The book industry employs smart people who all know their stuff. We all know what we mean when we say “edition”. The trouble is we often mean different things. This tends perhaps to run in companies: what they mean by “impression” in Company A may be different from what they think of in Company B. And books tend to hang around: what now might be described as the first printing, or first edition, may carry on the copyright page something like First impression. On any one day you may look at a book published last week, and another last century, or even the century before. The terminology used today differs from that used 200 years ago. The terminology used in the antiquarian book trade is different from that used in the publishing industry. Publishers reps will tend to use the same terminology as their bookseller customers use, which may not be the same as their editorial or production colleagues mean by the term.

Impressions really means the number of images produced in a single press run. Edition properly means a unique and fixed version of a book. A reprint is a reprint, not a reprint edition. A new edition is a book reprinted with so many changes (The Chicago Manual of Style suggests 20%) that it represents a new book; one which libraries and specialists will feel they have to buy even if they already own the previous version. Less than 20% and the book would be called a reprint with corrections.

When bibliophiles talk about a first edition, what they really mean is the first printing of a book. However Fredson Bowers in Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949) defined an edition is “the whole number of copies printed at any time or times from substantially the same setting of type-pages,” including “all issues and variant states existing within its basic type-setting, as well as all impressions.” This would mean that the 20th printing would still be part of the “first edition” even if a few corrections had been made to the type! Wikipedia has a good article explaining all these nuances and different usages.

With old books printed by letterpress in the early days of print it took so long to complete a run that corrections were often made while the job was still running. Thus the first printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio (see the section “The First Folio and variants”) contains corrections made while the job was on press, so that one “first edition” may well be different from another “first edition”. This allows endless scope for pretty reductive scholarship.

How do you identify a first edition? is answered by Babcock Books here. They give some interesting details about the practice of different publishers, which unsurprisingly has changed already. A recent Knopf book I am looking at carries on its imprint page the following quirky information: “Published October 17, 2013/Reprinted One Time/Third Printing, December 2013”. The way I like to see this would be “First published 2013/Reprinted 2013 (twice)”. As the book goes on the wording might continue “Reprinted 2014/Reprinted with corrections 2015/Second edition 2016” and so on. The reason to supply this information is communication with librarians, bibliographers and scholars — if the message is worth communicating it’ll certainly benefit from clarity and consistency. Those lines of numbers indicating printing number are better than nothing, but barely — and going back to the past, nothing is often what you get. On the other hand, being told the book was published on 17 October may be information overload, but no doubt people at Knopf would disagree with me about that.