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I heartily accept the notion that you should, whenever possible, opt for first printings when buying new books. This is especially true for fiction, where books can become collectable quite quickly. When both the first and later printings are mixed together on the bookstore shelves for the same price you have nothing to lose by choosing a first printing, and possibly a lot to gain.
I worked at Barnes and Noble when "Cold Mountain," "Snow Falling on Cedars," and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" were published, and there were first and later printings of each shelved together for a time. The people who made sure they got first printings now own books that can fetch $200 and up from collectors. Everyone else owns nice used books that go for $5. I'm not talking about rabid collectors here, just people that choose first printings of books they are buying anyway.
But how do you know if a book is a first printing? We'll go over the basics, and then look at the three books above for practical examples. The intent is to help you buy first printings currently rather than to identify older books or cover a broad range of publishers.
The copyright page is the place to start. If you see the words "First Edition" or "First Printing" with no subsequent printings noted, you very likely have a first printing. Since the late 1940's an increasing number of publishers have adopted either numeric or alphabetic codes to identify printing history on their copyright pages. These strings look like, 12345..., 54321, 135798642, abcde..., etc. The lowest number or letter indicates the printing number. If you see a "1" or an "a," respectively, in one of these strings, you are almost certainly holding a first printing.
Turn to the copyright page of your copy of "Snow Falling on Cedars." It was published by Harcourt Brace & Company, and they use an alphabetic code along with the words "First edition" to indicate printing history. If you have a first printing the last line reads, "First edition A B C D E." Subsequent printings were supposed to have dropped "First edition" and the lowest letter in the line, so that the second printing would show "B C D E," third printing would show "C D E,"etc. But Harcourt Brace does not adhere very consistently to their stated methods, and the words "First edition" were not dropped on later printings. The letters were, but several people have been fooled nonetheless. The words "First Edition" or "First Printing" usually can be believed, but not in this case.
Random House published "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," and their printing designation method is much more consistent, if a little odd. They use a numeric code, but unlike most other publishers, Random House first printings never contain a "1." Instead, they have a number line like "2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3" with the words "First Edition" right above or right below. To indicate the second printing they simply drop "First Edition," leaving the line with "2" as the lowest number. From there the pattern follows other publishers with number lines-another number is dropped with each subsequent printing so that the printing number is indicated by the lowest number remaining in the line. But watch out for Random House tenth printings. At ten they insert a letter in the middle of the number string and then start over again-but this time with a "1" in the line. For example, a tenth printing would look like: "2 4 6 8 A 7 5 3 1."
"Cold Mountain" was published by the Atlantic Monthly Press, a division of Little, Brown and Company. The first printings of both divisions are designated alike-with a number line containing a "1" and the words "First Edition" or "First Printing." They are supposed to drop the words and the "1" on second printings, and then drop the next number with each reprinting so that the lowest remaining number in the line indicates the printing number. Unfortunately they do not always drop "First Edition," but they do consistently increment their number line. They don't start the numbering over like Random House does, so you'll only see a "1" on a first printing.
Of course this information just scratches the surface, but at least now you know what those strings of letters or numbers are, and that there are a few quirks. If you want more information the standard references are "First Editions: a Guide to Identification," by Edward N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler, and "A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions," by Bill McBride.