When advance reading copies (ARCs) of Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You were sent out in May, there was a flurry of social media posts. A lucky selection of editors, writers and influencers flaunted their copies; others bemoaned not having been granted one. Soon listings for proof copies (which are clearly marked “not for resale”) started to appear on trading sites such as eBay and Depop. One copy, listed on eBay by a seller in North Carolina, sold in June for $209.16. Even the canvas tote bag that Rooney’s publicists had been sending out with the ARC copies was fetching prices in the region of $80.
As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, advance copies of popular and classic novels have long been collector’s items: a rare proof copy of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or classics by authors such as Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck can sell for up to £30,000, while Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, which will be published in October, sold earlier this month on eBay for £124.
But this high demand for ARCs of books that are yet to be published has only emerged recently, fuelled in part by the rise of book bloggers and influencers.
“Part of the purpose of proofs is to make people get to feel like they’re in an exclusive club,” said Adam Howard, who works for Scribe Publications. “But it happened with the Sally Rooney on a scale we’ve never seen before.”
Posting under hashtags such as #Galleybrag, Instagram influencers show off the advanced copies of novels to which they were granted access. Among these, Rooney’s forthcoming Beautiful World, Where Are You is by far the most prized. Given the social currency that a selfie with an advance copy of the novel can carry, Howard is not surprised that people are prepared to pay large sums to get their hands on it.
“When a book appears on social media months before official release, other bloggers and readers go mad for it,” said Dan Bassett, a Bristol bookseller and blogger who is regularly sent galley copies of forthcoming titles. “This has led to people selling them though market places, with others asking people like myself if I would sell it to them.”
However, the sale of ARCs is a legal grey area. Advance copies are clearly marked as not for sale, and publishers remain their legal owners. This means that technically, a publishing house could recall an ARC at any time – but this is largely unheard of. And since proofs of big releases have only recently become such a hot commodity, publishers have not traditionally had to police ARC sales stringently – and have generally been willing to turn a blind eye to a small number of proofs being sold in charity shops.
Amazon does police this practice, however. The online retailer only permits the sale of advance copies of books that are out of print, and booksellers have been known to lose their accounts on the site for not following this rule. E-commerce giant eBay, on the other hand, is far more lax. In fact, multiple copies of Rooney’s novel were sold by one eBay seller based in the United States, where the practice of selling on proofs for profit seems to be more common than in the UK.
The increase in demand for advance copies of books has forced publishers to change the way they think about ARCs. “Our focus has to be: how can we make our books as visible as possible in this new media landscape,” said Howard. “At Scribe, we no longer produce generic proofs – every one of them is specially designed to be eye-catching, striking and shareable, and we invest our limited budgets into making sure that people on social media have a good reason to share a book with their followers.”
Both Sally Rooney’s publisher Faber & Faber and Jonathan Franzen’s publisher 4th Estate declined to comment.
• This article was amended on 23 August 2021 to include acknowledgement to the Wall Street Journal.