Is Your Copy of Harry Potter Worth $20,000: How to Identify a First Edition

According to Fine Books and Collections “ A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first of J.K. Rowling’s hugely successful novels about a boy wizard, is to be sold at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts Sale in London on 9 November. The copy, described as being in exceptionally fine condition, is estimated at £15,000–20,000.”

So, how can a reader or collector tell if her copy is something to take to Sotheby’s for auction or to accept $1.50 from a used bookstore for? For the most part, the book industry post-1970's has a fairly clear and uniform way to identify a first edition. There are some exceptions that we will get to.

Remember when we all liked this, America? Yikes.

So the important identifying point is NOT whether the book is identified as a first edition on the copyright page. The Da Vinci Code sold something like 50 million copies in hardcover. All of these will have “FIRST EDITION” printed on the copyright page. Until a re-released edition comes out (typically with new cover art) everything is technically the “FIRST EDITION”. This is a reason to be very cautious when purchasing a book from a re-seller on Amazon listing a book as a first edition. Often times, the seller simply doesn’t know that while it’s technically a first edition, it is not the collectible copy the buyer is looking for.

So with modern first editions (again, pretty much anything post-1970's or with an ISBN), there are a few things to look for. First, a “TRUE FIRST EDITION” should have a price on the dust jacket. This will typically be on the upper corner of the dust jacket. Books without a price are typically BOOK CLUB EDITIONS (BCEs), which are, with some exceptions, worthless. BCEs can be pretty easily identified by their missing price and their smaller size when compared to a retail edition of a book. The BCE will also be printed on cheaper paper and bound less tightly.

Note the difference in the retail vs. book club edition sizes. Also, why is this picture so large?

The final and most important step in confirming a first edition is to look for the printing number. The first edition of The Da Vinci Code probably went through 90 printings, so how can you tell if you have a first printing or an eighty-fifth printing? The printing information is located in the number line. The number line will be located on the bottom of the copyright page. With a few (very aggravating) exceptions, the number line of a true first edition will go down to 1. The first printing of a book usually has ten numbers on the printing line descending from 10 (or 9) to 1. With each subsequent printing one of these numbers will be removed.

A first printing of The Orphan Master’s Son

Note here, how a book like Harry Potter which was reprinted numerous time has a number line that goes from 40 to 35, so this is the 35th printing. A frustrating recent example for me as a collector (insane person) was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which was named Oprah’s next book club selection. After being anointed by Oprah, the book was sent back for additional printings, and the copies we received were 4th printings, which even though the book already had a fairly large print run and won’t be particularly valuable, still drove me insane. There is a reason Nicolas Basbanes describes book collecting as “a gentle madness”. Here is a 35th printing of Harry Potter.

There are a few publishers who do not include number lines. Alfred A. Knopf, for example, which published Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, does not include a number line. Instead, they simply state “Seventh Printing” or “Eleventh Printing” for each subsequent printing. So in the case of a missing number line, the first edition is easily identified with the words “FIRST EDITION” and no mention of additional printings.

I’m too lazy to go take a picture of the copy five feet away from me, so here is a photo from PPPRIZE.COM which illustrates what is should look like.

So, is your copy of Harry Potter worth $20,000? (No, it’s not). However, if you were a very early fan and bought the first printing of the American edition of Harry Potter and you took pristine care of the dust jacket, it could be worth something in the $1,000 range.*

Later this week, I will discuss what makes a first edition valuable. Should you keep your first printing of John Grisham’s The Runaway Jury or sell it at a garage sale for $1.00? (GET THAT DOLLAR IF YOU CAN).

*The first printing of the American edition of Harry Potter has a million other asterisks to proper identification beyond the typical ones mentioned above. For instance, the TRUE FIRST PRINTING does not have the Publisher’s Weekly review and has no “YEAR 1” number on the spine even if it does have a full number line among a few other differences.