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First editions and the birth of the Advance Reader’s Copy

  |   Books

Flipping pages of a book

Why do people cherish the first editions of books? It goes back to the origin of the printing press. When books were first mass-produced, the plates on the presses were made of metal or wood. Therefore the first printing was often of the highest quality, which declined with subsequent printings. While print quality has vastly improved over the centuries, the first edition continues to be an object of desire for the collector. Since one of the golden rules of collecting is “the earlier the better”, collectors began to hunt for the Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC).

The ARC is the intermediate version between the author’s manuscript and the final printed book sold to the public. It is primarily a marketing tool. The publishers send it to the media for reviews (a rich source for blurbs!), after which they take time to relook at it, make necessary corrections and promote it ahead of its public release. In the digital age, however, almost all the amendments are done online and very few in the print version.

In publishing jargon, an ARC is also called an uncorrected proof or bound galley. When the book becomes a success or if it goes out of print or develops a loyal fan base or cult following, the proof becomes valuable for a collector because it is one of a limited number and its text differs from the final version (just as stamps or coins with mistakes are worth more).

The book cover is usually stamped ‘Not for Sale’ in block letters or displays text stating that the book is a pre-release version. Since the entire focus of the ARC is on the text, many covers are plainly designed — for example, the simple black and- white image for the ARC of Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of The Lost Child. Some fanatical collectors prize the ARC above the first edition because chronologically it came out first. Collecting it can even be profitable: imagine if you were to get a reviewer copy of a classic like The Alchemist or For Whom The Bell Tolls! The process of getting your ARC reviewed has been democratised.

There are now dedicated websites like Book Sirens that help you get free advanced reading copies to review. However, ownership rights for the ARC remain debatable. If it was owned by the publisher and not meant for sale, is it morally right to trade it on eBay?The author earns no royalty, and besides, it is the uncorrected version and not the one that the author wanted for its readers. But then you could argue that ARCs were never meant for the reader but for the collector! For some, the ARC might be a window into the writer’s thought process.

As Ian Ellis points out 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.” While the debate lingers on, I have managed to get the ARCs of The Circle by Dave Eggers, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Talking it Over by Julian Barnes and The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – more by accident than by a deliberate search. When I received the ARC of my book GRIT: Major Story, I found two typos that had escaped multiple rounds of editing and checking. That ARC of GRIT remains one of the most special copies of my book because no one else has that copy!

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