ARCs Are Free? What Are They Even?

There was a small blow-up online a few months ago. It all happened with the hashtag #ARCSarefree on Twitter and YouTube. It all started because someone found an Indie Author, who promotes herself as a writing coach, offered her Patreon supporters a $50 tier of support that included (among other things) a signed, paperback ARC of her latest book. You had to support her at this level for three months, requiring that you pay $150 for something most readers believe they should get for free.

I might not know everything about publishing, but I know ARCs, or Advanced Reader/Review Copies. I get them because I’m a librarian and, before I failed at it, I used them when I tried to be a book blogger. As an author, I use them to entice people to leave reviews. I have a lot of feelings about issues that came up from the discussion. Today, I just want to focus on the history of ARCs and their purpose in publishing.

Let me make sure we’re on the same page, ARCs stand for: Advanced Reader Copies or Advanced Reviewer Copies (more current meaning of the ‘R’). They’re also called galleys. Publishers give them to people for free – ideally, people who can get them more visibility for the book. There is no legal requirement to write a review, but in general, it’s expected. I’m going to talk a lot about expectations and entitlement over these entries. Bookstagram is the community of readers on Instagram, BookTube is the community of readers on YouTube, and a book blogger writes a blog that focuses on book reviews and interviews with authors.

I’ve been getting ARCs since I started going to the Book Expo and ALA conferences in 2004, but they’ve been around WAY longer than that. In those days, these were limited to paperback copies – major publishers had a ton of disdain for ebooks at the time. They were given out at these industry conferences because booksellers and librarians would order copies and suggest them to readers if they liked the book. They gave away hundreds of each book, focusing on their biggest potential for a return on their investment.

Remember, that’s what a traditional publisher cares about (and always has): will they sell enough to make a return on their investment (ROI).

There were times, especially if it was a book that was expected to be fairly popular or expensive to produce, where excerpts and selections of books were given. The hope in these cases is to create buzz, not get reviews. Some books are never offered. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out just after my second time going to Book Expo. They did heavy promotions, but none of the book was shared. They didn’t need to generate buzz.

This changed with ebooks, book bloggers, BookTube, and Bookstagram. Suddenly they had a new group of engaged readers who could make a book into something. These people reviewed books on their blogs, in videos, on retailers, and on Goodreads. This is when they became about the reviews books could get. When the indie authors got into the game, they were working with very different budgets. Printing hundreds of books was way out of our budget. Giving away hundreds of ebooks was less painful on the wallet.

Traditional publishers love reviews, but they really want engagement with their books. They want the cover featured on Instagram, they want BookTube channels to talk about their book. They send these people the books for free so they’ll talk about it. Buzz will get these books sold because it will be just one of many. They assume, once you’ve seen the book three times, you’ll be enticed. It won’t matter if the reviews are good, bad, or a mix.

The same isn’t true for indie authors. Reviews are critical to the success of our books. We don’t expect our covers to get on BookTube and Bookstagram unless the cover is amazing and the creator focuses on indie books. Book bloggers are critical because they will post reviews for their readers. We have set up a system where we will give you the book for free with no legal requirement for a review, but a strong expectation that you will. Even if we give it away to our mailing list members for free, we hope they will leave reviews.

As an indie author, it’s still a struggle for me to do ARCs. I wrote about my experience with NetGalley already. For my next novel, I’m trying to engage my mailing list. I want readers to leave reviews but I find book bloggers… well, read my post about the weird world of book reviews.

When a traditional publisher gives away 1,000 copies of a book that cost them $3.00 to publish, they spend $3,000. That’s a fraction of their budget and typically they get the return they need, even if only 100 of those books lead to reviews and another 100 get mentioned on social media. If I give away 1,000 copies, that’s 1,000 I won’t be selling to someone. For only 100 people to give me a review (if I’m lucky), is an okay-ish investment. When I did NetGalley, I broke down my statistics to how many I had to give away to feel like the money had been spent wisely. I gave away 100, but 20 reviewed them. I have no legal expectation that anyone will ever leave a review. I can refuse the person the next time if they didn’t leave a review, but that’s it.

These readers get the opportunity for hundreds of books a year, for free! They are clear that they might not get to review it. A free ARC has become an entitlement, for good or for bad.

Our own Sara Marks is a self-published author. She primarily writes chick lit and contemporary romance books but sometimes takes on horror. In 2017 she decided to focus her efforts on self-publishing over traditional publishing. This monthly series is about her experiences publishing and promoting her own books. You can learn more about her and her books on her webpage.



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