Some chapters in the life of the book that used to be quieter, like adolescent years spent in an Alpine convent school, sprang into public view in the last few weeks with articles in Vulture and the Wall Street Journal about trafficking in books’ mid-production stages. Reeves Wiedeman and Lila Shapiro wrote in Vulture about a mysterious malefactor who has been haunting the shadowy and yet (it turns out) not especially well-guarded world of literary agents and book scouts, who pass among themselves with ostentatious secrecy the manuscripts that they hope will become hot commodities (not just as eventual big book contracts but also lucrative foreign-rights deals, movie and streaming options, magazine appearances, and the publicity-generating orchestrated launch). The perpetrator has been impersonating the scouts and agents—parroting their mannerisms but revealing here and there an (in retrospect) telling gaffe—to swipe unpublished manuscripts for some unknown purpose. It was a pretty funny, if frustrating, feature of the article that its authors were never able to get to the bottom of the enigma; like the villain they stalked, they were trafficking in something partial: the unfinished, provisional transactions of the editorial process itself. The easily obtained finished book on the shelf, the dreamt-of object of the writer’s long toil, dims in its limited sexiness alongside the underthings disclosed amidst its unveiling. Maureen Corrigan coincidentally (?) had a piece on Fresh Air remarking on the number of new books whose plots are based on literary theft. Something in the wind? I imagined an eccentric patron behind the scenery: some big-spending literary obsessive, like a tycoon who buys stolen art he can’t exhibit or sell, who gets a thrill out of reading something before everyone else can. But the more likely offender it seems is a disgruntled insider with either a very complicated long game or an unappeasable urge to skewer the guild.
Meanwhile in the Wall St Journal Sophie Haigney covered the lucrative secondary market in what are now called “ARCs,” Advance Reading Copies, mockups of forthcoming books that are sent around for free by publishers ahead of a book’s publication to gin up interest. Long ago, when I began in publishing, these then-humble objects, at the time called bound proofs (see above), were a scrappy affair. Proofs were a necessary phase of book production because writers turned in a manuscript, which had to be set in type and then proofread for accuracy (now of course an electronic file goes straight from author to editor to production). The “proofs” arrived in long sheets that eventually curled up in boxes of an author’s papers like ribbon candy. The proof phase was necessary to correct errors of transcription, but it was also a delightful moment in the life of the writer, because, before word processors, it was then that a writer first saw their work dressed in typography, with fixed margins like a Real Book, their words coming back to them like a strangers met for the first time, in all their alienated majesty, beckoning for revision. Hence a great temptation to amend in the proof phase, and also lots of errors not of the author’s making.
Copies of the uncorrected proof, imperfect as it was, would be cut up and inexpensively bound to go out to book reviewers and potential “blurb” writers, festooned with warnings of its provisional character, to give them time to read something like the book while the manufacturing process inched along. Authors objected to anyone seeing this embarrassing object, and sometimes negotiating to have text from a later phase of production shared out, which threatened the delicate timing. For fetishists of the rare, of course, a proof’s defects only enhanced its value. I remember seeing an author say “Where did you get that?” to a fan at a reading, balking at autographing what the fan considered a rare precious item, an emblem of their extreme enthusiasm, which to the author was, basically, dirty linen. Also of course no proceeds from the purchase of this waylaid freebie (with “not for resale” always stamped reprovingly on its cover) go to author or publisher. When I worked in a bookstore in the eighties, I once saw in an office corner a few copies of fancied-up versions of an uncorrected proof, declared a “Reader’s Copy,” that had been sent to the store’s buyers. This was a rarity, designed to entice them into seeing the book as a big deal and placing a big order in advance.
Now, with fancy design and production cheaper and quicker, and the window for a book to succeed ever narrower, Advance Readers Copies, with their inevitable acronym, are ubiquitous, hard to distinguish sometimes from a for-sale paperback, and shared out at conventions and sent to “influencers” who may or may not be paid to photograph themselves toting it around for social media. With everyone in publishing and journalism on Twitter, early phases of a book’s production are constantly referenced and quoted. Since readers began buying books online, electronic preorders are eagerly sought, to lock in money and interest (during the pandemic lockdowns, electronic preorders of future books even helped float bookstores’ bottom lines). Aiming book production at a fixed “publication date” seems to be becoming less and less salient. (Though it was still a big deal when Amazon broke the publication date for Margaret Atwood’s much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, getting a big advantage, as so often, in the bully’s way, by striking without fear of consequences.) Bookseller Josh Cook responded to Haigney’s piece by asking whether the unofficial ARC market might be a token of sorts of publishing’s reliance on the attentions of an unpaid and underpaid workforce.
All these stories about the increasingly equivocal meaning of a “book” as a singular occurance in space and time (the journalist cooperative Brick House recently arranged to sell a sole electronic copy of their new anthology as a form of protest against the economics of libraries’ “leasing” of ebooks and audiobooks, even as publishers sued the Internet Archive for copyright infringement over this definition of “a book”) leave me wondering how long the fragile boundary around a book will last. Auden for one, seconding Valéry, argued that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Will future books be subject to revision? Will we hold to the one moment, when a book becomes itself, and stays that way? Loving the author as we do, and the artifacts of their process, one wonders.
Meanwhile book reviewers, endowed with these early book-like signals and called upon to set the stage for the arrival of the postulated final thing, engaged in another of their periodic bouts of self-examination and mutual recrimination. The pugnacious literary-political journal n+1, which opened their very first issue back in 2004 with a signature attack on negativity in book criticism (a few months after their Western sibling McSweeney’s had sprouted a whole magazine, The Believer, dedicated to book positivity) updated their position with an editorial faulting contemporary book critics for declining to render judgment. Christian Lorentzen, one of the most battle-hardened pros in the business (see his own “whither criticism” broadside here), weighed in with a riposte in the newly resurrected Gawker, retorting that that excellence and mediocrity can be found in most endeavors and the serious work of criticism calls for intellectual effort on the part of both writer and reader. N+1 seemed implicitly to be blaming the economic conditions of book reviewing for unsatisfying results, without considering how those conditions might be improved, given the revenue crisis besetting all journalism. Lorentzen scoffed at the notion of writers who declined to write well because there wasn’t money in it. (Lest you think the world of user-generated book advice provides any respite from these old battles, Time last week covered the acceleration of rigging and fakery on the Amazon-owned user-review site Goodreads, showing again the dangers of replacing the editorial mind with a popularity contest adjudicated by robots. A developer with a reading habit named Nadia Odunayo has created a subscriber-based alternative to Goodreads called The StoryGraph, hoping to personalize the product and elude some of Goodreads’ algorithm-driven downsides.)
The reviewers’ standoff caused old-timers to chuckle, as back in the day the shenanigans of n+1 and Gawker were the stuff of intellectual gossip columns, supposedly indicative of the mores of the dawning e-culture. But as a person harboring perhaps messianic ideas about book reviewing, your editor took note. I had appreciated a newsletter a few weeks ago by the critic Dustin Illingworth, not so much talking about the nature of book reviewing as practicing it: defining through his own pleasures a genre of lyrical, international, formally experimental prose that has come to be appreciated by a loose band of like-minded readers, booksellers, small publishers, and critics. It interested me that there are still circles of developing taste, of ideas about literary value, that grow around positive experiences of reading rather than under the summons of a manifesto or a set of institutional interests. Although there is certainly a rationale for the internal exercise of professional intellectuals trying to define their times, lay a finger on the underpinnings of their judgments, it seems a separate undertaking from the urgent work of finding a way to talk about books and reading that brings more readers into the fold, and ushers books out into the world. The urgent question seems to me to live there: how to find mechanisms (economic, logistical) to bring the news of actual books to people, rather than relics of the authorial enterprise. Demands by a self-selected cadre of would-be reviewers for working conditions customized to their needs seems to miss the bigger picture—all supply and no demand. Writers will rise to the presence of an audience; it’s the fraying of that connection that is the true threat.
A postscript: Book advances have been in the news of late because almost-former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s $5 million advance for the poorly-selling book he contracted and wrote while in office has become an item in his now-suspended impeachment investigation. I wrote a bit a while back about how advances are calibrated, and how distorting it is of the economics of intellectual life. Apparently US House of Representative ethics rules prohibit book advances. It seems to me this practice should be more widespread. These people have paying jobs. An inordinate advance to a sitting politician is a discretionary cash contribution to their coffers by a major corporation with potential business before government. It also creates a set of potential incentives (see the case of John Boltin) that can be at odds with transparency and distortive of political process. I suppose there are times when government officials simply have to express themselves in a book, but they should earn straight royalties and be beholden only to their readers. There are minefields aplenty even there.
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