Thursday 23 September 2010

When is a First Edition Not a First Edition? 1: The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall

For a collector, buying books online can be a frustrating experience. AbeBooks, Amazon and eBay have vastly increased the readily available number of books, but concurrently and consequently have vastly increased the number of hopeless, amateur booksellers. These days, any idiot with an internet connection and half a dozen tatty tomes on their shelf can turn themselves into a bookseller, and indeed judging by what sometimes seems like the overwhelming majority of dealers on Amazon etc., any and every idiot has done just that. Compounding this situation is the fact that most of the books listed on Amazon and AbeBooks don't have accompanying pictures, so all you have to go on is the seller's often incomplete description.

It's all too easy to come a cropper, particularly with twentieth century modern firsts, and more particularly with book club editions of modern firsts. I had a bit of a rant about these last month, but they say it's always better to show than tell, and I'm now in a position to do just that. My vain hope here is that any offending second hand booksellers might stumble across this post and promptly mend their ways. After all, as Captain Sensible once crooned, you've got to have a dream...

I'm planning two posts on this subject, although both highlight essentially the same problem: how some dealers seem to be completely incapable of telling a first edition of a book from book club edition. To be fleetingly fair to these individuals, as we'll see in this first example, at first glance it's perhaps not as straightforward as one might think... the key words there being 'at first glance'. So, here are two books:

These are both hardback-with-jacket editions of The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall, published by Hodder and Stoughton. Now, aside from the fact that the book on the left is in a protective sleeve, they look identical. And if we have a look at the back covers:

they still look the same. I can also tell you that they feel the same when you hold them – they have the same weight. Open the books up and take a gander at the back flap of the dustjacket:

and again, they're identical. And if we take a look at the indicia at the front of the books:

Once again, there is no difference. Now, at this point, you might reasonably conclude that they are both first editions. They both state "First printed 1982", with nothing to indicate either book is a reprint, or indeed a book club edition. But take a look at the front flaps of the books, and you'll soon see there is one indisputable difference:

If you look at the bottom corner of each jacket flap, you'll see the book in the mylar jacket has a price printed, and the other book doesn't. What does this mean? It means the book without a price on the flap is a book club edition. It's that straightforward. Book clubs editions of books don't have prices on them because of course book clubs sell books at a discount. Therefore a book without a price on the jacket flap isn't a first edition.

Is that really so hard to understand? Apparently it is. I've ended up with book club editions so many times when buying books online that I'd begun to question whether this price/no price rule was really so cut and dried; whether publishers like Hodder did indeed occasionally issue books without prices on the flap. (Answers: it is; and they didn't.) Even second hand bookshops aren't immune from mixing book club editions up with first editions: just the other day I noticed the Lewes Book Centre down the road had done precisely that with a Len Deighton hardback. Now, it strikes me there are two ways of looking at this, one slightly more charitable than the other:

a) The offending second hand booksellers simply don't understand the difference between first editions and book club editions, in which case as far as I'm concerned they haven't any business selling second hand books in the first place, or

b) The offending second hand booksellers do understand the difference and are selling these books under false pretences, in which case as far as I'm concerned they haven't any business selling second hand books in the first place.

I'm not sure which of these conclusions is the worse. Either way, I still end up with the wrong sodding book. And you may very well be sitting there smugly thinking to yourself, 'Oh for Christ's sake, what's the big problem? Those two copies of that Lyall book are almost exactly the same anyway. What does it matter one has a price and one doesn't?' To which I would reply, it matters to me, chum. I collect first editions. I don't (as a rule) collect book club editions. If I purchase a first edition of a book online, what I expect to receive in the post is a first edition of a book – not a reprint or a book club edition. It's the principle of the thing as much as anything. I mean, are honesty or a certain level of competence really too much to ask for? (Mmyeahhh: don't answer that one.)

(Of course, when the difference between a first edition and a book club edition can come down to the existence or otherwise of a price on the front flap, what does that mean for second hand books that have been price-clipped...?)

So, as posed in the title to this post, when is a first edition not a first edition? When it's a bloody book club edition, that's when. Dumbass dealers take note. And that concludes the first of my two show-and-tells. The second one will be along soon. You have been warned.


  1. I'm with you on this one, Nick! All the way.

  2. What do you do when you pay for a first edition and get a book club edition? Are you giving these people poor feedback? Demanding your money back?

    Maybe you could do a BCE book burning?

    I have a signed first edition book club edition of John Grisham's The Firm from the early 90s. I was so proud of it at the time. It was before I knew about BCEs. I thought I really had something and I had a feeling this Grisham guy would be a big hit. Once I wised up about the BCE part (sadly, it took several years) I put my copy in with my dad's book collection. He quite likes it.

  3. See the subsequent post for answers to your questions. And I own knowingly-bought book club editions of a few things myself -- a couple of Fleming's Bond novels, for example, first editions of which are out of my league. It's the muddle some dealers get into I object to. At length. At least twice now.