Paperback reprint dates

Vicke's picture

Recently I embarked on a project analysing different copies of A Clockwork Orange, the novella. Here is a question about book publishing that has started to baffle me; which might actually turn out to be quite general knowledge, so here goes.

I purchased an old Penguin copy of which inside reads:

"First published by William Heinemann Ltd 1962
Published in Penguin Books 1972
40 39 38 37 36"

Ignoring the fact that I don't know what the last line of descending numbers mean, I got the impression that this was a copy from 1972, as was listed by the Amazon seller from whom I purchased it. However, on the very first page, it references events in Burgess's life in 1975 and 1982.

Again the same happens when I look at a W. W. Norton copy which says it was published in 1986, and is yet able to tell us that Burgess died in 1993.

I guess what I'm really wondering, is whether there's a way to track down the dates of paperback reprints, as many non-fiction books will list and date these.

Many thanks!

hrant's picture

Carbon dating? ;-)


Té Rowan's picture

Looks like a case for a bibliophile. *groans* A book case for a bibliophile… That sounds right queer, don’t it?

kentlew's picture

The numbers at the bottom are reprint numbers.

So, your copy is the 36th printing of the 1972 edition. Obviously, they didn’t go back on press 35 times in the first year; so your copy was certainly printed much later.

But if there are no textual changes, then there is usually no change to the publication date. The only indication of the new reprint is to scrub another number from the plate.

Usually, a new foreword or introduction to a reprinted edition should have a date of its own attached to it, I would think.

If you wanted to find the exact actual printing date of a specific paperback edition, you’d probably have to find some business records of the publisher. I doubt this is something that anyone except the production director really cares to keep track of.

hrant's picture

Then what's the "40 39 38 37"?


bojev's picture

If you look at a first edition it will have something like 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 - the next edition reprint would be the same minus the one etc. - when ten editions is reached they would go to 20 19 18 etc. for the next set.

hrant's picture

Is that some sort of funny code so regular
people don't know what edition they're reading?


eliason's picture

Indications of which printing. They place a number for each of the anticipated printings from the get-go, then strike the lowest number each time to indicate which printing it is, instead of the more laborious process of composing the page with a new number each time.
Sometimes you'll see this kind of order:
1 3 5 7 8 6 4 2
That's one way to keep that line more-or-less centered as the numbers disappear with each printing.

hrant's picture

OK, I get it now. Still funny.


Don McCahill's picture

Used to be that they would just have to chisel the numeral off of the metal slug. Now a days it is just a matter of whiteout to get the printing number right.

oldnick's picture

Used to be that they would just have to chisel the numeral off of the metal slug. Now a days it is just a matter of whiteout to get the printing number right.

…or burnish the last numeral off an offset plate, which is more often the case.

kentlew's picture

I don’t believe the practice existed when books were set in metal and printed letterpress. I believe it only came about as the confluence of two things: offset lithography and when it became practical to hang on to the plates for future reprints.

I don’t think it was practical (certainly not common practice) to store the galleys for an entire book in metal.

But with offset lithography, at a certain point it was more cost-effective to store the aluminum plates (or at least the photographic page flats) for a book with expected longevity, than to reshoot the flats or reburn the plates.

At that point, it made sense to set a string of reprint numbers, where the only thing required when going to reprint would be to either opaque out the previous number (if working with the films) or scrub/degrease the number (if working with the plates). Easier than remaking the page (or, more likely, the entire form).

Nowadays, the practice is probably more a matter of convention than practicality, since plates are no longer saved and pages are archived as files (either source, or imposed sigs) and it’s a relatively minor matter to make an adjustment to the copyright page on the way to re-plating.

I don’t know, I suppose maybe there’s some minor advantage to being able to just delete the previous number, over resetting the line. Seems minor, compared to the origins of the practice anyway.

Charles E will set me straight if I’ve made any incorrect assumptions or misstated anything.

oldnick's picture

To answer the original question about reprints, you might want to check with these folks...

DTY's picture

If the publisher anticipated demand for reprints, books were often stored as stereotype or electrotype plates back before offset litho. But I don't know whether reprint numbers were in use yet before the end of hot metal. Can you just chisel a number off those plates (or would electrotype plates have had hollow backs)?

Vicke's picture

Thanks for all the help and suggestions. It has certainly cleared up some confusion.

kentlew's picture

> books were often stored as stereotype or electrotype plates back before offset litho

Yes, I contemplated this possibility.

> But I don't know whether reprint numbers were in use yet before the end of hot metal.

I’ve been trying to find an example in my collection of older books and have not run across any. If there is any reprint information at all, it is an expressed date — e.g.: “Third Printing, August 1966”.

The earliest example of a reprint number sequence that I’ve found so far in my [modest] collection happens to be a Penguin book, from 1967 (printed offset).

HVB's picture

Again, back to the original question - there's a difference between Publishing and Printing. The Penguin book that you have was published in 1972 and your copy is one from the 36th printing. Each printing may introduce modest changes, such as the added historical information you mention, error corrections, etc.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

The practice of using reprint edition numbers started when offset printing became the principal means of book printing. Only a simple rearrangement in one line was needed (remember doing that in film?) to adjust the line. In case of a symmetrical placement the numbers were blocked out or scratched of (depending on the base being a pos or neg).

@HVB: In principle there won’t be differences between printings — except the number of the printing. Any changes would require it being named a new edition.
My guess is that the correction of a small number of (typographies) errors would not warrant it calling a new edition. There would probably be a kind of indication on the full printing forms to inform the printer and the publishers, maybe in the fold or in the bleed. Example (slightly out of the field): the different printings of the Tintin comic books are coded vy the publisher to reflect changes etcetera.

Don McCahill's picture

Thinking back to my early days, at the end of the hot metal age, of course you wouldn't have had pages stored. More likely it was stereo mats, that could be used to cast a new printing cylinder. I wonder if the system was in use then ... and if so, how did you cancel out a number on a mat? I like to imagine an old printer filling the mat with some chewing gum before casting it ... but really I have no clue.


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