3 Mistakes to avoid when buying first editions and rare books

3 Mistakes to avoid when buying first editions and rare books

3 Mistakes to avoid when buying first editions and rare books

Book collecting can be a very enjoyable endeavor. Putting together a library of beauty and importance is an incredible journey that many find to be one of the chief thrills of their life. Like any hobby or pursuit, you learn as you go and sometimes make mistakes along the way. We would love, however, if you could avoid the following simple mistakes when starting out so that your quest is a more gratifying one.

Mistake #1 – Misunderstanding the lingo

First, lets explain a few key book-selling terms just to clear up the confusion. I’ll put them in simple, easy understand lingo, but if you want more detailed information, you can see a complete list of terms here.

Octavo – basically a standard sized book

Quarto – a larger book

Folio – an even bigger book

Original boards – kind of obvious, but just to be clear – the original binding of the book without any restoration

Rebound – the boards of the book have been replaced because they looked bad

Contemporary binding or contemporary signature – sometimes we think of the word ‘contemporary’ as being modern, but the true definition of contemporary means ‘belonging to the same time’… so a contemporary binding would mean the binding is from the same time it was published and a contemporary signature refers to a book that was signed near the date of publication

First edition – refers to the first time an author’s work appeared in book form. Technically, collectors desire the first edition, first printing. Although some publishers will state “First Edition” on books that are later printings, these are still later printings. The confusing thing is that different publishers use various methods for distinguishing a first edition. There are whole books written on the subject, of which we recommend Collected Books . In general, most publishers use some version of a number line on the copyright page, with a first printing indicated by the presence of the number 1. The following are some adaptations of number lines, all of which are first printings:

“1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10”
“10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1”
“1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2”

First thus – its not the true first edition, but it is the first edition of a particular edition. For example, the first edition of the illustrated edition.

On a side note, books are most often published first in the country of the author’s origin. Therefore, the true first edition of any J.R.R. Tolkien books, for example, were published in Great Britain. They were then published in the United States. Booksellers will state “First American edition” for the first edition published in the US to distinguish it from the true first.

Custom clamshell case

Signed first edition with a custom leather clamshell case

Clamshell box – not a shiny box made out of clamshells… but one that opens like a clamshell, with one side fitting snugly over the other. There are all kinds out there, some being very plain and only used for protective purposes. We prefer ones that actually look like a leather book, so that you can proudly display it on your shelf.

Morocco – not the country. Morocco refers to goatskin leather traditionally coming from Morocco.

Inscribed – signed by the author to someone.


Mistake #2 – Buying a book club edition

You think you’ve found a rare first edition, but then when you look it up, something seems different. You don’t have the true first… you have a book club edition. Basically, book club editions are the exact copies of the original books that were made to sell on a monthly basis to readers of the particular club. Although they look like the original overall, there are some key differences.

As a general rule, here are some of the ways to identify a book club:

Book Club Blindstamp

Square Book Club Blindstamp

Circular mark to identify a Book Club Edition

1. It will not be priced.

2. It will have a blindstamp on the bottom of the back cover, often square or circular, but it can come in many shapes… even a dog in the case of Knopf.

3. It will be a little bit smaller and lighter than a regular hardcover book and the paper may not be of high quality.

4. The flap of the dust jacket may state “Book Club Edition”.

Occasionally, a book is published for the first time as a book club book. In this instance, or if the true first is virtually impossible to find, it is collected.


Mistake #3 – Buying a book from someone who doesn’t know books

We made the mistake a number of times early on in our business of buying a book from an online auction or other bookseller who either didn’t know books or was intentionally being dishonest. Here are a number of things we’ve encountered that we hope you never do:

1) Stating that the book is a first edition – only to find out when it arrives that it is a book club or a later printing. This is frustrating and a waste of time.

2) Stating the book is in fine or near fine condition – only to find out when it arrives that it is in awful condition. Again, a time waster, as the book needs to be returned.

3) Opening the package of an expensive book – only to find out it was improperly packaged and the dust jacket was not even covered in protective plastic mylar. Again, what a disappointment and waste of time!

4) Buying a signed book… only to find out it is signed on a book plate and not on the book itself . If possible, we like books that have the signature on the book itself. This means that the author actually held that book. A signed book plate does not have that type of significance. We also value inscribed books more than just signed books because it tells more of a story and has more of the author’s handwriting.


We hope that by reading this post that we will save you time and the aggravation of making your own book buying mistakes. If you have any questions, please feel free to email us at mail@raptisrarebooks.com . With regard to mistake #3, we suggest buying from reputable dealers in the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers of America) and ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers). We just happen to be a part of both 🙂

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