I was browsing among my blogs–great for tracking down stuff I’d read, very bad for finding something I haven’t read yet–and saw that two years ago, I was writing about a book phenomenon called “Fifty Shades of Grey”. I know you haven’t wasted your time reading such bestseller trash, but perhaps you are aware of the movie and the stage musical parody. I wondered, given its status as an online hit that went hardcopy, so to speak, whether there were copies with premium prices.
Why yes: yes, there are. Someone is asking nearly five thousand dollars for the first printing, and goes into some detail to explain how you can tell whether a copy is this high-value edition. Among the hints is the fact that if your copy has a Roman numeral I on it, showing it to be the first volume of a series, then it is not the first printing. When they printed the first novel, they were not committed to printing the sequels.
This is useful in other cases: if your copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, if yours came across the pond) has a number 1 on it, it is certainly not the first printing. Nobody knew whether there’d be a sequel at the time; in fact, so many publishers turned down the first book that there was no guarantee this series would even begin.
In general, numbers put on the spine of a book by the publisher indicate volume numbers in a set which has already been printed. It has been a long time since the Encyclopaedia Britannica had to print the A-Arno volume and wait and see how it sold before printing the rest. Some fancier publishers have used stars for the same purpose: volume 1 has one star, volume two has a pair of stars, and so on.
There are some fine collections where two separate sets of numbers are used. In The Complete Works of Alexandre Dumas, for example, you might have volume 7 “The Three Musketeers, Vol. 1”, while volume 8 will be “The Three Musketeers, Vol. II”. The very nastiest sets are the ones where this kind of thing is carried to an absurd extent, so each volume is worthless without the rest of the set. Volume 7 is “The Three Musketeers, Vol. II and The Man in the Iron Mask, Vol. I”, with Volume 8 being “The Man in the Iron Mask, Vol. II and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Vol. I”.
The reason this all matters to a Book Fair manager is that while a customer might want to buy volumes 7 and 8 of a broken set of Dumas, if it contains the entire text of one book, that same customer will walk right by volumes 7 and 8 if they hold only half of two books PLUS the text of one whole book. No one minds buying only one book out of a series like Harry or the Fifty Shades; they’re complete in themselves.
Spine numbers on some large, expensive reference sets can be cheerfully misleading. Some sets are designed in advance of writing, and the actual writing throws off the carefully thought-out system. In my time the Book Fair has sold a set of official documents of the Civil War which was complete, but missing one volume. This is because that volume was supposed to reprint documents that, as it turned out, nobody could find. Rather than reprint all the numbers (since the volumes were not published in numerical order) they just left out that volume. Going back to one of our first nostalgia booms, we had an original set from the 1830s of early American documents, but only the third series. Each series numbered its volumes starting at number I, so the third series was complete in itself without reference to the first or second series, which, as it turned out, never got printed anyhow because they ran out of money.
No matter how good you are at reading, a little math is sometimes useful. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I have to go write a book called Harry and the Fifty Shades. I MIGHT do it in fifty volumes.