First Edition Identification Points
All of the following points must be present to ensure a true first edition / first printing.
- The copyright page has the following text at the bottom:
All rights reserved in all countries.
Copyright 1955 by V. Nabokov and The Olympia Press
- Two volumes printed in pea-green paper wrappers
- First volume is 188 pages; second volume is 223
- Both volumes have the price “900 francs” stamped on the back
Later Editions’ Identification Points
The applicable printing numbers are listed in brackets when known.
- The original price of 900 francs was later covered with a stamp or sticker that read “1,200 francs” on either or both volumes [1st printing, second state]
- Cover adds the words: “THE TRAVELER’S COMPANION SERIES” [2+]
- Cover adds the print number in between the two borders at the top left [2+]
- Back cover adds a warning: “NOT TO BE SOLD IN U.S.A. OR U.K”  and later “U.S.A. U.K. OR PHILIPPINES” [3+]
- Copyright page lists the print history and Library of Congress catalog number:
First printing: September 1955
Second printing: November 1958
Third printing: April 1959
PRINTED IN FRANCE
Copyright © by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955.
Library of Congress Catalog, No. 58-10755.
- Includes a four-page “Publisher’s Digression” before the foreword 
- Includes a six-page “Publisher’s Digression” before the foreword 
- The 1,200 francs price is stamped out by a box that reads: “NEW PRICE 6 NF 2 VOLS” [4A]
- An Israeli edition (in English) was printed in 1958 or 1959 that is similar to the second French printing (including the four-page “Publisher’s Digression”).
Vladimir Nabokov wrote a number of Russian-language works while living in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, some of which made it clear he already had an idea for a story that would eventually become Lolita. A few of his early poems and short stories feature older men engaging in sexual encounters or affairs with young girls. In his 1935-7 serially-published autobiographical novel The Gift (Дар in Russian), there is a passage wherein a character envisions a novel about an older man who marries a widow because he is infatuated with her young daughter. Nabokov expanded this very Lolita-esque idea into a novella in the fall of 1939 entitled The Enchanter (Волшебник in Russian); it was his last work of fiction written in Russian. In 1940 the Nabokov family left war-torn Europe for America and Vladimir thought that he had destroyed or at least lost the manuscript for The Enchanter in the move. He was mistaken as it turned up in Ithaca in 1959 and would eventually be translated by his son Dimitri and posthumously published.
In America Nabokov worked as a professor and began to publish novels in English. He was also en entomologist and became the de facto curator of lepidoptery (butterfly study) at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. This second interest led him and his family on long road trips out west every summer, during which he would collect butterflies and draft novels on index cards. He began writing Lolita in 1949 and completed it around five years later. Nabokov recognized that the subject matter was going to make it difficult to get the book published in America, and indeed the manuscript was turned down in 1954 by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Doubleday, and Farrar, Strauss, and Giraux. In mid-February 1955 the author sent the novel to his translator Doussia Ergaz in Paris with the hopes she would pass it on to the proprietor of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach. Beach had previously published James Joyce’s Ulysses when it seemed every English press would refuse it, but by this point she was publishing no more. In April Ergaz passed the manuscript onto Maurice Girodias, founder and owner of Olympia Press. Girodias published pornography and (racy) literature alike, and would later tell Playboy Magazine he wanted to “bring out good books as well as bad ones: the only standard was the ostracism to which they would have been subjected.” Ergaz only knew Girodias as the director of an art-books subsidiary and publisher of lauded books such as L’histoire de O and so recommended him to Nabokov.
Lolita was the exact type of novel the Girodias wanted to publish and Nabokov was desperate for a publisher (he later said he probably would have used Olympia even if he had known about their pornographic nature). The author was wary of the terms: he had to use his real name (until this point he was planning on using a pen name, “Sirin”) and the royalty scale was low. But Girodias promised a rapid release schedule and Nabokov just wanted the book out so on June 6th they signed a contract. Their professional relationship was difficult; Nabokov did not receive page proofs despite requesting them and considering seeing them an essential part of bringing a book to press. Girodias was eager to publish during the busier summer tourist season, and so did not have time to address the corrections Nabokov had requested in later chapters of the book. This version of Lolita was released on September 15, 1955 in two softcover volumes priced at 900 francs each in a print run of 5,000 copies. It was full of typographical errors including the lack of page numbers “11” and “12” (it went from “10” right to “13”). The book was largely ignored.
Towards the end of 1955, novelist Graham Greene wrote in the London Sunday Times that Lolita was one of the three best books of the year. This led to a flurry of interest which also led to controversy and condemnation of the book due to its arguably obscene nature. Most notably, editor John Gordon of the Sunday Express despised it and said “anyone who published it or sold it here [in Britain] would certainly go to prison.” The British Home Office subsequently initiated a ban of 25 Olympia titles through the (uncharacteristically cooperative) French Ministère l’Intérieur to keep tourists from bringing the high-profile Lolita back to the UK. French media outlets reacted negatively to this act of censorship and Maurice Girodias sued to have the ban lifted; he won the lawsuit early in 1958. Meanwhile, American publishers were now clamoring over the opportunity to print the scandalous novel, but Girodias kept the process from going smoothly. He demanded 62.5% of Nabokov’s royalties from the American publication while he simultaneously tried to flood the U.S. (black) market with his own Olympia Press version. The threat of prosecution for obscenity charges also loomed. Despite these issues, Walter Minton of G. P. Putnam’s Sons took on the task and was able to release an American edition on August 18th, 1958 for $5.00. The book managed to avoid prosecution and was an immediate and gargantuan success, selling 100,000 copies in three weeks- the first title since Gone With the Wind to accomplish that feat. For the American edition, Nabokov added an afterword that has remained in most English-language editions since.
Back in France, Girodias issued a second printing in November of 1958. He had changed the price from 900 francs per volume to 1,200 francs per volume at some point in 1956 as demand for the novel increased. The second printing fixed a number of mistakes and also added a four-page “Publisher’s Digression” at the head of the book, which was expanded to six pages for the third printing in April, 1959. A fourth printing followed in two variants in September 1959: one in the green paper wrappers similar to the previous printings and another in white paper wrappers with a colorful stained-glass style butterfly on the front cover. Around the end of 1958 or beginning of 1959 a company named Steimatzky’s Agency printed an edition for Olympia Press in Jerusalem, Israel. The sheets are similar to the second printing (including the four-page “Publisher’s Digression”). The print run was somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 numbered copies with roughly half of the copies being softcover and the other half being hardcover (this edition combined the two volumes into one). Walter Minton blamed Girodias for authorizing this printing and Girodias blamed Nabokov; it is unclear who actually gave Yehezkal Steimatzky permission to print and sell Lolita. Because of the lack of print or publication date in the Israeli edition, many booksellers list this version as coming from 1955 when it actually came about sometime after November 1958.