Ex Libris: Paying the Piper
By Steve Donoghue
Recently – I know this will shock you – there was a little dust-up on Twitter. Since this one was about books and the reading and writing world, it was a relatively minor dust-up, of course, but it was almost squarely in my own target-range of interest: it dealt with book reviewing, which this columnist has been doing at a fairly steady clip for a fairly long time.
The dust-up started on a book site called Bookanon, an article called “The Troubling Trend with ARC Readers,” which was all about readers who sign up to receive ARCs but then don’t go on to write reviews of those ARCs. The author of the article spends the length of the piece scolding such readers. “Not reviewing a book you have been given as an ARC, with the full understanding that such a review is part of the implicit contract, is THEFT,” the author writes. “Now, the author may not call you out on it (and probably shouldn’t, for PR and business reasons), but I’m sitting here today on my own blog calling it exactly what it is, and if I’m stepping on your toes … be glad I’m not kicking you in the ass like you deserve.”
Well OK then, I thought. Want to take a deep breath?
Maybe we should clarify terms? ARC stands for Advance Reading Copy, and there are plenty of programs that offer ARCs to people who sign up to provide reviews (NetGalley is probably the best-known of these programs, but there are lots of others). And the article’s author is quite right in pointing out that many people sign up for such programs solely to score themselves some free books. They don’t ever leave any reviews, and maybe they don’t even intend to.
And the reason the article’s author is so worked up is something a great many readers often don’t realize: most books live and die by reviews.
Aside from the occasional juggernaut on the literary scene (writers like Nora Roberts or Stephen King, whose business has grown into a self-sustaining then), this has always been the case, and that’s not the part that sometimes slips by readers. No, the key part of the subject is that books live or die by ANY kind of review – we’re not talking here only about positive assessments.
We’ve all heard the old saying “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and we all know how much of it is hyperbole. But there are hundreds of thousands of new books published every year in the US alone – everything from major new releases to thousands and thousands of self-published indie titles. It’s never been easier to get your words into print – which means it’s never been more important to get somebody to notice your words before they’re lost in a swelling sea of verbiage.
The Bookanon author knows this, naturally, and comments that reviews – any kind of reviews – are “worth their weight in gold as far as sales go.” The article goes on to say, “On Amazon, once a book gets just a few dozen reviews, Amazon’s AI will start recommending the book, and the more reviews a book gets the more Amazon’s AI starts recommending it.”
This is entirely true, and it can make a crucial difference to indie authors who are pouring their hearts (and quite a bit of their money) into books only to wonder if anybody other than their friends and family are even seeing those books. Hence the existence of programs like NetGalley, but also, most of all, the importance of reviews on Amazon, where most people find their indie titles.
And much as it might grate for me to admit it, that Bookanon article was also entirely correct about the low-grade perfidy of signing up for ARCs as part of programs designed for generating reviews (even hostile one – that earlier point was bitterly true: there’s nothing worse for an author than silence). Although there’s usually no formal contract involved, it’s understood that you’ll write a review in exchange for a free book.
No, my problem is with programs like that existing at all, since the things they generate aren’t really reviews so much as unpaid freelance extensions of a book’s marketing campaign. It doesn’t matter that the freelancers in question are usually free to dislike the ARCs they get – again, it’s the very existence of the review that’s the important thing to that marketing campaign, and that’s the thing these ARC-gobblers are signing up to provide, without knowing anything about the quality of the book.
It might seem odd, but a reviewer’s freedom to ignore a book is a powerfully important element of the trade … specifically because of those previously-mentioned facts: most books live and die by reviews, and pretty much any review helps a book. If you promise to review a book sight-unseen, you should keep your promise. But you shouldn’t promise; if you want a job in marketing, get a job in marketing and leave the reviewing to people who haven’t compromised their discretion for a free book or two.