Wednesday, July 12, 2006

On the shady business of selling proof copies

In publishing, a proof copy is an early edition of a book, designed for the eyes of the book trade, critics, film scouts and other interested parties. A proof is sent out at no charge, and is intended to create a buzz. The aim is to increase the chance of sales, for the benefit of everyone involved in the chain from the author up. It's usually uncorrected, which means an editor hasn't tightened everything up and covered for the fact that you can't spele.

Ten years ago, a proof cover was little more than a sheaf of card with the author name and title stamped across it. Today, with increased pressure on publishers to make a splash with new titles, the proof has become more sophisticated. It often looks like a finished copy, but for details on the back of the publisher's promotional plans, plus the instruction that it's 'not for resale'.

Anyway, that's the science bit. The reason I'm writing about it is because I've had a run in this week with someone who makes a living out of selling them on.

Normally, I don't mind seeing proof copies of my books on ebay. It's a personal view, as I know plenty of authors, publishers, editors and agents who consider it to be theft. One UK publisher has recently announced that they will actively pursue anyone who sells proofs. Usually, it's booksellers supplementing their incomes, and good luck to them. I have no problem with this at all. So long as the publication date has passed, it's unlikely to deprive the publishers of a legitimate sale.

What I objected to this week was having a signature conned out of me because theoretically it increases the value.

I signed some books at an event a couple of weeks ago. At one point, a man approached me with a proof copy of The Wild. I asked him who he'd like it inscribed to. He smiled sweetly, said he was fan of my stuff, but could he just have the signature.

So, I did as requested. This week, the copy went up on ebay, with a photo of the signature - which, amazingly, I recognised as the same one. To be sure it was the same guy, I checked to see if he was selling books by other authors at the event, which he was, and so I decided to write to him - via ebay, using my ebay screen name.

'Hi' I wrote in the message field 'where did you get this from?'

His response? 'Mind your own business.'

It took a long walk with my dog before the red mist faded. I even left it a few hours before replying, just so I didn't get all sweary on him.

Unlike 'Bill', I am too much of a gent to just copy and paste our correspondence. His words are probably his ownership, unlike the proof, but that's another matter. In short, I revealed myself as the author, who felt he had a right to be a little vexed. I wished him all the very best in selling the book - not that it would earn him much - and hoped he felt some small sense of guilt at the underhand method he'd used to gain a signature for what is effectively a book he has no right to sell.

To his credit, he withdrew the book from auction, and damned me with some of the faintest praise ever. I know it isn't a big deal, but there is a principle at stake, which is this: If you're going to sell proofs, and want it signed, at least tell the author of your intentions. Had Bill, or his stooge as he was at pains to stress to me, been upfront about it, I would have probably politely declined. Bill expressed surprise at my stingy outlook, and tells me that he has 'big name authors' who readily supply him with proofs. Well, Bill, congratulations! I just think if you were open with every author and publisher whose property you intend to sell, your impressive stock might dwindle greatly.


Sadeq said...

I think you did the right thing and I'm happy that your 'red mist' is gone now.

By the way, this is Sadeq an in 'I Belong.'

I hope your are all well.

Matt Whyman said...

Salaam Sadeq!

Good to hear from you. Has the Saudi nation recovered from the World Cup? We didn't do much better, though.