There is a LOT of literature, both in print and online, to help buyers and sellers make SURE they are comparing apples and apples when it comes to First Edition books.
The FIRST distinction to be made is whether or not the book you have is a Book Club edition. The two most important points here are the lack of a price on the dust jacket, and copyright page information that differs from the Trade edition CP. There may also be a third marker, a literal mark, which is called a blind stamp, or stigmata, usually found on the back board on the lower spine edge. It is an indentation, often a small square. Remember, dust jackets can be put onto books other than the one that originally wore them...
If any of these three conditions present themselves, it is HIGHLY likely that you have a BCE, no matter what else the book may say or look like.
There are exceptions, like The Hunt for Red October, to name a well-known one. Generally, these three exclusions hold very true.
So, you have a book. It has a dust jacket that is not price-clipped, that is, the upper or lower right corner shows a retail price. It has a copyright page that may say First Edition, or may have a string of numbers, or even a string of letters, like
A B C D, or B C D E, or more. There may be combinations of these features. What have you REALLY got?
The answer depends on who the publisher of the book is. And so, to get the real answer, you need to know three things.
One, what is that publisher's usual practice of first edition, First Printing designation. Two, when was the original edition published, as opposed to a re-issue or simply the first edition, first printing of another issue of that same book, sometimes even from another publisher, like Grosset and Dunlap re-issues of Doubleday titles from the first half of the 20th century.
Third, are there any smaller, hidden clues, like dust jacket issue dates, often given as a month/year, like 5/69 etc. Are there errors in the typesetting which were corrected in later editions, such as in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, or Hemingway's Farewell to Arms.
Before I tell you about the literature and web resources to help you in your identification, remember, EVERY serious collector, and EVERY Honest dealer uses First Edition and First Printing synonymously and collectively to mean First Edition. Many sellers state this categorically as a matter of course, and I recommend this to ALL sellers!
Many books have ALL their printings listed as First Editions. Well, of Course they do, since there usually is not a second edition, unless a non-fiction book is revised at a later date. A Classic example is any Harry Potter novel of J.K. Rowling. Only the 10th Anniversary second edition of The Sorcerer's Stone is a second edition. Of course, there is a first printing of that second edition, and some bookies might call that a First Edition Thus. Do NOT be fooled! Investigate, and make your sell listings clear about each element in the book's points.
Some book publishers state whether subsequent printings have been released. This is a sure-fire way to tell that the book you have is NOT a first edition, in the book collector/dealer sense we are discussing. Some publishers only make one print run for each and every title they issue, making every one of their titles a first edition.
So, when you see a book advertised as a first edition, ASK whether or not it is a first printing. The experienced dealers will answer you quickly and directly, and you can reply that you are just making sure, as there are less-than knowledgeable sellers out there you have yet to read my guide! There are MANY eBay listings which use the term First Edition too loosely, or in error, or in outright attempts to get unsuspecting buyers to not ask ALL the right questions.
FEDPO.com (this is NOT a link) is an excellent, although limited, site for get a feel for the look and criteria for FE/FP's. There are many printed guides, which are often for sale on eBay and other sites, (as first editions, even!) which can help you become familiar with both individual books and publishers identification practices. With all the consolidation in the publishing world in the last 25 years, some time-honoured habits have been overlapped and changed. Get a McBride guide, and an Ahearn guide to start, both often available on eBay, and Happy Hunting for the Best Price on a Masterwork!
MBB for FBPM Books