What Part of NOT FOR RESALE Don’t You Understand? Or: The Ethical Problem of Galleys in Bookstores

galleyproofsNichole Bernier crossed my radar recently as the writer of a great “Experience Required” essay over at Bloom that asked the question: Does publishing a novel change your life?. She also, it turns out, blogs at the very good writers’ collective Beyond the Margins—definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already, as there are a lot of fine, strong voices contributing.

Bernier’s recent post about galleys being sold by booksellers touches on an issue that’s one of my own grandstandy topics (the others being mainly that TV causes clinical depression and hair dye is a carcinogen, but we don’t have to get out those particular tinfoil hats just yet). In it, she writes of finding an advance reader’s edition of her recently published novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, for sale in a bookstore. Not only was the store selling an ARC—a version of the book that is generally not formatted as the finished item will be, rarely proofread as thoroughly, and often still in the final editing stages—but it was shelved next to her finished book.

Think about that. This bookstore, presumably a defender of literature and all it stands for, is saying: “Here. You can buy this beautiful hardcover, carefully edited and thoughtfully art-directed, a product that the author worked hard on in collaboration with her publisher in order to realize the vision of her story, for $14. Or, hey, you can buy a generic-covered typo-ridden galley for five bucks. Your call!”

Except it shouldn’t be a reader’s call. Galleys are given to reviewers and booksellers so they can evaluate the book’s potential. They’re close to the finished goods, but they’re not. My objection isn’t that it’s unethical from a commercial point of view, although technically it is—most of your galleys will have “NOT FOR RESALE” stamped somewhere prominently on them. But as a writer and an artist, someone who makes stuff, it bothers me deeply. I don’t really have to spell this out, do I? Great may indeed be the enemy of good, but we all deserve to have a say in how good our products are going to be before we offer them up. You don’t get to go into my drafts folder right now because you can’t wait another minute for a new Like Fire post—although I certainly don’t blame you—and pull out something that I’m not yet happy with. Because if it doesn’t have all the apostrophes facing the right way, I’m not going to publish it, and that’s that.

And if I had spent a year or two or ten writing a novel? I would damn well not want people reading a second-rate version, even if it were only slightly second-rate. As Bernier explains,

It might sound silly, but these are the minutiae that matter to writers, and make us cringe about having copies of an incomplete work floating around. Incremental changes in drafts might be interesting to some readers, if changes were visible on the page. But in the electronic age, with no crossouts in the margins, they’ll never see the author’s progression. Someone buying a galley will see only inferior writing.

It’s not exactly a covert, parking-lot-in-the-dead-of-night activity—I can think of at least two of my favorite bookstores that engage in the practice, and I’m probably not quite principled enough to boycott them. But I won’t sell my galleys, of which I have an awful lot. It’s actually kind of a quandary for me, figuring out what to do with them. I’ll pass them on to fellow reviewers and readers who understand that what they’re getting isn’t quite the real thing, but that still leaves me with approximately an attic full at this point—god help us if we have to move anytime soon. I wish there was some kind of release an author could sign off on an ARC, just a line along with the publisher information on the back cover: You may give this review copy to your friends. You may donate this review copy to a women’s shelter. You may use this review copy under a wobbly table leg. You must burn this review copy and forget you ever saw it.

At any rate, it’s good to hear at least one author’s dissatisfaction with the practice discussed publicly and articulately—though it’ll probably fall on deaf ears in about the same proportions as my personal rants on the subject. People want their books cheap, or before they hit the shelves, and according to Bernier’s piece some people collect them… really? I’ll take her word for that one. So no, the practice isn’t going away anytime soon, or at least not until we live in an all e-galley world.

And until then, I have an attic full, if anyone’s got any wobbly tables.

(Photo credit: cdrummbks via photopin cc)


4 Comments to What Part of NOT FOR RESALE Don’t You Understand? Or: The Ethical Problem of Galleys in Bookstores

  1. Edward Cole's Gravatar Edward Cole
    October 11, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    The thing is, I have yet to encounter an author who won’t sign an ARC if you present it to him or her at an author event. Perhaps it happens, but not in my experience. Related to that, in my experience as a dealer in first editions and collectible books, there certainly are people who collect ARCs. They aren’t as sought after as they were once were, though.

    I’m not deep into the know-how of publishing, but are ARCs really that significantly different from the trade edition? My understanding is they may get another swipe at grammar and spelling and formatting, but are essentially the same book. If they are, why would a writer want to send out something so unfinished to reviewers and booksellers?

    Also, let’s not forget what an ARC is fundamentally: advertising. It gets a book in front of a lot of people so that even more people will buy the book. I don’t imagine that the minor trafficking in ARCs hurts an author’s bottom-line.

  2. Edward Cole's Gravatar Edward Cole
    October 12, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    I guess I don’t see much difference between putting the less-than-perfect ARC in the hands of a critic or bookseller and those of Joe Reader. Except that the former serve the author’s economic interest in a more clear-cut manner. If sending out ARCs is the lesser of two evils than it seems churlish to complain that they later fell into the wrong hands. It smacks of wanting to have your cake and eat it to.

    As for signing ARCs: some authors do refuse to sign things. Annie Proulx won’t sign nonfiction books from her days with Rodale. It’s hard not to see signing a book as a symbol of artistic ownership. “I made this and I’m proud of it.”

    I’m sorry Ms. Bernier is so troubled. Perhaps digital galleys will solve the problem for her. But I suspect it will be like biting one’s nose off to spite one’s face. Fewer people will have an opportunity to read the book in any format. It’s not the Rowlings and the Pattersons who depend on ARCs to get the word out.

  3. Michael Wehmeyer's Gravatar Michael Wehmeyer
    October 12, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ll add my two cents on this topic. I’m a collector of modern (and hypermodern) first editions. As a completist, I am interested in collecting the earliest editions of books. So, in addition to the first trade edition, I am interested in limited editions and signed limited editions, advance reading copies, uncorrected proofs, and, even, manuscript versions. For authors who are concerned about ARCs on the retail market as a loss of revenue, I agree with the previous comment concerning the miniscule amount lost on ARCs sold over retail plus I would point out that, in my case, if I own an ARC, I will have also purchased, as often as I can from an independent bookstore, at least one first edition (or trade first edition if it came out in a limited edition) of the same book and in 50% of the cases, I’ve probably also bought the book via Kindle so I can read it without damaging the first edition. I belong to several “Signed First Edition” book clubs operated by indie bookstores across the country and, as such, often end up purchasing (because they were selected) multiple copies of some new authors book. If I attend a book signing and have books from my collection I’d like signed, I always buy a copy of the book for which the author is touring.

    In other words, I spend a lot of money on books, both new first editions and signed limited editions as well as used books on the secondary market. I’m not clear how buying an ARC from a used bookstore (for which, I know, the author does not get any royalty) is in any way different from buying a used book at any used bookstore (no royalty). Most ARCs these days really are final version books that are sent out for marketing, despite the warnings on the cover. Some books come out with an ARC only that is really a final copy of the book for marketing. Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls both had a very high number of ARCs issued, I presume to hype up the book…. and it worked, probably, since both won the Pulizer. Some books also have uncorrected proofs that are earlier versions than the ARC. Empire Falls has an uncorrected proof in blue cardstock. Even that is not very different from the ARC. And there are very few true “uncorrected proofs” that hit the market… all I see in used bookstores are ARCs that are, as noted, mainly marketing issues.

    I have had a handful of authors refuse to sign ARCs, and frankly, I think it’s silly. I’ve probably spent more money on that author’s books that year than 99% of the population… so why make me feel embarassed? Further, I resent the notion that collecting various editions is just consumerism or something. I would note that were it not for collectors and libraries holding early uncorrected proof and manuscript copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses, we’d have much less knowledge about what the “true” version of the most important English language book (according to most lists) of the 20th century.

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