Why Do Books’ Copyright Pages Have 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10?

Jillian E. asks: In the beginning of books on the page where they say who published the book and stuff there is a string of numbers that count to 10. I was just wondering why they put that there? Thanks!

printer lineThe number line, or printer’s key, often seen on the copyright page of books is simply a method of record-keeping that helps identify the book’s printing and, for some, year of printing a specific book, which may or may not be different than the original copyright date listed elsewhere on the page.

Common examples of these number lines include:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


2 3 4 5 6 93 92 91 90


3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 MPC 19 18 17 16

or even

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2.

While different publishers use different conventions for these number lines, generally speaking, the smallest number in the line indicates a books printing. So if 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 is at the bottom of the page, it is a first printing; if the number one has been removed, so the number line is 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, it is a second printing; and if it’s 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, it is a third printing, etc.

The reason they remove a number each time instead of, say, just changing one number has to do with the way publishers have historically printed books.  For instance, in offset printing (see our article which covers offset printing- How Do They Get the Ms on M&Ms?), you can relatively easily remove something from the printing plate, but adding a number would require creating a whole new plate.

In any event, sometimes number lines are accompanied by the words First edition but that does not necessarily mean it is the first printing; for example, this would indicate a third printing of a first edition:

First edition

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

There may be many printings of an edition, the latter of which may be defined as a single “setting-up of type without substantial change.” So, if the author doesn’t change the text of the book (like text books authors frequently do), and the pages all stay the same, then if the publisher simply makes another round of copies, it isn’t a new edition, it’s just a new printing.

If, however, the pages are substantially modified, or the book is reformatted, such as for printing in paperback, then the printings in this new format will be a new edition. Note, though, that it may not be designated as a second edition (or third or fourth), and instead may be called a first paperback edition, first US edition or Penguin Classics first edition. Serious collectors typically consider these last inferior to the cherished first edition, first printing.

Depending on the publisher, the number line might also indicate the year the printing was done, like 2 3 4 5 6 93 92 91 90. This reveals that this second printing was done in 1990. Much like with the print run numbers, if the book is printed again the following year, the 90 would be removed, leaving the year part of the string as 93 92 91.

Moreover, if the publisher contracts with an outside company to do the printing, that company may be indicated in the number line as well; in this example, the number line shows Melissa’s Printing Company was hired to do a third printing in 2016: 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 MPC 19 18 17 16.

In addition, some publishers prefer other kinds of lines; for example, Anness Publishing uses a number line that alternates its digits as 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2, where a second printing would read 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2, and a fifth printing would look like 5 7 9 10 8 6. This particular schema is used to keep the number line relatively centered over multiple print runs.

Further demonstrating the lack of standardization across publishers for the printer’s key, the publishing giant Random House has indicated its first edition, first printing with the words first edition but with a number line that begins with 2 (as opposed to 1) such as 23456789; but, it uses this same number, just without the words first edition, to indicate a second printing.

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One comment

  • Tammy Latham-Knight

    Hi. Your article was very informative and helped me to better understand the copyright dates on multiple copies of The Night Before Christmas little golden books that I own. I have a couple of follow-up questions regarding determining the print year and number of reprints.

    The copyright page I’m deciphering indicates: “Copyright 1949 by Western Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright renewed 1977.” The printer’s key indicates: “GHIJ.” Based on my understanding, this means the book I’m holding is the 7th (G) printing since 1977 by Western Publishing, and that I have no way to determine the year in which the copy I have was printed.

    1. Is the print number always in reference to the most recent copyright date even if there is a second copyright date for the same publisher?

    (Note: I have another copy of this same book with a 1976 copyright by Random House. I’m assuming that ownership was sold to Random House in 1976 and sold back to Western Publishing in 1977. I’m also assuming that if ownership had never been sold to Random House and Western had retained it for all years since 1949, the only copyright date listed would have been 1949 and the 7th printing would have clearly been in reference to the 1949 copyright date.)

    2. For the book in hand, I know the print year wasn’t before 1977 since that is the latest copyright date listed. Since the printer’s key does not include a year reference, is there any way for me to know if the printing was actually in 1977 or some later year?

    3. Does the printer’s key ending in J (GHIJ) have relevance? As in — Western decided that they might reprint up to 10 times (not necessarily all 10, but no more than 10)? Or — Western decided that they will reprint exactly 10 times? Or is it just an arbitrary ending and Western very well may change the printing plate in the future to add a new key such as KLMNO?

    4. On the second copy that I have of the book where Random House had the copyright in 1976, the printer’s key indicates: “20 19 18 17 16 15 14.” Since I have a later book with the 1977 Western copyright, is it safe to assume that the book is the 14th printing and was in the year 1976?

    (Sort off topic, but additionally, is Random House allowed to reprint in 1977 or later — after the copyright went back to Western?)

    Thank you!