Book Buying Guide

Hints and Tips for Collectors to Correctly Identify Book Editions and Production Formats

It is generally acknowledged that William Hole’s first contribution to a published book was in 1884 with Quasi Cursores which included his etched Portraits of the High Officers and Professors of the University of Edinburgh at its Tercentenary Festival.  During the course of the proceeding 33 years before his death in 1917, he went on to draw, etch and paint many remarkable images, many of which were commissioned for publication in a variety of books and periodicals.

The images that are perhaps best remembered today of all his published work are the eighty scenes from The Life of Jesus of Nazareth and the seventy-six scenes from Old Testament History that he was working on at the time of his death.  Over the years since they were first created, these above all others, have been commissioned for use in a variety of other religious publications, including the Holy Bible itself; high praise indeed that his work should be considered worthy for such inclusions.

Over the past 125 years or so since Quasi Cursores was first published, the methods used in the production and publication of books in general, has changed beyond recognition.  As such, collecting books from yesteryear that include illustrations or were both written by and include illustrations by William Hole (hereafter referred to simply as William Hole’s books) can take the collector on a long and confusing journey.

Not so long ago, it was rare for books to be purchased outside of a bookshop which meant the prospective purchaser had the opportunity to view and handle the books before making a purchase.  Today, however, it is common for collectors to source books using the internet and to effectively buy them remotely or from a distance.  This tends to afford collectors much more choice but means they often have to rely on bookseller descriptions and photos to determine what it is that is being offered for sale.

So what do all the terms and abbreviations refer to when we see second-hand copies of original work up for sale today?  What can we expect to arrive on our doorstep if we’re using the internet to remotely source our books and what should we look out for and, even challenge, in the descriptions which can sometimes be inadvertently misleading?

To start here with the basics and to assume no prior knowledge of book production processes is probably a sensible place to begin this short study, so this is indeed where this report will begin.

Understanding Book Production Formats

Books are generally measured and referred to following the format that compares their height against their width or, to express this as an equation, simply ‘h x w’.  Sometimes this might be the height and width of an individual leaf within the book but, more often than not today, it refers to the size of the book cover.

Publishers, libraries and booksellers regularly categorise sizes using a range of terms such as:  ‘folio’, ‘quarto’, ‘octavo’ and ‘duodecimo’.  These terms are listed here in descending order of size and, historically, refer to the format of the book; a technical term used by printers to indicate the size of a leaf when expressed against the size of the original sheet of paper from which it was produced.  To add to the confusion though, the size of the resulting pages are determined by the size of the full sheet they are printed on and to what extent the leaves are trimmed before they are bound to form the book.  In other words, one folio book may not be the same size as another folio book as folio refers to production format rather than actual size.

When a book has been made by taking two pages of text printed on both sides of a sheet of paper and then folded once to form two leaves (or four pages), it is commonly referred to as a folio.  This name is derived from the Latin, foli?, ablative of folium, meaning leaf.  Quite simply, it is normally because the sheet has only been folded once that the resultant page is larger than others which are produced using more folds.

For example, when a book has been created by taking four pages of text printed on both sides of a sheet of paper and then folded twice to form a gathering which contains four leaves (which is eight pages), it is referred to as quarto.  This name is derived from the Latin quart?, ablative form of quartus, meaning fourth. The proportion of leaves within a quarto book tend to be squarer than those contained within folios and octavos.

Likewise, when a book is formed from eight pages of text printed on both sides of a sheet of paper and folded three times to form gatherings of eight leaves (in other words, sixteen pages), it is referred to as octavo.  This is the smallest of the three formats.

Smaller formats, such as duodecimo (often known as twelvemo) which are made up of twelve leaves per sheet folded to form pages one-third of the quarto format size, are also used by publishers.  Together, these four terms are most commonly indicative of the formats used in the production of books by William Hole.

The arrangement of printed pages is referred to as the imposition and this will be influenced, not only by the format of the book but on how the pages are ‘gathered’ or grouped.  For our purposes though it may be confusing and provide unnecessary detail to describe here the variances that can be encountered when it comes to observing leaf gatherings being prepared prior to binding, other than to simply acknowledge that a variety of practices have historically been adopted.  It is unlikely that booksellers will go into such detail when describing books they are offering for sale.

Book Sizes and Editions Explained

Modern books are often referred to as ‘folio’, ‘quarto’ and ‘octavo’ (with the latter two being in most common usage) but this is normally based on their size rather than on the format used in their production.  It is important to understand this as some would argue it represents a degradation of the original publishing terms; it is of relevance here only in so much as you are likely to come into contact with both meanings, given the range of publication dates we are looking at with William Hole’s books.  A common cause of misunderstanding results when an older book is described using the words in their modern rather than in their traditional context (or vice versa) as it can be difficult to determine which is being referenced.  It is in such instances that the actual size of a book can be used to provide greater clarity.

As a rough guide, the following table lists the book formats, their abbreviations and common sizes:

It was common for William Hole’s books to be published in limited edition formats.  Quite simply, this means that only a set number of books were printed in a particular edition or format.  Where an edition was ‘limited’ the books were individually numbered and, in William Hole’s case, were often verified by his signature.

An example of this is Quasi Cursores.  When this was first published in 1884 it was produced on a very limited print-run: 100 folio copies and 750 quarto copies were printed.  In more recent times, this title has been reprinted by a number of ‘print-on-demand’ publishers but the new titles lack the quality, feel and most crucially, often the illustrations, that made up the original edition.  Having been published towards the close of the nineteenth century, the original edition followed the publishing protocols outlined above, meaning the folio measures a rather impressive 15” x 12” and the quarto, 12” x 9½” respectively.  In each case, one of the prelim pages contains a printed statement outlining the limited edition status of the book and this has been individually inscribed with an appropriate number and signature initial.

An interesting comparison can be made between Quasi Cursores and The Poetry of Robert Burns.  The latter was published as a Centenary Edition in a set of four volumes during 1896 and 1897 and included illustrations by William Hole.  The quarto edition of this title was printed in quantity for the mass market but a limited edition of just 90 ‘large’ editions was also printed alongside these.  As with Quasi Cursores, the limited edition included an inscription to this effect on one of the prelim pages and was signed personally by William Hole.  However, although much larger than the standard quarto edition, the limited edition was also a quarto format (confirmed by size 11½” x 8” and page gathering), although the latter is often incorrectly judged as being a folio edition.

This is a common mistake and one that is repeatedly made with The Life of Jesus of Nazareth.  Not only was there a folio limited ‘Edition de Luxe’ of this book but there were also mass market editions in more than one quarto size (10” x 8” and 12” x 9½”, respectively), with the latter commonly incorrectly advertised as a folio edition.

In summary, if you are keen on purchasing a particular edition of a William Hole title, always be sure to determine the actual size of the volume rather than rely solely on descriptions indicating folio, quarto and octavo formats.

Understanding Book Features

Another common trait with older books was the rough way in which pages were cut.  Unlike modern books which are neatly trimmed on all sides, early production methods often left the leaf folds uncut.  For example, with a quarto book which would have been folded twice to make each gathering, these folds were left uncut.  It was often up to the purchaser to slit the folds and to, in effect, ‘finish’ the pages before they could read the book.  In other instances, the top edge of the page was trimmed, often with decorative gilt applied, but little attention was given to the bottom and right-hand page edges with the result that they were of irregular size and roughly cut.  Even the paper quality could differ between pages of the same gathering, depending on what had been available at the time of printing.  In fact, rough cut and irregular page quality are a particularly prevalent feature of many of William Hole’s early books.

For a collector, one of the most important aspects of preparing to buy second-hand books is to correctly identify the edition of a book which is normally most easily determined by the year of publication.  In theory, this should be an easy process as most books record a notice detailing the year of publication on the title page or in more modern formats, on the verso of the title page.  However, there are exceptions to this general practise.  This in turn, can result in the unwary collector paying more for a book than it is arguably worth; worse still, one could end up buying a book thinking it is a more valuable or rare edition than it actually is.

With regard to William Hole books, two common examples come to mind.  The first of these is The Life of Jesus of Nazareth.  The first edition of this book was published in 1906 and includes a notification of the publishing date towards the bottom of the title page.  Many later editions did not include a date at all and are often incorrectly assumed to be first editions which results in them being inadvertently advertised and priced incorrectly.

The second example is the ‘Centenary Edition’ of The Poetry of Robert Burns which was published as a four-volume set during 1896 (volumes one and two) and 1897 (volumes three and four) by two publishers: T.C. & E.C. Black of Edinburgh and Caxton Publishing Company of London.  Although they both include illustrations by William Hole, it is assumed here that the former is the earlier edition; that is, the version that was printed on larger paper and limited to just 90 copies which were signed by the artist.  It is likely that the more standard sized edition by this publisher was printed at the same time for more general release and, as such is assumed (although this is still to be verified), to be an earlier printing than the Caxton edition.

One final topic worth covering here is the matter of book bindings.  These are normally uniform in style within each edition of a book, although they may differ in the colour of the cover but it is quite common for styles to differ between editions.  To take The Life of Jesus of Nazareth as an example again, I have personally come across four different cover designs and an assortment of board colours for this title; other variants probably also exist.

It was once common practise for libraries to rebind books in plain bindings so don’t be surprised if ex-library books appear differently to mass-market or limited edition versions of the same title.  Likewise, it was once common for more wealthy collectors to have their books rebound in decorative (often leather) bindings; those of similar height then sat neatly in uniform rows of identical spines with only the book title and author identifying the different volumes to the browsing reader.  Books like this which have been bound using traditional methods tend to stay in better condition for longer and, as such, often today command higher prices than more frayed or ‘used’ versions of the same title, regardless of their edition.

Whilst this report is by no means a comprehensive guide to the production techniques utilised, or the vagaries and pitfalls to beware when searching for second-hand copies of William Hole books, hopefully it will have whet your appetite about what is after all a complex and varied subject.
Vigilance and due diligence are essentially the protective keys to improve your buying experience when it comes to expanding your William Hole collection.  And don’t forget, to some extent the whole process of buying second-hand books can be subjective and that’s part of the charm.  There is often a tendency amongst book collectors towards assigning particular importance to collecting first edition titles when in many cases, later editions can be the more pleasant to read and handle.

Likewise, price should in theory be determined by market demand.  Whilst this often results in first edition books commanding a higher price, it isn’t an exact science; a later edition can be equally sought after, especially if it happens to be in fine condition.  Conversely, a first edition in poor condition may be cheaper than later editions.

At the end of the day, although focus within this article has been on identifying book editions and production formats, your buying experience should be determined by the book styles and formats that appeal to you most, regardless of their edition.  With the help of this article, hopefully you are now better placed to ask the right leading questions which will ultimately help guide and ensure you buy the books that you really want, even when this is done from a distance, using the internet.

Mark O’Hanlon

Postscript:  If you wish to expand your own collection of books and periodicals featuring the illustrations of William Hole, you may wish to visit the Shopping page on our website.  This features links to a number of websites that specialise in listing second-hand books from booksellers located worldwide:  SHOP HERE.