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

By (October 10, 2013) No Comment

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)

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