Uncorrected proofs, for the uninitiated, are advanced copies of books, printed and bound with paper or card covers bearing bibliographic details and/or blurbs, which are sent out to proofreaders, authors, reviewers and, increasingly, bloggers, for a variety of purposes. That purpose initially, as the name suggests, was for authors and proofreaders to spot and mark up any typos that had slipped through the net, but in more recent years uncorrected proofs, or advance review copies (ARCs) as they're also referred to, have been used primarily to drum up publicity.
You could argue that uncorrected proofs are the true first state of any printed book, preceding, as they do, the first edition. But even if you accept that, I think it's fair to say that most book collectors, myself included, would still prefer the first edition; apart from anything else, uncorrected proofs are frequently unlovely and, by nature, unfinished things, whereas firsts benefit from designed dust jackets and hardback binding. Still, uncorrected proofs can be scarce things, and as such can sometimes be of interest to me – say, for example, if a novel has a certain significance, and a first edition isn't quite enough, and a signed edition isn't available, as with Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Ground; or to give another, more recent, example, if an entire series, one which I enjoy and admire, suddenly becomes available in its entirety in uncorrected proof – well, that would be very hard to pass up indeed.
So it proved when the latter three of Gavin Lyall's four Harry Maxim spy novels popped up on eBay a few months back – The Conduct of Major Maxim, The Crocus List and Uncle Target. Despite owning entirely serviceable first editions of all three, I was sorely tempted even so; and when I then noticed an inexpensive uncorrected proof of the first Harry Maxim novel, The Secret Servant (which I also own in first), elsewhere online, the notion of nabbing the whole series in uncorrected proof proved irresistible. Individually they're quite uncommon things – at present I can see online one other uncorrected proof of The Secret Servant, one of The Crocus List, two of Uncle Target, and none of The Conduct of Major Maxim – but taken together they are, I'd venture, quite a unique and potentially intriguing collection. Well, I reckon so anyway; whether anyone else will think so too is debatable, but here they are anyway.
The Secret Servant (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)
The first Harry Maxim novel – which I reviewed here – this proof of The Secret Servant comes with a dust jacket (designed by none other than Raymond Hawkey, utilising a photograph by Peter Williams), something which in my experience is atypical for an uncorrected proof, although not unheard of. (At least in the 1980s and earlier; nowadays uncorrected proofs frequently have full colour covers.) The inner card cover, meanwhile – which the jacket has been trimmed to fit – bears no text at all – again, atypical for a proof, but not unheard of. What is really unusual is the width of the thing: the pages are a lot wider than those of the finished book, and on some of the later pages in the proof– which looks to me to have been photocopied rather than printed – the edges of the original pages can be seen.
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The Conduct of Major Maxim (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
No dust jacket here, and a printed card cover, bearing publication info, which is more typical of an uncorrected proof. The interesting thing with this proof is the copyright page, which bears one notable difference from that in the finished, printed book, which can be seen below:
Evidently The Conduct of Major Maxim was titled A Slightly Private War until shortly before publication.
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The Crocus List (Hodder & Stoughton, 1985)
It's possible sometimes to spot typos and errors in uncorrected proofs – they are, after all, uncorrected – especially if one compares them to the finished first editions. And then there are those errors that can be spotted without comparison, like the one on page 6 of The Crocus List proof:
I can confirm that that was caught and fixed for the finished book.
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Uncle Target (Hodder & Stoughton, 1988)
As with the first Harry Maxim spy thriller, the uncorrected proof of the final one also comes with a dust jacket, although the inner card cover is printed too, more in line with the proofs of The Conduct of Major Maxim and The Crocus List – more so, in fact: the front of the inner cover replicates the jacket front in black and white, while the back cover copy features details of the promotional plans for the book, including a "Powerful Saatchi and Saatchi national advertising campaign", no less. Unlike The Secret Servant, however, the jacket on the proof of Uncle Target isn't final. Colour scheme apart – presumably that's a proof placeholder – though the various elements of the design remained the same for the final (uncredited) version, they were rearranged thusly: