Interest in proofs on the part of book collectors is not new. The estimable bookseller, Bertram Dobell, offered a set of corrected proofs of Robert Browning’s Red Cotton Nightcap in a catalogue nearly 100 years ago. It is however true to say that collecting proofs has gone through the swings and tribulations of popularity to a greater extent than many other aspects of book collecting and, for much of the 20th century, seemed a Cinderella which never quite found the right slipper. Anecdotal, rather than systematic, evidence indicates that interest in proofs has increased steadily since the 1980s. Nevertheless, there are still those who cast proofs off as ugly and unimportant. This article will attempt to demonstrate why those people are wrong.
For collectors of modern and literary fiction firsts, the golden rule is always ‘the earlier the better’: that is, the very first issue of a book is always held to be more collectible and more desirable (and is often therefore more expensive) than later printings or editions. Arguably, the cult of the first edition has its roots in very practical reasoning. The development of the printing press and the extension of literacy among the population, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, made books a more widespread commodity: more copies were printed and sold at price which made them affordable to the growing ranks of those able to read. In these early days of book production, the plates on the presses were made from soft metals or sometimes wood, which wore down with each successive printing. As a result, those books first off the press – the first printings of the first editions – were often those of the highest quality, with clearer and crisper type than that of subsequent printings. The introduction of offset printing in the early years of the 20th century enabled worn plates to be replaced with little expense and relative ease. By this time, however, the desirability of a first edition was already firmly established within the minds of book collectors and antiquarian booksellers alike.
Another argument often advanced to justify the premium prices which some firsts can command, and one that is still valid today, is that first editions represent the text that is closest to the author and to his intent. Thus the first edition is held to be the real book, presented as the original publisher, and perhaps the author, intended. Everything else, everything later is a mere imitation and potentially a step away from the author’s intention.
Taking this argument to its logical extreme, it follows that the author’s original manuscript is the most desirable version of any text, attractive to collectors above all other versions. Indeed, manuscripts from highly respected and widely collected authors can command the highest prices. Jack Kerouac’s famous scroll, composed in a caffeine-fueled frenzy over a three-week period in the early 1950s, which eventually became the seminal Beat novel, On The Road, fetched over a £1.5 million at auction in 2001. Not many collectors can afford to spend that sort of figure on their collections however much they may wish to and even if money is no object, the opportunities to acquire such highly desirable items are few and far between. An uncorrected bound proof or advance reading copy (ARC) provides the collector with the opportunity to enhance their collection with a book which precedes the first published edition and is closer to the author certainly in time and probably in content, without the need for a bank loan or to re-mortgage a small house. Indeed, Ian C Ellis argues that “for the collector, the bound proofs or the ARC can honestly be considered the real first edition”.
Publishers issue these pre-publication volumes in the hope that reviews will appear in periodicals and newspapers at the time of publication, stimulating interest and sales. They are also sent to those who make the buying decisions for major wholesalers and book retailers who may be tempted to order in larger quantities if they find the book impressive. Increasingly, publishers also want to gather comments on the book from well-known authors and commentators which might then by used on the book’s covers, again to tempt buyers and promote sales.
Those receiving pre-publication books for review are usually warned that the final text may change and that they should check the final text before quoting directly. In A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Nicholas Basbanes provides several examples of author’s making substantial textual changes right up to the point of publication: “as the demand for modern literature has grown, collecting them [publishers’ proofs] has become fashionable, primarily because they represent a “state” that is earlier than the first edition, and in some cases can actually be considered a “variant” form of the text”. Many authors – John Updike, Anne Tyler, Philip Roth, and the late Bernard Malamud, to name just four – have revised novels right up to the final typesetting. Changes of such consequence were made in The Witches of Eastwick, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and National Book Award winner, Tim O’Brien’s 1994 book, In the Lake of the Woods, that new proofs had to be printed, producing what amounted to two sets of galleys. The earlier versions were of course more desirable. Less dramatic modifications take place all the time; Henry Holt advised critics in 1986 that the names of several minor characters in Louise Erdrich’s second novel, The Beet Queen, had been changed, and to avoid using them in any review”. (Although, interestingly, in Basbanes’ later book, Among the Gently Mad, he claims not to collect “such peripheral objects as uncorrected proofs”, lumping them with “magazine articles and signed limited editions of obscure works, rarely significant items whose only reason for being is to create a condition of manufactured rarity”.) As Ellis points out however in Book Finds: How to Find, Buy and Sell Used and Rare Books, “for someone seriously interested in a particular writer, these differences between the ARC and the final version of the book can provide insight into the creative process”.
A second factor that adds to the attraction of uncorrected bound proofs is “completeness”. A collector who wishes to acquire the complete collection of the works of a particular author, for example, is missing the point if they do not concern themselves with pre-publication editions – and missing the opportunity for interesting discovery and research. Not all novels have a pre-publication edition at all. Others will have proofs, galleys, uncorrected bound proofs, and advance reading copies, perhaps extending to more than one printing. Discovering the publication history, often by undertaking original research can add to the mystique and exhilaration of book collecting.
Scarcity also adds to the attractions of uncorrected bound proofs. It is often difficult to pin down the size of a print run for proofs: such statistics tend to be closely guarded by publishers. Admit to producing a large number and there is a risk of undermining market confidence in the product: wholesale book buyers may feel that the market has been flooded with a free product and that as a result there is little likelihood of selling a substantial number at the retail level. In short, their concern is that anyone who may wish to read the book has done so already. Conversely, if a publisher admits to only a small print run, it may in interpreted as a lack of confidence in the book or its author. Ken Lopez’s excellent essay on collecting uncorrected proofs cites a handful of cases where the size of the print run is known. These include Robert Stone’s debut, A Hall of Mirrors, with a proof print run of just 57 copies; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five, with a proof print run of 39, and one Philip K Dick novel where the proof print run was a short as 19 copies. More recently, technological developments in printing have given the opportunity for publishers to produce larger numbers of proof copies without a prohibitive unit cost. Lopez cites the example of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park which had an initial proof print run of 1500 and “then went back to press for a second printing of another 1,000 copies – all prior to publication”. Jasper Fforde’s website claims a proof print run of 3,000 for his first novel, the wonderful Eyre Affair. Despite these examples of extended numbers, the cost of large print runs and mailing our each of the copies produced together with the risk of undermining the market for retail sales with “free” copies is likely to mean that for the most part, publishers keep proof print runs to a minimum. Crane Duplicating, thought to be first producers of bound galleys (sometimes referred to as “Cranes”) cite run lengths between 20 and 1000 copies. Lopez concludes that the average print run for proofs or advance reading copies is likely to be in the region of 200 to 500 copies. This seems likely and certainly I am aware of no contradictory evidence.
This is an issue size similar to many of the limited editions which now often precede or accompany trade publication. There is a difference though. Collectible, limited editions tend to find their way onto the shelves of book collectors, where they will be loved, cared for and treated with respect, quite rapidly. Uncorrected bound proofs and ARCs tend to be used for the purposes for which they were intended: they are read, often in haste as the reviewer may have a deadline. Add to that the fact that they are often produced at the minimum possible cost, it is easy to understand why few will survive beyond a few weeks in anything like collectible condition. In practice then, fine or very good – indeed any – examples of uncorrected bound proofs can be harder to find than even the most limited first edition in the long term, even if they seem common shortly after publication. They are intended to be disposable items and many treat them as such.
Most collectors will also find pre-publication editions affordable. Proofs from only a handful of authors will command prohibitive prices for the average collectors, particularly in the year or so after publication while they remain relatively easy to find. Proofs usually rise in value only if and when the reputation of the author, or the importance of the novel, has been proved over time. By this time, a combination of demand and attrition can mean that prices become eye-watering. Many proofs will only increase in value slowly, steadily and undramatically. Many more will not increase in value at all. Yet the fact that a few will increase in value to a staggering degree attracts the speculator to pre-publication editions as well as the collector. The initial stakes are usually quite low so even the most cautious can afford to take a punt from time to time. And even if they don’t win financially, they still have a collectible and interesting item to enjoy.
A note on terminology
Uncorrected bound proofs, soft back pre-publication copies were at one time typically bound in plain card wrappers with perhaps just the title and author printed on the cover. Advance Review (or Reader) copies (ARCs) were more typically glossy publications resembling the final publication much more closely, often reproducing the artwork and design that the publisher intended to use. They may also carry information, usually on the cover or preliminary pages, on publication and the publisher’s planned marketing activity. Recent developments in printing and publication have served to blur these distinctions and it is now common to see glossy, illustrated covers and publication and publicity details on books which call themselves uncorrected bound proofs. Often these modern “uncorrected bound proofs” will carry blurbs and promotional quotes, suggesting an earlier pre-publication edition exists. Even so, the typical process remains galleys, uncorrected bound proof, advance reading copy and then publication (although only a minority of novels will go through each of these steps).
 Rota, Anthony, Books in the Blood : Memoirs of a Fourth Generation Bookseller, 1st edition, Private Libraries Association, 2002, p. 34.
 Ellis, Ian C, Book Finds: How to Find, Buy and Sell Used and Rare Books, 2nd revised edition, Perigee, 2001, p. 24.
 Basbanes, Nicholas A, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Henry Holt, 1995.
 Basbanes, Nicholas A, Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-first Century, Henry Holt, 2002, p. 23.
 Ellis, Ian C, Book Finds: How to Find, Buy and Sell Used and Rare Books, 2nd revised edition, Perigee, 2001, p. 24.
 It is perhaps worth noting here that the distinction between price and value is intentional. Asking prices can be speculative and only attest to what the bookseller wants to achieve; value is more closely related to the dynamic between availability and desirability and ultimately depends on what a collector is prepared to pay to obtain a desirable item.
This wee article, too, dates from my days as a secondhand bookseller – maybe 2005 or 2006 – and has been previously published elsewhere. I’ve taken this opportunity to correct a few typos though.