chock-full, eyes-peeled, independent
achuka

Not For Resale
the ethics of trading in proof copies


 

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh no, please don't let me be misunderstood

"I hope that you will cooperate with us by removing all Faber proof titles from your site. The books are sent to you in good faith for review purposes, not for financial gain. I am afraid that if you continue to sell these copies we will have to remove you from our mailing list.” Head of Children’s Sales, Faber

Before the final production of a book, an ‘uncorrected’ proof copy is circulated to various people. The principle purpose of this proof copy is to allow the author and the copy editor to eliminate lingering typos or to make any other revisions they deem necessary. Authors are warned at this stage that revisions should be minimal and that any significant rewriting is likely to incur costs that will be deducted from their advance.

That being the case, the bound proof copy is as near as damn-it to what will be finally published and it therefore serves another purpose – as a promotional advance version of the book to be sent to booksellers, literary editors, reviewers and anyone else whose interest in the book might be profitably aroused.

It follows that the more notice a publisher wants to give of a forthcoming title, the more proof copies will be produced. Indeed, the number of proof copies of children’s and young adult fiction swirling around nowadays is far greater than it was five years ago.
Not only has the number of proof copies increased, so has the quality of their production. There was a time when a proof copy would always have a plain sugar paper cover printed in black ink. Now the majority have glossy, laminated covers and a stylish cover design that often replicates the design of the finished book so closely it is difficult to tell them apart.

Because final revisions are still possible at this stage, reviewers are warned (a warning that is particularly valid in the case of non-fiction) not to highlight errors of style or fact until they have verified them with the finished book.

For obvious reasons, neither publisher nor author likes a proof copy to enter the public domain before the finished title is published. There was a time when even a review of the book was not supposed to break the publication date embargo. In practice, many reviews (especially of children’s books) appear several weeks before publication date, a date which in itself is rarely followed to the letter by booksellers.

I have never, and would never dispose of a proof copy until the finished book has been published. Once that has happened the proof copy’s job has been done and a pre-publication embargo no longer applies.

In times past most proof copies bore a ‘NOT FOR RESALE’ notice. These days the picture is patchier. I have a Kingfisher proof copy which carries no such notice, or any other. The Chicken House state on the back page of their proof copies “This is an uncorrected proof copy and is not for sale. It does not reflect the quality, page size or thickness of the finished book.”

Whatever the wording, and whatever the publishers’ intentions, the irrefutable fact is that the second-hand bookselling trade has always considered trade in proof copies to be a legitimate market. There are approaching 30,000 uncorrected proof copies being offered for sale on abebooks.com. Indeed, exactly because of the rise in profile of children’s books and the consequent increase in the circulation of proof copies, they are seen as increasingly collectable.

If NOT FOR RESALE was ever intended as a blanket for-all-time embargo it has obviously been one that has been impossible to sustain or enforce. I am not sure that the statements printed on proof copies have any status in law or were ever intended to do more than prevent them being sold as new.

Once the primary purpose of a proof copy has been served, what’s to be done with it? More to the point, what is a reviewer to do with the stacks of them that arrive each month? Regular review copies are easily disposed of. Relatively. School libraries and playgroups receive the majority of ACHUKA’s, with novelty and some series titles going to charity shops. In the latter case care has to be taken that a reasonable time has elapsed since publication date. And I know of one reviewer who was discouraged from donating books to a grand-child’s school library because it was affecting orders submitted to the local bookshop the school had an account with.

A proof copy, because it may and probably does contain errors as much as for any other reason, can never be put on a library shelf. What is a reviewer to do with the stacks of them that arrive every year? The purists will no doubt argue that they should be shredded or returned to the publisher (and what will the publisher do with them if not shred them?).

Book-lovers tend to be uncomfortable shredding books or sending them to land-fill sites, so most people who receive proof copies retain them in their personal libraries or release them to the second-hand market.

ACHUKA recognises that publishers have had legitimate concerns about proof copies being released to this market prior to a book’s official publication date. After all, this is tantamount to piracy. And because of the huge increase in the numbers of proof copies produced and distributed there have been cases of individuals acquiring significant quantities of a single title for speculative purposes. These individuals have often been closely connected with the publisher and its distribution networks, so this is an issue that needs addressing inhouse by the publishing companies themselves.

As I’ve already said, ACHUKA never disposes of a proof copy until well after the publication date has passed. We never seek to acquire multiple proof copies (heaven knows, we don’t want more of the things!) and nor do I at book events get an author to sign a proof copy to enhance its value.

For the last two years I have been openly selling proof copies on eBay (not on ACHUKA’s main site, let it be noted), a fact that the whole children’s publishing industry has been well aware of, since ACHUKA’s lead page includes a link to the eBay listings and the fact has been prominently featured in our eLetters. Out of the blue, Alyssa Brugman, an Australian author of young adult novels has demanded I stop listing a proof copy of Being Bindy. She has reported ACHUKA to the Australian Society of Authors and to Faber, whose Head of Children’s sales sent me a strongly worded email threatening to remove me from the mailing list.

I know I am not the only reviewer to sell proof copies on eBay; I may be the only one doing so openly. Whereas others tend to use disguised eBay usernames, I took the decision to sell the proof copies openly on eBay, alongside the other second-hand titles I have dealt in for much longer - principally Puffin and Penguin first editions.

I did this because it seemed more honest, less underhand. I might, for example, have chosen instead to enter into a private agreement with a dealer (I have been offered this kind of arrangement). But as my primary purpose was to raise funds for the upkeep of the website, it seemed much the best thing to include the trade under the ACHUKA name, so that all proceeds could be declared in the end-of-year accounts I pass to the accountant.

All profits from eBay trading are declared in ACHUKA’s annual financial return. Indeed, all my freelance work outside of teaching, including payments for reviewing from the TES and The Scotsman, form part of that return. The website would be running at a loss if that were not the case, and I would be hard-pressed justifying to my wife the amount of time I spend on its upkeep. Essentially, ACHUKA does run at loss, since I would be financially better off if I shut it down tomorrow, and concentrated on reviewing and other writing. I have had no time for ‘other writing’ since starting ACHUKA in 1997.

Trading on eBay, and in particular the trade in proof copies, did bring in helpful funds in the first year, much less so last year. But whether a proof copy changes hands for £2.50, £25 or (extremely rarely) £250, I have always felt, up to this point, ethically and financially at ease when dispatching it to the successful bidder. Avid book collectors love completion. There are still some of the early Puffin originals up to #100 that I would love to acquire. Nowadays, a collector of first editions will often want to acquire an author’s proof copies, for exactly that sense of completion. I can quite see why, for example, a fan and collector of Meg Rosoff, would want to own,in addition to the first edition hardback, the proof copy of Just In Case, a glossy proof which replicates the hardback design on the outside and has stylish black pages at inside front and back.

It’s not only collectors who have an interest in acquiring proof copies. Researchers and academics can use them to study textual differences between the proof, the first and later editions. (Another reason I would never be happy destroying a proof copy.)

I have put this matter out into the public domain so that there can be wider discussion of the issue, and of ACHUKA’s approach to proof copies. Either it has been and continues to be acceptable for ACHUKA to trade on eBay in the manner it has been doing, or it is not.

If it’s not acceptable, it seems amazing that it has taken over two years and the inexplicably urgent, irate demands of an author in a different hemisphere to be told so.

If it is acceptable, it must be acceptable in all cases, including Ms Brugman’s.




2006© Michael Thorn

Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
©ACHUKA 1997-2008