Secret Printing Numbers on Books

Want to know if that trade paperback you’re looking at is a near-priceless first printing or a common-as-dirt 23rd printing?

If the cover markings, indicia, or cover price don’t help you figure it out, look for a sequence of digits like:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

…on or near the copyright notice. The lowest number still showing is (most likely) the printing number.

So what’s that sequence of numbers for? It’s actually a trick used by printers to save them the trouble of shooting a whole new piece of film and printing plate for the flyleaf each time they go back to press. With this trick, all they have to do is get out their Sharpie and black out the last digit from the sequence on the flyleaf page’s film, re-shoot the plate, and they’re ready to roll.

You may sometimes also see the sequence in the format:

4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3

This lets them black out digits from the sequence while maintaining the centering of the group. Just look for the lowest digit that remains (3 in this case), and you’ll have a good idea of what printing it is (or at least, what printing it’s supposed to be—they could always forget the black out last digit when going back to press!).