Wednesday 16 December 2015

→ EDITION SIZE UNKNOWN (making sense of editioning artists' books)

ABOUT STONES, an unnumbered edition of 51
This blog post is a private contemplation, as I try to make sense of editioning. 
Remarks and comments on the subject are very welcome.


Everyone producing artists' books seems to have their own process and rules of editioning. Most of the time, I mark and sign edition on the back, and then - discreetly in the gutter - I keep the information on the print run, the paper, the printer and the ink and any other speciffication which I may find important. Like most of us, I try to print all of the edition at once. It is not always practical, however - frequently, I do not have the facility to store large amount of books. If I do not print the edition in one run, can it still be considered the same edition? Can it be numbered as the same edition if it was printed in three runs six months apart using the same printer? The same bed of type? A different printer or different bed of type in a different location? How do you mark those differences? Is it important to mark them?

The business of editioning artist's books sits between producing and numbering books as fine art multiples and producing artist's books as publications. Each of those areas is governed by the absence of formal rules(1), which leave all of us to our own devices of how and when we number our works.

FINE ART (prints)

In printmaking, as Wikipedia says,  "an edition is a number of prints struck from one plate, usually at the same time. This may be a limited edition, with a fixed number of impressions produced on the understanding that no further impressions (copies) will be produced later, or an open edition limited only by the number that can be sold or produced before the plate wears."

In digital printing, "dating digital images is particularly important. Since a digital file prints out exactly the same way every time you print it, no matter when you print it, the quickest and simplest way to differentiate one image from the next is by the date it was printed. Even though a print may be one of a larger edition, a date individualizes it, and makes it just a little bit more unique. And buyers like that. In fact, buyers generally like dated art, especially when their dates precede other buyers' dates." (Giclee Printing and Pricing for Artist Limited Editions)

Fine art prints also allow for an artists' proof to exist (marked as AP) outside the edition. Classically, 10% of a limited edition size is considered an appropriate amount of artists proofs (Editioned Prints and Photographs).

(Then there is fine art ephemera, which is a different kettle of fish - see further below.)

Fine art (printmaking) environment has the figure of buyer-collector in the picture. Art buyers like to know the size of the edition. Art buyers like low numbers. Art buyers like signatures. Also, as it turns out, art buyers like digital images to be dated.


Bibliographical definition of an edition was given by Fredson Bowers in Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949). Bowers wrote that an edition is “the whole number of copies printed at any time or times from substantially the same setting of type-pages,” including “all issues and variant states existing within its basic type-setting, as well as all impressions.”  Collectors, however, would only consider the first print run as the first edition, while publishers each have their own rules.

A wonderful book First Editions of To-day and how to Tell Them (1929)(2) by H.S.Boutell gives some fascinating insight into the issues of editioning and terminology used, some of which, is still very relevant today.

        Generally speaking, the collector of first editions is really a collector of first impressions, a first impression being a book from the first lot struck off the presses, and a first edition comprising all books which remain the same in content and in format as the first impression. A second impression is a second printing, A second edition postulates some alteration of text or format. But these terms are, unfortunately, not strictly adhered to. (Introductory Note by Boutell)   

In the Publisher's Note Boutell further points to Arrowsmith entry on page 12, where they note that "the correct term not First Edition but First Impression or Issue." Boutell regrets that the error of terminology is almost universal.

(Can a digital print run be still called an impression?)
The rest of 62 page book is filled with publishers' responses to how they mark their first and subsequent editions and impressions. The book shows how varied the practice can be! For example, I used the book trying to track down the edition number for my The Poetical Works of John Milton (1898) published by Frederic Warne and Co., only to find out that they did at one time mark first editions with a private mark, but they had discontinued the habit and they had even lost trace of private marks (p38).

Bibliographical/book-collector context brings forward the importance of
differentiating between the edition and the print run. 

Editioning information of Alice in the Wonderland (1929) published by George G. Harrap & Co., LTD.
Editioning information of Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus (2009) published by Routledge Classics.


Artists' books include not just bound books, but also a wide range of ephemera in the form of posters, postcards, leaflets, pamphlets, periodicals, zines, fanzines, bookmarks, maps, graphs, tickets, invitations, etc., which may come as multiples, but may not always be numbered. Some will be produced on site to serve as an evidence or a continuation of another event. Others will be regularly published. Among the more fascinating cases of ephemera are Fluxus score sheets.
"Produced throughout the 1960s and 70s, they take on a variety of forms from small event cards with text prompting the viewer to perform everyday actions to larger graphic scores with abstract compositions for indeterminate musical and dance performances." (Exhibiting Fluxus: Keeping Score in Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde) Many of those scores were published and disseminated by Maciunas as Fluxus editions, multiples stamped “© Fluxus”. They could be purchased at low costs. Here are three catalogue entries for three Fluxus publications:


The concept of editioning is tied down to the place and time of production and it benefits the collector/buyer to make judgement on the value of the artists' publication.

Is it important to keep editioning consistent? In the tradition of artists' book as an editioned work of print, the publication benefits from showing all of the information mentioned above as an honest statement about the scale of production. However, the artists' intention might be that the publication is infinite and ephemeral. In that case, it is up to the collector and cataloguer to make sense of it's editioning data.


(1)  New York and California consumer protection laws require a certificate of authenticity when selling artist multiples.

(2) First Editions of To-day and how to Tell Them (1929) by H.S.Boutell was purchased from Barter Books in Alnwick. If in Northumberland, it is always worth a trip to this Ghibli-esque emporium of second hand books.


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