Dear Author

The “C” in ARC Does Not Stand for “Contract”

As more self-publishers enter the market, they are competing with traditional publishers for blogger and social media coverage. Which means they are looking for bigger, better ways to get reviews and positive buzz. And apparently that is translating into pressure on some bloggers and readers who accept review copies, and who feel like an ARC comes with an obligation to the publishing industry — whether that’s an individual author or a major conglomerate. And unfortunately, this pressure — whether direct or indirect — threatens to kill the spontaneous buzz that all this marketing is trying to jump start.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense to get a book out to as many book reviewers as possible, especially when the marketplace is so crowded with competition for readers’ limited time, attention, and money. I have always been very welcoming of the ARC provided ‘in exchange for an honest review,’ because I think it independently serves both authors/publishers and readers. Readers get the opportunity to read a book ahead of publication and offer their voice to the discussion early on, and authors/publishers get the opportunity to distribute promotional copies of their work in the hopes that it will catch fire among readers. Theoretically, this is an illustration of the kind of situation where the only sense of obligation the reader is under is to be honest, and readers will discover soon enough if an author/publisher is sincere in that expectation. If not, the author is essentially ‘breaking the contract’ and thus releasing the reader from his or her casual obligation.

But I’ve read several posts recently from bloggers who feel like accepting ARCs has forged some kind of contract with the author or publisher, and who are coming to the realization that reviewers should never feel like they owe a publisher anything other than the consideration of a review:

Many of the commenters weren’t keen on the idea of requesting books with the knowledge that you might not actually review them, but I think that that is the wrong emphasis. As Kim and others point out in the comments, it is rare that she doesn’t read and review a book she requested, but it is important to have the option if you realize in the time between the request going out and the book showing up that you don’t want to read it anymore.

Anya, the author of that quote, is referring to a blog post by Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness, who is responding to a new program from Crown Books called “Blogging for Books.” Crown apparently conditions the receipt of future books on reviews of current books:

By requiring a review for every book, Crown is, in essence, buying a blogger’s time and attention and the time and attention of a blogger’s readership for the cost of, at best, a hardcover book. As bloggers, it’s important to think about whether we should be bought for so little.

There’s also a little more at play in this comment, specifically the last sentence:

Just as there is an understanding that a blogger would review a book after requesting it, we are reflecting that arrangement through Blogging For Books.

This is not the arrangement for me and, frankly, I don’t think it should be the case for any blogger. It is not the relationship that publishers have with editorial media. In the comments to my last post, Teresa (Shelf Love) made a great comment that I think reflects this point:

I’d really love for all of us as bloggers to get away from using the language of exchange when we talk about review copies. It gives the impression that the review copy is “payment” for a review, which implies that a review is required upon receipt of a review copy. If a blogger wants to make that a personal policy, that’s fine, but because the exchange language is so widespread, I worry that it sets up unspoken assumptions and expectations

This is vitally important. We as bloggers have to stop talking about books in exchange for anything. We do not have exchange relationships with authors or publishers… and the sooner we make that point the better because the longer it continues the more we start to look like paid enthusiasts rather than critics.

The last sentence there is crucial, because it speaks to the reviewer’s motivation, and I think that’s something reviewers haven’t felt encouraged to focus on in a neutral way. There is a broad diversity of legitimate reasons for reviewing, from a desire to push books that a reader loves to a love of talking about books, positive or negative, to a sense of investment in particular authors or types of books, to engage critical examination of certain books and tropes, as professional modeling (for authors, either published or aspiring), or even because they are being regularly paid to give an independent opinion, just to name a few. For some readers, reviewing is almost a public service; for others, it’s a professional obligation or a personal undertaking. The more influence publishers try to exert on reviewers, the more muddied the reviewer’s process may become, and the less engaged and invested the reviewer is likely to be. And from the outside, ARCs will be viewed with more and more suspicion, even if the reviewer’s independence is not, in fact, compromised.

Part of the problem is that ARCs have historically been produced as promotional items — and sent by the thousands, completely unsolicited, to a variety of booksellers, media outlets, reviewers, and book bloggers — but still treated like something special. Remember when some publishers were up in arms about ARCs sold on eBay? I think there was talk then of making reviewers sign contracts, or at least treating the ARC itself like a contract. And what about this post from the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, where reviewers are admonished to “use your galley access for good,” as if there is a moral component to receiving the publishing industry’s equivalent of a free sample.

And part of the problem, I think, is that reviewers can over-personalize the receipt of an ARC, either because an author sends it directly or because the reader has requested it from a service like Edelweiss or NetGalley that overtly anticipates a review. When I first started reviewing I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure I reviewed any ARC I received, especially if I requested it. Because I had never represented myself as someone inclined to give positive reviews, I never felt pressure to provide “good” reviews, but just the pressure to provide review started to get to me, and I stopped proactively seeking out ARCs.

But I also think there’s a somewhat illusory distinction and elevation of so-called “amateur” reviewing. And the reason I call it illusory is because I think it’s connected more to the idea of being unpaid than it is to either the quality of the reviews or the personal motivation for writing them. As if a review in RT or Publishers Weekly is automatically more suspect than one posted on Goodreads. Especially since ARCs, for some authors and publishers, represent informal compensation for a review, which is both skewing the idea of payment and importing an artificial weight of obligation onto something that should never be characterized in those terms. Being paid to write reviews is much different than being paid with a copy of a book for a review of that same book. The FTC did play a role in popularizing this terminology, but I don’t think those revised guidelines are as influential as other factors — like the investment some self-published authors, for example, put into marketing strategies like street teams and a critical mass of positive reviews.

Ultimately, the freedom to determine why and under what terms someone wants to write reviews must be left up to that reader. There will always be paid-for positive reviews; there will always be quid pro quo and family/friend/sockpuppet reviews. And there are also going to be readers who want their favorite authors to succeed, and who are happily going to write positive reviews of their books. Just as there are readers who will seek out opportunities to write paid reviews with no role in the selection of books to be reviewed. Not all readers will have the same goal for their reviewing, and that’s okay. What’s important is that the reviewer can make his/her choice independent of publisher pressure (self/indie and traditional) and then openly and honestly stand behind that choice.

And perhaps we also need to have an honest discussion as a community around what expectations other readers have of reviewers and reviews, as well. How do community expectations as a whole shape perceived obligations around ARCs and reviewing, and do we need to re-think some of those expectations and perceptions? Or do you think reviewers should feel obligated to provide reviews in exchange for ARCs, and if so, why?