two shows held by ABAA, where more items at a higher price performed better. Speculatively, the difference was not due to the quality or uniqueness of the books offered, but rather, the result of more collectors joining in the VBF trend after a longer than expected shutdown due to Covid-19.


The Most Complicated Machine

April 5, 2021
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A universal notation with symbols employed that are few and simple enough, furnish the most important assistance in the design of the order and succession of the movements in a machine’s engine. This was the most important tool that Mr. Charles Babbage employed in his attempts to construct his celebrated calculating machines. In his own […]

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The Importance of Translation Exemplified by the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature

February 24, 2021
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The books that sinologists commonly refer to as the Four Great Classics of Chinese literature are: Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and Journey to the West. Their chronology spans from the Chinese Ming dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 2020

January 21, 2021
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While much of the world has come to a stop at times during the pandemic, the rare book trade, confronted with challenges of its own, managed to finish the year without a major loss. It was, however, especially painful for rare book sellers – at least physically – who normally depend on in-store, in-person book […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – Virtual in Boston

December 10, 2020
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Recently, book collectors, book dealers, auctioneers and book trade organizers, connected in three virtual spaces for the annual Rare Book Week, which usually take place in the month of November, in Boston. The new virtual platform settings had the obvious benefits of enhanced reach, scalability and cost-effectiveness, for the organizers, and the potential of boosting […]

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The Trade in the Middle of the Pandemic

October 31, 2020
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Aaah, it’s that wonderful time of the year when New England puts out its glorious foliage as billions of leaves change from green to a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors. The air is crisp and cool — perfect for hiking, and biking along back roads, where farm stands are piled high with crunchy apples and orange […]

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The Fourth Dimension of a Rare Book

October 14, 2020
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Many Russian artists supported the Revolution of 1917, which was led by Vladimir Lenin against the old Tzarist regime, and established the first communist government. They turned their talents to promoting the social justice they believed it would bring, through Suprematism, a new abstract style in Russian art, with roots in cubist and futurist systems […]

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Silent Spring, Silent Earth

September 7, 2020
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In 1962, the American marine biologist and natural history writer, Rachel Carson, published her seminal book, Silent Spring. Carson’s powerful and poetic writing was beautifully complemented by the detail-oriented drawings of American illustrators Lois and Louis Darling. Today, it is considered to be one of the most powerful natural history books ever written; the spark […]

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Islamic Libraries: A Short History

August 19, 2020
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This video highlights the early and spectacular development of public, semi-public, and private libraries in Islamic land between the 10th and the 18th century, from Spain to India and from Timbuktu to Sarajevo. A lecture by Laurent Ferri (Curator of pre-1800 Books and Manuscripts, Cornell University Library). Selected bibliography: ATIYEH, G. N. (ed.), The Book […]

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