Against the Status Galley

The so-called “status galley” — that is, a prepublication edition of a book, generally of massive size and/or literary challenge, possessed by an underpaid and often illiterate member of the publishing world who has no intention of reading beyond the first few chapters — is among the most vexing amalgams of materialism and literature that the 21st century has ever known. It is a relatively recent phenomenon, augmented by the Brobdignagian burst of journalists attending trade shows. The good ones are savvy enough to recognize a mini-Hubbert’s Peak among some publisher upon sight. I’m quibbling about those who take the galleys that they will never read or write about, who hector certain publicists and editors and peck away at the diminishing supply. This is admittedly a pedantic vexation, hardly commensurate with the junket whores in the film world or the predatory bastards who cripple working stiffs with a sneaky high-interest subprime loan that will cause them to toil unduly in their seventies, their eighties, and their nineties. But it bothers me nonetheless.

The status galley reduces a book not merely to a thing (let us accept that fetishism is ineluctable), but to a vapid item that is trotted around like a fashion accessory. And we’re talking about an item, often a work of art, isn’t even finished. If you have a status galley and boast about it, it is very likely that you have no particular interest in reading it. Nor are you courteous enough, like most avid literary people, to give it to someone who may be in need of it. You take a vital galley from the limited supply, horde some volume that has taken an author many years of hard labor and treat it like a bag of Doritos that you toss into the street.

This seems to me worse than the book pirate (largely mythical), who at least has some vested interest in reading a book or getting excited about an author. This seems to me worse than some guy at a book signing who asks an author the same question that she’s heard several hundred times. (At least, that hypothetical guy has enthusiasm.) Such actions may be executed through clumsiness or cluelessness, but they are at least sincere and enthusiastic in intent. However, to obtain a galley just so that you can have it is perhaps one of the most disrespectful acts you can perform. It does not come from a place of passion. It comes from a onyx sinkhole of consumerism. It comes from a place of needless competition, whereby you have the book that someone else does not. It works against the book’s undeniably communal nature. And it reveals you for the superficial con that you are.

Again, this is a highly pedantic concern. Probably nothing worth shooting up a post office over. But it bugs me.

Galleygate: Open Questions to Stephen Elliott

Since my critical comment in response to the Rumpus Book Club is “awaiting moderation,” I thought I would reproduce it here:

Since nobody here has the balls to ask important questions (and I fully expect this comment to be deleted), and Elliott has been far from transparent, here goes:

1. A galley typically costs at least $5 to make. Are you paying the publishers for these galleys with these funds? Or are you pocketing the cash and plundering these galleys, redistributing them among the people who pay you money for financial gain? If the latter, then how can this be considered even remotely ethical (particularly in light of the recent FTC blogger policy)?

2. How is it ethical to take money from subscribers when they can express their professional interest and have the galley sent to them for free when they write to the publisher?

3. Why are you disrespecting the authors with this plan? The galley is not the version that the author wishes to put out. It is riddled with typos, gaffes, and other errors. So not only are you besmirching an author’s vision. You are also taking away much needed sales to that author that will assist her in getting another book deal.

4. Why cut into the galley supply like this? Galleys are typically distributed to booksellers, critics, et al. so that a publisher stands a chance of getting some advance buzz or generating sales. When you take fifty galleys, then this destroys fifty potential shots at a book getting publicity. It is nothing less than monopolizing a supply that you have no right to horde.

RELATED: Liz Burns’s thoughts on a library that categorizes an ARC as the finished copy in its stacks.

UPDATE: Stephen Elliott has responded at the Rumpus:

I think you’re wrong about this. I don’t think we’ll be sending galleys out the majority of the time. I don’t want to commit to that, because I’m not sure, but I’m reasonably certain that the majority of time it will be hardcover books, not galleys. Or it might be a mix.

If the publishers don’t think participating in the book club will be good for sales they probably won’t agree to do it. The author has to agree to it as well. An awful lot of authors have already asked us to consider using their book.

While I appreciate Mr. Elliott’s civil tone, he has not yet directly addressed the four questions. Hopefully this open exchange will encourage him to do so.