Identifying First Editions: The Fascination of Points of Issue
This can get a little crazy when no differentiation is made, for example, among cloth colors that change during the same printing run. In that case, you might find that a collector prefers the earlier cloth color, even though "technically" both represent the first edition.
First editions can notoriously masquerade under what might seem low-value books, such as book club editions, or cheap, mass-market paperbacks, so you really have to know what you're doing in order not to throw away potentially valuable books, or sell them too cheaply to those in the know. Science fiction and poetry firsts can frequently be found in softcover format, although these are not usually subject to an investigation of points.
The collection of points of issue and their publication into reference works is hardly a done deal, but instead is an ongoing process. There are works covering centuries, as well as works targeted to specific authors. For example, Bill McBride's Points of Issue, a general work covering literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century (www.mcbridepublisher.com) $12.95, is now in its third edition.
Specific authors (usually prolific authors) who have received attention for their points include standards like Jules Verne and Charles Dickens. Determining a Verne first edition can be particularly problematic. We recently published a new, expanded edition of Jules Verne: A Collector's Bibliography of First Editions & Printings in English, Harwich Port: Clock & Rose Press, 2004) that contained many emendations and expansions of Edward and Judith Myers's classic 1988 work. Verne published the same works under different titles; the points that determine a first edition cover the spectrum of possibilities. The designation of some firsts are still the subject of ongoing arguments among Verne collectors and scholars.
The standard for Dickens points in cloth editions is the two-volume Charles Dickens in the Original Cloth by Walter Smith (Los Angeles: Heritage Book Shop, 1932). Smith notes the difficulty of identification in a paragraph designed to give any bookseller a headache: "The state of the text and plates of the novels originally published in parts often varies in volume-bound cloth copies. Generally the publication in book form was made up from the last-printed sheets of text and plates. Sometimes parts of the earliest state purchased in installments were submitted for binding in publisher's cloth. Copies also exist with a mixture of early and later states. Cloth variants also reflect different states of text and plates. Portions of a copy occasionally are bound from the parts and portions from later printings. Different combinations are not unusual, therefore, and may also be found in bindings other than those in original cloth. Such a lack of consistency therefore renders it difficult to analyze and isolate date and promulgate incontestable statements about Dickens in the original cloth. A further grievous circumstance is that many extant copies in original cloth have been tampered with."