Most readers probably skip right past the copyright page of a book, but those who do not might wonder what that odd-looking string of numbers on the page might mean. As strange as it may seem, there are many of us at the South Dakota State Historical Society Press who head straight for that page in a new book!
Those numbers indicate the year the book was printed and how many times it has been reprinted. If the numbers read 13 12 11 1 2 3, then the book was printed in 2011 and it is the first printing. If the book is reprinted a year later, the numbers would read 13 12 2 3, indicating that it is the second printing and that it was produced in 2012.
There are several ways of laying out the numbers, but the meaning remains the same. At the SDSHS Press, we use the last two digits of the current year and the next four years plus the numbers 1 through 5 for the print history. Some publishers omit numbers for the years and only number the print runs. Other publishers also omit the years and spell out “first printing” or something similar. Still other publishers omit the numbers entirely, but most books have some sort of print history on the copyright page.
Collectors generally want a first printing, even though it might contain minor typographical errors. If such small changes are necessary, they will be handled in second and subsequent printings. If the book requires significant changes, then it is released in a new edition with its own print history on the copyright page.