Your Guide to Collecting First Editions

What to look for in sought-after titles

Freeman’s Books and Manuscripts department brings dozens of rare, valuable first editions to market each year. Here, our specialists explain what a first edition really is, and what to look for when building your collection.

01/27/2023     Latest News, News and Film, Books and Manuscripts

From Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Freeman’s boasts an extensive track record of sales of prominent first editions—many of which attract seasoned collectors and well outperform their pre-sale estimates.

What exactly constitutes a first edition? Though “no other piece of terminology has caused so much contention among booksellers and collectors,” there are some basic ground rules for establishing what constitutes a first edition: generally, the term refers to the printing of a given book that is first distributed on the market. While subsequent editions may include edits, addenda, or an updated foreword, among other changes, a first edition represents the book as it was first released to the market.

There are a number of ways to verify that a given book is indeed a first-edition copy—including print run numbers and copyright dates—that require careful looking. One of the benefits of both buying and selling first editions at auction is sidestepping that detective work to instead have your copy authenticated by specialists with years of knowledge and expertise to back their findings.

mlk stride toward freedom book
King, Martin Luther, Jr. I Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Buying first editions at auction means not only that you can be sure of a volume’s authenticity as such, but also that titles often come with impressive provenance alongside their first-edition status.

In Freeman’s February 2 Books and Manuscripts auction, for instance, a first edition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memoir of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, comes to market with its own fascinating history. The book is inscribed and signed by the Civil Rights activist to Alfonso and Lucy B. Campbell, participants and among the early organizers of the bus boycott; Stride Toward Freedom has remained in the family ever since.


book of mormonSmith, Joseph, The Book of Mormon

Other first editions garner fervent collector interest because their original print runs were intentionally limited, or because the title holds immense historic or cultural importance. An 1830 first edition of Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon, for instance, sold at Freeman’s in 2019 for $43,750. A 1923 first edition presentation copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Three Stories… & Ten Poems inscribed and signed by Hemingway achieved $68,750 in 2003; the edition was one of a run of just 300 copies, and its survival in a well-preserved state made the volume uniquely valuable and desirable.

three stories ernest hemingwayHemingway, Ernest I Three Stories... & Ten Poems

For book collectors both seasoned and just starting out, first editions are treasured additions to a well-rounded library—and discovering a potentially valuable first edition in your existing collection can be just as exciting. Whether following the thrill of the chase at a secondhand bookstore or bidding on a title at auction, collecting first editions is a lifelong pleasure—one that only increases when armed with the knowledge necessary to identify first editions to begin with.





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