About Uncorrected Proofs
(We've done several catalogs of proofs over the years. I still remember my surprise and delight when I first "discovered" the existence of proof copies -- in a bargain bin at the Strand Book Store in New York City in the 1970s. I had no idea that these kinds of books existed, and their very plainness -- their lack of cover illustration and other evidence of the Marketing Department at work -- made them seem somehow more "pure" than the more polished, finished books. Just the writer's words, and little else. I still find myself enthralled by proofs.)
The idea of collecting first editions started for pragmatic reasons: the printing plates on the old presses were made of soft lead, the sharp edges of which would wear down after repeated impressions on paper. Thus the earlier impressions were printed more clearly, which could be especially important if the printed work contained maps or illustrations, as early printed works tended to do. Since the age of offset printing, and now digital technologies, such considerations are no longer a factor. Still, it is an article of faith now that in collecting, "the earlier the better" is the rule. And the confirmation of that assumption is that -- taken to its logical extreme -- the author's manuscript of a book would be the rarest and most valuable state of the book, and it is.
Most collectors can't collect authors' manuscripts, and most institutions can't collect them as widely and thoroughly as they might wish, but there is still a preliminary state of the book, prior to the first published edition and thus closer in time, and often in content, to the author's manuscript that is readily available. These are the uncorrected proofs, advance reading copies, and galley proofs prepared by the publisher prior to the printing of the first edition.
Proofs are collected for a variety of reasons, the most common of which are two: they're early -- preceding the first edition -- and they're rare -- often being produced in quantities of only a couple of dozen copies. In addition, many books undergo their final revisions by authors or editors after the printing of the proof copies, so proofs often show a state of the author's work, otherwise unpublished, that precedes the final version. This can be enormously interesting and informative to scholars or students of a writer's work, and even just to avid fans without a formal scholarly stake in such knowledge.
The production of proof copies for distribution prior to published books has a long history, dating back to the partly printed "salesmen's dummies" of the 19th century. But the proof as an integral part of the publication process has a much shorter history. While advance copies of books for in-house use by the publisher have long been routine -- whether in the form of long galley proofs or some other format -- printed and bound advance copies for distribution outside the publishing house were rare in the 1930s and 40s, and only gradually became the norm in the 1950s and 60s, when Crane Duplicating Service, a Cape Cod printer, began to promote the idea to the publishing industry of the advantages that could accrue to the publisher who had Crane print an inexpensive prepublication edition that could be sent out to early reviewers of the book, large wholesale and retail buyers who might be tempted to increase their orders if they had early access to the book, and even to friends of the author and fellow writers, to solicit promotional "blurbs" for the dust jacket copy and for advertising. In time the idea gained wide currency, and proofs for a time were sometimes called "cranes," after the printing company that specialized in producing them. (Crane Duplicating Service still calls them "Cranes," although the usage seems to have dropped out of the trade otherwise.)
The number of copies produced of a given proof is generally a well-kept secret, but in a few cases that we've gotten hard figures they've proven to be quite small. Robert Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, had 57 copies printed. There were 39 proof copies produced of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and one Philip K. Dick novel, which had potentially libelous text, had 19 proof copies printed. The smallest order Crane's will take for an "ultra short run" book -- generally a proof -- is 11 copies.
In addition to plain printed proofs, publishers have, since at least the 1930s, occasionally issued more elaborately produced prepublication volumes, in hopes of generating interest in a forthcoming book. In the 1930s, one notable example was Raymond Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, which Knopf issued in a prepublication edition drawing comparisons to two earlier successes Knopf had had publishing hard-boiled fiction, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. In 1961, Simon & Schuster issued an advance reading copy of a forthcoming first novel, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, in hopes of drawing interest to a then largely unknown writer. Since then, advance reading copies have become more commonplace, and are often distributed widely in hopes of generating interest, usually in a relatively little-known writer. The World According to Garp, John Irving's breakthrough novel, had 1500 advance copies printed and distributed, helping Garp gain the kind of attention, and commercial success, that had eluded Irving's three previous novels. Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park had two printings of advance reading copies, totaling 2500 copies; it was his first bestseller and he has since become one of the most popular and successful thriller writers of all time.
Examples of textual changes in proofs abound, and most are probably never discovered until someone does a line by line comparison with the final book. Tim O'Brien revised his National Book award-wining novel, Going After Cacciato, substantially after the proof was printed, and O'Brien's own copy had whole paragraphs marked out, rewritten, etc. His second novel, Northern Lights, has a two-page section in the proof that does not appear in the finished book. Peter Matthiessen's National Book Award-winning The Snow Leopard had major changes made after the proof was printed, after he had sent it to a friend, and Buddhist scholar, for comments on his references to Buddhism. Kent Anderson's powerful Vietnam war novel Sympathy for the Devil had some of the most stunning passages excised after the proof was printed, perhaps because they were deemed by editors to be too harsh for publication. And so on.
Proofs have also been involved in solving some bibliographic mysteries over the years: the priority of the two states of the dust jacket of the first English-language edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude was established when a set of the proof sheets for the book and the jacket copy turned up. And, while it wasn't a mystery per se, no one would have known how bad Ernest Hemingway's Spanish was in the late 1930s if the proofs of For Whom the Bell Tolls had not turned up. Often, as in these cases, the glimpses of an otherwise unseen work that the proofs provide reveal interesting and non-trivial information about the writer or the work.
There has even been a case made that because proofs are printed first and are distributed outside of the publishing house, they comprise the "true first edition" of a work. The reasoning is that such distribution constitutes a form of "publishing" -- i.e., making a book available to the public, however limited that availability may be. Such a view has merits but is highly debatable. However, it is undoubtedly true that, especially for many modern and recent works, proof copies are the only states of the book that are scarce or rare, or will be within our lifetimes. In fact, these days, it's easy to imagine many books published without there being a printed proof: this catalog will probably be proofed online, in PDF format, and I suspect many books are being handled that way, or will be soon. And to the extent that proofs became more of a marketing tool over the years than an editorial tool, I suspect some of them will be distributed electronically as well, to iPads and e-book readers, not only because it is cheaper than producing printed books but it can be done faster once a book has gone through copy-editing.
Combining their historical scarcity, and likely future scarcity, with the textual variations that are often found -- and which, by definition, represent a state of the text closer to the author's original manuscript -- the value in collecting proof copies becomes, we think, self-evident.
But if proofs do fade away as part of the publishing process, I'll miss them. They provide a glimpse of the publishing industry and the work involved in producing a book -- a tangible item, and the main vehicle by which we share information and preserve it and pass it on to later generations. I can't help but think of digital information and e-books as being more ephemeral, subject to being lost in a power outage or, as amazon.com did with a number of George Orwell books when it found it had sold them without having had the rights to them, simply erased by some outside entity for private or commercial reasons.
So here is our latest proof catalog, which will likely also be available as an e-book and as a PDF, as well as on our website. I hope you enjoy it as much as we've enjoyed working on it, and I hope that these proofs can enhance any number of worthy collections.
Copyright © 2011 by Ken Lopez