21st April 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin
I probably don't read the same books as you. Same authors, same titles, maybe. But not actually the same editions. Almost all of what I read is in the form of proof copies or, as they're more commonly referred to in America, galley proofs or ARCs (Advance Reading Copies).
If you've not come across the term before, proofs are editions printed in limited numbers a few months before a book is actually published in its first edition, for distribution to reviewers, bookshop buyers and, increasingly, bloggers. The idea is to help buyers make decisions about new titles, to give reviewers the chance to get reading early and generally to generate word-of-mouth enthusiasm prior to release.
The cover design is often not the same as the finished book, or it may just have a plain cover with nothing more than the title and author on it, along with marketing information on the back.
The book's contents are usually largely the same, barring a few tweaks and any typos still to be caught by a final copyedit. Any illustrations are often missing or at least only rendered in photocopy-quality monochrome. Occasionally, an author will make major last-minute revisions to a book: the published edition of Michael Collins' recent Midnight in a Perfect Life, for example, contains whole chapters not present in the proof.
Proofs are not generally of much interest to collectors, although fans of specific authors may be keen. There is a handful of favourite authors whose output I've managed to collect in proof format, with my Jim Crace collection the jewel in the crown. (I'm still missing The Gift of Stones, if anyone's got one squirrelled away.)
Sometimes we unknowingly hold in our hands books that are to take the book world by storm. Often we'll read them, but inevitably we also give away some that go on to be major bestsellers - and thereby become quite valuable.
I must confess to having passed on my copy of Jasper Fforde's debut, The Eyre Affair, presuming him yet another Douglas Adams wannabe, and I know those are sought after by fans now, as the proof features passages cut from from the published version. I was similarly unconvinced about the appeal of Joanne Harris' Chocolat as well.
Everyone in the trade has a story like that. I know a sales rep who binned several proofs of A Brief History of Time prior to finding out that collectors will pay four-figure sums for them.
The word-of-mouth aspect can be very effective. Hodder got proofs of Chris Cleave's The Other Hand into so many influential pairs of hands that critics were lining up to review it, bloggers were making constant references and booksellers were hand-selling it as soon as it came in. The result was a major hit with a book that might too easily have seen the limited success of so many otherwise excellent books.
Sadie Jones' The Outcast, Simon Lelic's Rupture, Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills and Rosie Alison's The Very Thought of You (which wasn't reviewed anywhere else until it made the Orange Prize shortlist) are just four recent debut novels that Foyles promoted heavily just because I'd read them ahead of publication and loved them. Now all have become hits and I'm proud to have played a very small part in getting them into the hands of readers.
Proofs of established, bigger name authors, who benefit from huge marketing campaigns and reader awareness, are perhaps more of a perk, especially for booksellers. Still, it allows me to tell you that Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here, Beryl Bainbridge's The Girl with the Polka Dot Dress, Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child, Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side, Ali Smith's There But For The and Ross Raisin's Waterline are all novels out this summer that fully deserve all the fuss that's going to be made of them. The Swift in particular is simply stunning (and has a rather better jacket image than the initial concept used on the proof).
While reading in advance has many professional advantages, there's no denying the side-effect of feeling one step ahead of everybody else. Every tube carriage has been full of people with their noses buried in Emma Donoghue's Room for months now, but I polished off my lurid yellow proof last spring.
Of course, recipients of proofs may get to read books ahead of publication, but we're very much behind the times compared to editors and literary agents. Their first readings, some months before, are of the original manuscript, often before the author has completed it.
The input of such people in the writing process itself is often significant. Until a facsimile was made available in 2000, only a handful of people had the opportunity to read an early draft of F Scott Fitzgerald's Trimalchio. It's a book we now know, thanks to his editor, as The Great Gatsby.
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