Is it just me or have ‘first editions’ become a more significant feature of the book collecting world in recent years?

Early Ladybird logo

When I first started collecting Ladybird books, I heard of people who seemed interested only in first editions, but I couldn’t really understand what the fascination was and why they were prepared to pay so much more money for a book that was essentially the same as another.  Now it seems to be a much more standard aspect of collecting – one that it’s hard not to get sucked in to.  If my perception is right, I can think of a few reasons to account for the change.

Frank Hampson illustration

The bookroom – illustrated by Frank Hampson


The first reason is availability.  When I started collecting, the internet was fairly young.  Most books were bought and sold in actual shops.  Even if a shop also had a website to advertise their wares, there tended to be fewer photographs of what you buying and you often completed the purchase by telephone.secondhand bookshop



When I first started to use eBay to look for books, I would put in a search of Ladybird books – and about 150 – 300 items might appear.

eBay logo I’ve just tried the same search now:

34,283 results.

So although there are more collectors around, availability has increased vastly.  So many bookshops have closed down that the collector is forced to source at least some of her/his books online.  This has generally pushed the prices down – except for the rarest books.  Since the enjoyment of collecting depends in large part on the fun of the hunt,  consciously or unconsciously we collectors find ourselves looking for new and different challenges.

A challenge

It goes with the ‘collector’ territory. We like a challenge

And finding first editions of the rarest books can present such a challenge.





Maybe this is really the same thing as the previous point, but in many aspects of life today we seem driven to seek out the ‘exclusive’.  For example,  the acquisition of designer items seems ever more to be seen as something to  aspired to, something which – regardless of intrinsic merit – validates the owner in some way.  Perhaps First Editions are the equivalent in the book-collecting world.


HistoryGreen plaque - Angel Yard Loughborough

These are not particularly laudable reasons for collecting first editions, but let me add another which will apply to some collectors.  All different editions tell us something about the history of the company and the possible reasons behind changes, omissions and revisions.  The first edition may give us more of this sort of information than most because it is the start of the story.   With Ladybird books, the situation can be more complex, however.


So what exactly is a first edition?  According to a first edition of a book is “the first commercially distributed version of a book. For the purposes of modern collectible books, first edition is shorthand for the first printing of the first edition of a work.”

Identifying first editions

As I say in my blog post “Top 10 mistakes that booksellers make” we can only guess  how many people have bought Ladybird books online only to find that a book is a later edition and not the ‘first edition’ it was described as. Whilst for most books, the latest date mentioned on the preliminary pages indicates the date of that particular edition, this is rarely true for Ladybird Books from the late 1950s onwards. Instead the routine was to put on the title page the date of the first edition, regardless how long ago it was that that first edition appeared; regardless even of the fact that the book might have been revised extensively in the the intervening years.Editions of The Policeman

When is a first not a first?

The first small-sized Ladybird books (as opposed to the larger ‘Ladybird Series’ books – in print from 1914 – 1939) generally state their edition number on the 2nd page – that is, the page facing the title page.  The earliest of these books were from series 401 and they appear to have sold really well from the start – or perhaps, as a result of war-time paper rationing, the print runs were very small.  At any rate, almost every title in print seems to have gone through numerous editions, according to that very helpful ‘edition page’.  Later on, in around 1956, the edition page was dropped and thereafter the only date that can usually be found on most Ladybird book – whether that copy is a first edition or a very late reprint – is the date of the first edition.

And even when an edition is stated, it really isn’t clear what that means.  Sometimes a book from an earlier and a later edition are identical in every detail while books in the same edition can be different in quite striking ways.

Let’s have a look at a couple of examples.

Here’s a nice early book: Smoke and Fluff.

Two old copies of Smoke and Fluff

Two 7th editions

The edition is stated clearly on the second page.

However, the covers look and feel quite different from each other.

Smoke and Fluff

Smoke and Fluff

Here are another couple of books – the same title but both are 8th editions this time.  The dustwrappers are completely different and odder still, looking inside, even the date of that edition is different.

Two editions of Smoke and Fluff

Smoke and Fluff

Two 8th editions of the same book with different years

Both are 8th editions

As a collector, of course, you can take simple anoraky pleasure in spotting and noting these inconsitencies (and there are lots of them).   But on another level, the inconsistencies helps build a picture of the history of the company.

You see, it’s important to remember that in these early years, the company Wills & Hepworth still didn’t see themselves as a publisher.  In a 1933 trade magazine the company described themselves as a ‘Shipping Agency’ and in the directory itself, the company was listed as

“Printers, lithographers, bookbinders, relief stamping, wholesale paper merchants, and bag manufacturers and machine rulers”

So lots of activity but no mention of publishing, even though they had been producing children’s books for nearly 20 years by then.

Early Wills and Hepworth label

Early Wills and Hepworth label

By 1941, a year after the first mini Ladybird books were produced, the trade catalogue description still didn’t mention publishing.  The books were too low down the list of priorities to warrant a mention.  Printing procedures were often improvised according to circumstances and at times seem rather haphazard. In addition, during the war years and for some years after, paper for printing was rationed and supply appears to have been sporadic.  The books were printed using whatever materials were available at the time.

Illustration from 'Printing Process'

The Loughborough factory


In short, in terms of children’s book publishing at this time, Wills & Hepworth were making things up as they went along.  And that’s no small part of the charm for me.

By the 1950s, the success of book publication began to eclipse the other aspects of the compay’s output and the approach to production became ever more standardised – although they retained a rather quirky ‘kitchen-table‘ flavour throughout the life-span of the company.

But if you’re a collector (or bookseller) interested in correctly identifying first editions, the task can be daunting.  So I’m going to do my bit to help out.  I’ve already put a ‘tick-list’ of all the titles a collector would want to find (from 1940 to the mid 70s).  But to add to this, little by little I shall upload to my website lists of all the Ladybird books published between 1940 and the sale of the company in the early 1970s.  On these lists I’ll add what I believe to be the defining features of a ‘first edition’ where this is possible to do.  But if any of you out there find an earlier copy of a book, do let me know so knowledge can be pooled.  (I should add that in the compiling of these lists to date I’ve had some help from keen collectors* out there – and I hope to receive more over time.

You’ll find the lists here.  I hope they’re useful.

Jargon used:

Tally number = the total number of books that Ladybird had printed at the point of printing of a particular book.  Typically this is found on books dating from the 1960s and early 70s and is usually found on the back cover.  The wording says: “There are now over xxx Ladybird titles …”.  In books from the early 1960s, this is often found on the dj flap.

Back catalogue = In books published before the mid-1950s there is usually a catalogue found right at the back of the book.  This is a page which lists the titles of other Ladybird books that had been printed at that time.

eps = endpapers – the double-page spread that covers the book’s boards on the inside – front and back.  One page is glued to the board (both at the front of the book and at the back) while the other pages is ‘free’.

edition stated = In many early books, the edition is stated on the preliminary page opposite the title page – the second page.  This is always located towards the upper left of the page.  Do not trust any date on the title page itself.

open-wing logo – the first Ladybird logo which shows a ladybird in flight – this is the logo used in the 1940s and 50s.

closed-wing logo – the more familiar logo used in the 1960s

*Pauline Irwin, Paul Crampton, Nicole Else, Lynn Willson, David Francis (so far)

*Pauline Irwin, Paul Crampton, Nicole Else, Lynn Willson, David Francis