I recently purchased this book from a vendor that is not Amazon, but who listed the same image:

...but this was not quite the same as the book I received, which had a different cover and omitted the "New Afterword by the Author." The book I received has the cover shown in the right side ("sand dune" image) for this Google Books listing, that has what I'll call the "stars and frog" cover as the thumbnail on the left:

It seems that the "sand dune" cover goes with a first edition and the "stars and frog" cover goes with a later edition (containing at least a "New Afterword by the Author"). I inquired with the seller about the difference between editions, and the seller wrote:

"We stock all of our books by the ISBN number... that book we sent you matched the ISBN we received in your order... Please note that you cannot always count on listing images to be accurate."

Looking more closely, the Amazon listing shows the "stars and frog" picture with the term "1st Edition" to the right of the title, and the ISBN-10 below the image matches the ISBN printed on the back of the book with the "sand dune" cover:

I didn't buy this book through Amazon, but instead on a different website where I'm purchasing directly from the seller rather than through a marketplace. The other seller also showed the "stars and frog [and New Afterword]" image on the product listing. However, exactly where I bought it seems irrelevant to this question. If I were to buy this from or through Amazon, new or used, it seems I could very easily have the same experience. Is there any way to know just what book I'd be getting when I buy online?

I've also experienced this in the past, getting International Edition textbooks with the same ISBN instead of US editions. (Some publishers slightly change the content in international editions, such as altering the numbers in example problems. Along with the durability and printing material, these may not be major differences, but the differences sometimes matter.)

Note: I know that most of the text of the book is the same, and that the differences between the two may not be that significant. However, there are situations where the difference might matter (e.g. where the key text to be quoted/verified/etc. is in that Afterword, or, as an especially relevant situation around Christmas, if it's a gift where presentation matters for someone who's into the study of complexity with particular interests in stars, frogs, and cities but who hates the desert, etc.). This question is about if there is a way to know which version of a book one is buying without regard to why a purchaser might care.

  • The question is very long and doesn't make clear what question you have that wasn't already addressed by the seller's email. As the seller says, they're agreeing to sell you a book with a specific ISBN. If you want a specific version of a book, make sure you know an accurate ISBN.
    – user1482
    Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 17:57
  • The same ISBN apparently applies to multiple versions of the same book. Buying the "stars and frog" version (ISBN-10 0671872346) caused me to receive the "sand dune" version (same ISBN, 0671872346). The question is how else to disambiguate.
    – WBT
    Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 18:22
  • 7
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not about academia but rather about purchasing books (not even textbooks) online. Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 18:55
  • The same question applies to textbooks too, as well as books like this that can be used as textbooks/scholarly books. See also comment about international editions. You might want to go through the "books" tag and see if any others are off-topic by the same reasoning.
    – WBT
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 13:06

1 Answer 1


Online sellers of books typically maintain their inventory by ISBN and make no distinction between slightly different versions of a book that bear the same ISBN. These differences can include different cover art, new introductions or afterwords and corrections of typographical errors.

Both of the versions of the book you've described have the same ISBN-10: 0671872346. If you look in more detail on the copyright page of two copies of the book you can find additional information that should make it possible to distinguish between these two versions of the book.

You'll commonly find a line of numbers like

10 9 8 7 6 5

This printers key is used to keep track of "printings" of the book. Initially the line ends with "1", indicating the first printing. With each successive printing a number is removed from the end of the line. The example above would indicate a fifth printing.

You can "Look Inside the Book" on the Amazon web site to see the copyright page for the newer version of the Waldrop book. The Amazon page shows a 16th printing of the book by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

I don't have a copy of the earlier state of this book at hand, but if you look at the copyright page, you'll see that you have an earlier printing by Simon & Schuster.

Collectors of first editions of books typically are only interested in the first printing of the first edition. Buyers and sellers of these books pay careful attention to the printers key and often check for corrections to particular typos to identify the true first state.

For technical books, readers typically prefer the most up-to-date version of the book. It is common for authors to provide lists of errata in the book that are organized by the printing. If you have the 5th printing of the book, then you can assume that the errata corrected in the 2nd through 5th printings have been corrected in your copy of the book but that errors corrected in later printings have not been corrected in your copy.

If having a particular printing of a book is important to you, then you'll have to work with a seller who is willing to talk to you about exactly what you're getting. Responsible sellers of collectible books are typically happy to provide this information, but the kinds of folks who sell books on Amazon typically won't take the time to check this or share the information with you when you ask for it.

  • Thanks for your answer. I apparently got a 4th printing, but in this case am more in the "technical" category preferring an up-to-date version. Your answer indicated that sellers in the collectible category are more willing to provide detailed information about printings; is there any way to find out just what I'm getting when buying a more technical book?
    – WBT
    Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 18:27
  • There's simply no way to search for a particular printing of a book on Amazon. You can contact the seller directly and ask what printing they've got- the seller may or may not be willing to check for you. Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 18:41

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