He was a young fellow, with the mandatory four-days-growth beard. I don’t get that many younger folks to my readings, so I was happy to seem him in the book-signing line after my talk about American Emperor at the National Archives earlier this month.
Then he presented his soft-covered volume, which turned out to be an “ARC” (“Advance Reader Copy”). ARCs are distributed for free to potential reviewers and media types months before publication of the book. Every ARC says on the front, “NOT FOR SALE.”
I asked where he got it.
“I bought it from my local bookstore.”
I pressed. “Where?”
Shifting on his feet, he answered after a pause. “Here in D.C.”
He didn’t answer. I looked down at the page and thought for a moment. I didn’t want to discourage this fellow. After all, he evidently liked the book enough to come to my talk, and then wait to ask for my signature. This is a valuable relationship. I should be polite, I thought. But, no.
“You know” I said in a voice loud enough for people to hear from some distance around. “Do you know that this is theft? No one has ever paid for this book. It was given away for free, and it says “NOT FOR SALE” right here on the cover.”
He shrugged. “It’s like a used book?” he suggested.
“No. Used books were bought by somebody sometime, and I got a royalty from that sale and the publisher got paid. No one ever paid for this book, the store got it for free, and you paid them for it. No one else received a dime for it.”
“You don’t have to sign it,” he said.
“Where did you get it?”
He refused to name the store. I gave him his volume back, unsigned. I said I was sorry I couldn’t sign it, that I appreciated his support for the book, but that I couldn’t party to a theft. I asked him never to buy an ARC again.
I don’t know where he bought it. There aren’t that many bookstores in the District of Columbia, sad to say. I don’t believe Politics and Prose would do this; and Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million couldn’t afford to put their relations with publishers at risk by doing it.
Busboys and Poets? They claim to be a “fair trade” market; how could they participate in this kind of theft? Kramerbooks? I’d hate to think so. I used to shop there 40 years ago and think of it fondly. Bridge Street Books? I spoke with the owner at a party for a while and I don’t think he would be part of such a thing. Second Story Books? Seems more possible, since they’re all about used books, but I don’t know.
I do know that selling ARCs is wrong, and theft. It’s not a victimless crime. The victims are the entire maddening, half-assed, sometimes (but not always) well-intentioned chain of production for books — the authors, book designers, distributors, publishers, and honorable retailers. So, please don’t do it.
In the Watergate era, the mantra was, “Don’t buy books by crooks.” The message: The Watergate wrongdoers can profit from their ill deeds only if you are dumb enough to plunk down the purchase price of their hateful memoirs.
Don’t buy books from crooks, either. Please.