In my earlier post, Edition vs. impression, I touched on the carefree habits of many publishers in the way they indicate printing history in their books. There’s no international standard (well, there probably is now: we seem to have standards for everything these days) for how you should refer to the printing history of your books, or indeed whether you have to refer to it at all. So one publisher may talk about impression, another about edition, another about printing, another just print a list of digits indicating the number of the printing, and yet another remain silent about the whole matter of how often the book has been reprinted and from which printing the copy you are looking at might come. An even more extraordinary twisting of the language is alluded to by John Carter in his ABC for Book Collectors. He tells us, referring to the printing of words like “First printing before publication” on the imprints page, “it is worth recording the practice of Victor Gollancz and other 20th-century publishers of sending a modest printing order with the copy for setting, subsequently increasing it, on more favourable reports of likely sales, once, twice or even more times. Each of these was declared the ‘second, third, nth printing before publication’ (now you even see ‘first printing’ or ‘first and second printing before publication’), and all before a single sheet had been printed.”

This means that when you see a claim about printings before publication, you should be cautious in believing it. It may well (will probably) be true that the “first and second printings before publication” were in fact a single printing. The phrase in effect means nothing more than “we changed our minds a couple of times about how many we should print”. There isn’t really enough time between printing and publication to allow for multiple printings: back in the last century you’d be lucky to get a reprint done in less than six weeks. I have been involved in books which went out fast and for which we had to place an order for a reprint a few days before the official publication date, but never one where we’d hold the first printing for a month or more and wait for the second printing to arrive before releasing the book. Such claims of multiple printings before publication are just a minor form of marketing: you, the bookstore browser are meant to think “Oh my; this book is so popular that they have to reprint it almost every week. I’d better rush to the till to secure my own copy before they run out”! The more “serious” the publishing house, the less likely such relatively harmless deceptive labelling is. I’ve not seen this sort of notice for a long time, so I suspect it’s a thing of the past.

Mr Carter goes on to consider the use of the words “first printing” to describe the publication of a poem or essay in a newspaper or magazine prior to book publication, where it clearly has a more literal sense. He also lists First published edition, which implies the existence of a private distribution prior to full book publication, and First separate edition, which might be used in a case where the piece in question had previously been published as part of another larger collective work.