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Nunc Dimittis

Brilliant Blue

On the scandal of selling review copies.


When some skeevy book reviewers sold advance reading copies of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You and Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads for outrageous prices this past summer, they gave rise to a minor scandal in the publishing world. 

The two books were already the most anticipated novels of the fall. Their publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was desperate to keep uncorrected proofs out of the black market. Marketing agents composed a list of trustworthy publications and critics to whom they sent copies of both novels. And publicists were unusually stingy when people not on the list requested them. All for nought, of course.

“F.S.G. policy does not condone any reselling of advance reader copies,” Sarita Varma, director of publicity, said in a statement after an advance copy of Rooney fetched two-hundred nine dollars on eBay. “Each copy clearly indicates that it is not for resale.”

The frenzy reminded me of a routine that my wife and I used to run when she lived in Brooklyn. Every two weeks or so I loaded up a massive suitcase with review copies requested from publishers and finished books pilfered from launch parties and brought it along on my bus ride to New York.

When I arrived, I would go to The Strand and cash in at their backroom counter. Usually the buyers there only gave me about a hundred dollars for my haul, which in those days was just enough to enjoy a weekend in Manhattan. 

Before I returned home, my wife would fill the suitcase with all of her own unwanted books. I would ferry these down to Dupont Circle and sell them at Second Story Books. That sale, never as profitable as the one in New York, usually only covered my bus fare.  

In the eyes of many in my profession, our behavior was reprehensible. Review copies are intended for critics’ eyes only, they say. And, these scolds are quick to remind us, there is an unspoken agreement between publications and publishers that the former will not embarrass the latter by publicizing books before the appointed time. Besides, they add, there’s no point in selling the books. At best, the critic gains a few dollars. At worst, he gets blacklisted by a publishing house.

That all may be true, but it didn’t stop us. When my wife moved to Washington, our game became more thoughtful. We began targeting certain presses and requesting entire catalogues. Soon, our gambit got out of hand. We had to write up three rules to keep ourselves within the bounds of professional morality:

Never request a review copy with no intention to review it. 
Never sell a review copy before its publication date. 
Only spend review copy proceeds on more books.

This last rule was the hardest to follow. My first impulse after a sale was to blow all our cash on Nat Shermans, Sazerac rye whiskey, and a dozen roses. And that’s exactly what I would have done had I ever left Second Story’s warehouse in Rockville, Maryland, with my money. Instead, I would end up trading for store credit. It was a pleasant arrangement: we haven’t spent our own money on books in several years.

Still, we have some regrets. There are books I wish I had not sold. Rarely a month passes that I don’t think about Barry Lopez’s gargantuan swan song Blue Horizon. The book itself is no good, but my goodness, I’ve never seen such a brilliant blue on any other dust jacket. One day it’ll show up again, perhaps.

Recently I asked my book buyer whether he has any qualms about buying review copies from people like me. “Well,” he said. “The way I see it is that I run a used bookstore. By the time you bring those books to me they’re used.” Every now and then, he said, he gets a call from one of the big houses in New York. They complain and threaten him, but he always feeds them that same line. Without fail, it works. Anyway, only cheapskates buy review copies after a book’s publication date. 

The only time he ever got dinged was a few years ago, when he bought a series of battleship blueprints from a retired Naval Observatory employee. That raised some eyebrows in Annapolis, and he got a call from the Navy to knock it off. “But that was a special circumstance,” he said. “In general, I wouldn’t worry about those resale warnings.”

Nic Rowan is managing editor of The Lamp.

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