Cognoscenti Cognoscenti

Support the news

Is It Ethical For Bookstores To Sell Uncorrected Proofs?

This article is more than 6 years old.

I traveled to a literary festival recently as part of my book tour, and stopped into a bookstore I’ve always wanted to visit. Folks I know in the area adore the store, and many an author friend has been excited to read there. I walked through room after room; I bought coffee; I admired the unique shelving and helpful salespeople.

When I went to the shelf that held my debut novel, I saw something I hadn’t seen before: There, beside the hardcover and paperback copies of my book, was a galley copy for sale. Galleys, also called “Advance Reader Copies,” are uncorrected proofs sent to give industry folks a preview for their decision-making purposes, but can change significantly in the final product. And they’re marked by the publisher with the words, “Not For Sale.”

At first I thought it was a mistake — it’s a large bookstore, it was possible that someone accidentally shelved a galley. But I turned it over and the store’s price tag was on the back, offering it for $8.95.

At first I thought it was a mistake — it’s a large bookstore, it was possible that someone accidentally shelved a galley. But I turned it over and the store’s price tag was on the back, offering it for $8.95.

Curious, I asked a salesperson, and was referred to the manager. I identified myself as the author, and very politely asked about the sale of a galley (the last thing you want to do as an author is leave a bookstore with a poor impression of you). I smiled so hard I think he interpreted my curiosity as admiration for the store’s resourcefulness.

“Oh sure, that’s no accident!” the manager said. “Lots of people like to collect them.”

“But… is it okay to do?” I asked. “I mean, on the cover it says, ‘Not For Sale.’ Does the publisher mind?”

“No, it’s fine,” he said. “Once a galley is sent to a bookstore, we can do whatever we’d like with it. People buy and sell them on ebay and Amazon all the time.”

In the abstract, I can see that. When I’ve visited literary exhibits with edits of famous authors, I’ve pored over the handwritten comments in the margins, the cross-outs of entire sections, even the choice of one single word changed in favor of another — all intriguing, that sense of the minutiae that mattered to this person whose writing you’ve admired.

But I have trouble feeling the same thing applies to today’s galleys, and to contemporary writers without the stature to have their liner notes pored over in museums. For starters, uncorrected proofs have no handwritten cross-outs; they pretty much read like an ordinary paperback. So there's no way anyone can see the evolution of a novel. For anyone who cared to compare the galley to the hardcover line by line, there might be omissions and additions that could be detected. Interesting details, possibly, for true literature wonks familiar with the final published work.

“I do collect galleys of books that are special to me. Books I have discovered that have turned out to be big sellers, ones by my favorite authors, manuscripts sent out before the actual galley comes out,” said Kym Havens, assistant manager of Wellesley Books. “But they are for my preview and will never be sold. It feels essentially wrong to me.”

“A bookstore selling a galley off their shelves is simply unethical,” says Mary Cotton, who owns Newtonville Books along with her husband, Jaime Clark. “Galleys are sent by publishers to booksellers in good faith — that a bookseller might read it, love it, spread the word to customers. To place it on a shelf, in competition with books whose sales would actually earn money for authors and their publishers, is not right.”

Yes, there’s the financial point, too — that when the customer buys the galley, the author is in no way credited for the sale: not financially, and not in sales tallies. In fact, the unsold "real" copy that cools its heels on the shelf while the galley is bought could end up being returned to the publisher by the store for a refund — and count against the author’s ability to qualify for royalties.

But my feelings about the galley aren’t financial. I know all too well what typos are in my galley, many of which were electronic hiccups resulting in made-up words, mash-ups of two sentences and omissions of others. I know which sections continued to change and evolve until the final version. And there are in fact two passages that exist in the final book that aren’t in the galley at all, one of them fairly important to plot nuances. Both had been cut early in the editing process to save space. At each subsequent editing pass I felt their loss but didn’t speak up until the 11th hour, and my editor agreed to restore them, for which I’m endlessly grateful. Galley readers will never see those.

My friend, author Joe Wallace, had a galley of one of his books truly bungled, with little dashes added willy nilly — sometimes three inside a single word, hundreds and hundreds of them — for a run of about 80 pages. Folks inside the publishing industry appreciate that this kind of thing can happen, and read around it. But regular readers might think Joe was some ee cummings of punctuation, and just get irritated.

These things 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 the changes were visible on the page. But they aren’t.

I’d never begrudge a bookstore the $8.95 profit ... But someone’s going to pick up that proof instead of a finished copy and think that’s the best I can do.

Galleys are great for many things — mostly, for letting bookstores and reviewers get a preview when they need it for their purchasing decisions and deadlines. But it’s not the version any author wants to make a lasting impression with. (I didn't let my parents read it in galley form, for example.) Yet there was mine, at half the price of the paperback and a third of the hardcover. What price-conscious customer wouldn’t choose it instead?

I’d never begrudge a bookstore the $8.95 profit, because Lord knows bookstores today need all the help they can get. And I do appreciate that there are some creative charitable uses for galleys.

But someone’s going to pick up that proof instead of a finished copy and think that’s the best I can do. They won’t see an intermediate step in the process, an author’s progression.  Someone buying a galley will see only inferior writing.

This program aired on November 8, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Support the news