There can be a lot of confusion when reading descriptions of rare books. When confronted with terms like first edition or third impression, the meaning isn’t always clear. Here is a very brief breakdown of some of the most common terms you will come across.
Edition – An edition encompasses all of the copies of a book that are printed at any time from one particular set of type without substantial changes to the text or layout of the pages.
Impression – An impression encompasses all of the copies of a book that are printed at one time or during one press run.
Prior to 1750 -the period of the handpress with movable type- a printer removed the type from the press as soon as a set number of copies had been printed. The printer had to reset the type each time additional copies were printed. Each of these subsequent printings with reset type was a different impression (and by definition also a separate edition since the two terms effectively meant the same thing due to the working methods used at that time). As a general rule, the term edition is used for older publications and impression is used for modern books.
With modern printing and the advent of stereotyping and lithographic plates, printing plates can be stored and later print runs will be from the same plates. Because of this, the idea of separating out impressions from editions can become problematic. Many books are really the same editions with separate impressions printed over the years. The general rule of thumb is that the term “first edition” is used to describe the first impression of the first edition, unless further qualified (1). When different impressions of a first edition are discussed, it is often because small, but recognizable differences arose between impressions and these become more or less desirable to collectors, usually because of their rarity.
It should be noted that the term “printing” is often used instead of “impression” when books are published in America, but they have the same meaning.
Issue & State – Both state and issue refer to changes made within an edition of a book that do not substantially change the text or layout of the book. Issues often address spelling mistakes that are corrected or information such as dust jacket illustrator attribution or an important book review that the publisher wants to include on the dust jacket, after copies of the edition have already gone on sale to the public. A new issue is usually intended to rectify mistakes made in an earlier version that were not caught before printing commenced.
Like issues, states are also small changes made to the text, binding, or dust jacket within an edition. A change is made to an element of the book while the edition is available for sale to the public and there is no obvious chronology to the change. The different states are available to buy concurrently and there is no preference given to the variations. The main difference between the two terms is the chronological implication of the changes made to issues of an edition.
Hopefully this brief discussion of the terminology used to describe different versions of a book helps to make this subject clearer.
Written by Jessica May, MSc, Appraisal & Senior Research Assistant
Farhad Radfar, ISA, AM
John Carter & Nicolas Barker, ABC For Book Collectors (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004), 87-88.