If you are interested in book collecting not just for the fun of it, but also for the potential value of it, then you have to know what this whole “first edition” thing is all about. And it’s somewhat misleading.
“First edition” in book collecting is shorthand for a first edition, first printing (or impression). An edition is characterized by having one particular typesetting. A printing is, as the name suggests, a print run of a particular edition. For modern books, the first print run of the first edition is what everyone wants. Usually, anything else isn’t considered a collectible copy.
How do you tell whether it’s a “first edition”?
This is tough. Usually if the copyright page doesn’t specify that the book is a later edition, then it is a first edition. Determining whether the book is a first printing is more complicated. Different publishing houses have different methods for notating first printings. Often, there is what’s called a “number line,” which is usually a string of numbers from 1 to 10, either in order or jumbled. It might look something like this: “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1”. The lowest number in the line tells you what printing it is. If there’s still a 1, then it’s a first printing. If the lowest number is a 2, then it’s a second printing, and so on. Some publishers use letters instead of numbers, with an A corresponding to 1.
If you have a particular book and you want to check whether it’s a first edition, there’s a handy website that lists the first edition points of popular books. (Points are unique characteristics of a first edition that don’t show up in later printings/editions — such as typos, or a review blurb from a certain author). Check it out — First Edition Points.