One of the most interesting things about proof copies is that you don’t own them. Most have printed on the cover that they cannot be sold. Some publishers also say: ‘This is the property of the publisher and not for sale.’ Yet I have never heard of a publisher who asked for a proof to be returned. The ones that I have, which represent some of my happiest years, working as the purchaser for a library supplier, will probably stay on my shelves until I die. Then they will be my son’s problem: will he ‘own’ them, or not? I suppose that he will take them on and become their guardian, just as I have been their châtelaine since they were young and untried.
I remember how I acquired some of them. Publishers’ reps get to know their customers’ tastes in literature, of course, and often they would produce two or three proofs from their bags and give them to me; or I would be sent one by post in advance of a launch. The biggest haul always came from Cape, Chatto and Bodley Head. These three companies (which were later swallowed up by Random House) jointly used the same sales team. For a number of years, the representative whom I saw, David Moore, used to drive across the Pennines from his home in Lytham St Annes, spend the night at a hotel in Wakefield and ‘travel’ the Leeds bookshops the next day. As my office was close to the hotel, he would call on me towards the end of the afternoon, just after he’d completed his journey (and in time for a cup of tea). When I’d given him his order, I’d ask if I could have a look in the boot of his car, which always contained two or three boxes of the next season’s titles in proof. I would come away with a rich haul; I was never disappointed.
I keep the proofs on the bookshelves in my study, not downstairs with the finished books. They are actually more precious to me than their suaver counterparts – I have finished copies of some of the titles as well. I have just lifted some of them down. Strange to think that, when they were printed, some of them were obscure titles from young unknown authors who have since become very famous. Of course, some of the authors were famous then: my collection includes The Dwarfs, by Harold Pinter, Mantissa, by John Fowles, Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, by Brian Moore. I think that all of these writers were well-established at the time. However, I also have 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray and The White Hotel, by D M Thomas; each of these books catapulted its author into acclaim. Curious to think that I read and liked these brilliant but then unknown works and myself made a small contribution towards launching them upon the world.
I still have a couple of proof copies of In the Family. I don’t flatter myself that in years to come they will be sought after in the way in which some of the titles in my collection are. Nevertheless, it amuses me to allow them to rub shoulders with the great and famous, in some cases in the augenblick before fame came. It is almost like putting In the Family into a time machine.