I’ve talked this week about how I use ARCs, and the reaction was about what I expected. Most librarians who come in contact with ARCs tend to do similar things. Over the last couple of days, though, the lid’s been lifted on how other people use their ARCs, too.
Before I go on, I’ve pulled up an example of what an ARC looks like, for those who might not be entirely familiar with them. The picture on the left is a good example of what an ARC from a publisher may look like. It’s usually paperback (though there are electronic ARCs too) and each of these ARCs comes with a disclaimer right on the cover — and on the back flap and usually inside, too — that these books are not for sale. That’s not to say they’re not to be shared, but that they’re not meant to be sold. There should be absolutely no monetary exchange with an ARC, either between the publisher and the reviewer, the reviewer and other reviews, or reviewers and, say, teens who may get a copy as a prize during a summer reading club.
Let me repeat: there is no monetary value in ARCs at all at any level. This means that the publisher makes no money off them (and in fact, they’re more costly to produce than a finished copy of a book). Authors make no money off them. Reviewers make no money off them. And they are not, not, not to be sold.
However, they are sold. Regularly.
Hop onto Ebay and do a search for ARC under the “Books” category (or just click here). These things are being sold left and right — some are books that aren’t available yet and they’re truly advanced copies of the book and sometimes, the books have been out and the ARCs are still being sold, often at some really discounted price or because they have a signature or any other number of reasons. It seems after big industry conventions or meetings like ALA or BEA, the number of books making their way onto Ebay increases and a lot of times, they’re books people are really looking forward to or that were perceived as hard-to-get ARCs at the convention. Just this week, I saw an ARC of Bitterblue up on Ebay for a cool $51 (you can pre-order the same book — one that’ll in fact be a finished, complete copy in hard cover and without error — for about $14 right now). That’s not to say that ARCs aren’t sold via Ebay and other similar sites all the time nor that they aren’t sometimes sold in indie bookstores, but the fact becomes more apparent and appalling following these events.
It’s questionable whether selling and buying ARCs is a legal issue, but that’s not what I want to delve into. I want to talk about ethics.
Selling and buying ARCs — when there is money exchanged — is unethical at any and every level.
Now that’s not to say doing an ARC trade or giveaway or donation is unethical. I don’t think it is. There are, in fact, ARC tours meant to help bloggers and librarians get their hands on ARCs to read and review, and the only requirements are time frames for reading and posting a review, as well as paying for shipping of the ARC to the next person in line. The problem emerges when ARCs show up with a price tag attached. When one person puts a price tag on a book that’s clearly an unfinished copy, that clearly has a note on it saying the item is not meant for sale, they’re practicing something that is unethical.
But the blame isn’t just on the person who sells the ARC. It’s also on the person who buys it, especially if it’s someone who knows better than that. It sort of sounds like a no duh moment, but the fact is, it happens, and it’s not as hidden as people think it is. Buying and selling of ARCs is much more common than we like to believe it is.
When someone purchases an ARC, rather than a finished copy of the book, they rob the book of a sale. The author and the publisher and the agent and the editor and everyone else involved in the production of a book sees nothing. The money spent on the ARC goes to the person unethically selling it, rather than to those who worked hard to put together the best finished version of that story.
Something that scares me a little bit about this practice, aside from the unethical nature of it and the fact it takes profit away from those who deserve it for their art, is how easy it is to track down those who are doing it. When I saw the Bitterblue ARC up on Ebay, I was also able to see other ARCs that particular seller had sold, as well as those people who’d purchased ARCs from that seller. One of those who purchased from the seller happened to be a book blogger, whose blog I was able to track down by their user name. The ease of being able to do that is itself scary, but it’s scarier that the very people working toward promoting reading and books are participating in something they know is unethical.
Let me step back a second and return to a couple earlier points I’ve made here and in my post about how I use ARCs — though it’s not entirely easy to gauge the impact on actually selling copies, my giving the book to a kid doesn’t rob the book of a sale. It’s entirely possible the book is being sold in some way. More importantly, though, I’m not making a profit from giving the book away. No one loses money in this exchange, and there is only opportunity for it to be made (see: purchasing a finished copy for my library to lend).
When a blogger borrows an ARC from another blogger or participates in an ARC tour, they presumably review and build buzz for it. Again, impossible to gauge sales on this, but that’s sort of moot. The blogger isn’t profiting, though, in the exchange and sharing.
But when a blogger buys an ARC, they’re participating in an unethical exchange of cash for goods. They’re not helping spread the word. They’re taking away a potential sale. And when a blogger sells an ARC, they’re profiting from someone else’s work, too.
It sounds extremely hokey to say, but the fact is, books are exciting, and there are times when it feels impossible to wait to read something. When someone unethically lists such a coveted book on a site like Ebay, the temptation to purchase it — especially at what can sometimes be a really, really cheap price — may be huge. If the true goal of blogging, though, is to spread the word about books, to help promote those books worth promoting, to help sell books, the only way to be taken seriously is to behave ethically. That means not only holding off on purchasing an ARC unethically, selling an ARC unethically, and it means doing your part in reporting these things when you see them. It means holding fellow bloggers to a high standard of ethics, and it means calling them out when necessary. It’s a scary idea, to call someone out, but the fact is, people who do these things aren’t necessarily covering their tracks.
You can report these sales via Ebay, and you can forward on these sorts of links on to the marketing folks at relevant pubs.
I don’t have a whole lot more to talk about on the topic, other than to say the value in an ARC is the value in what it does for the book. An ARC and a book aren’t the same thing — the ARC precedes the book, and the ARC can help push sales of the book through early buzz. That’s why they exist and why bloggers have become part of the publicity machine. If you’re truly invested in helping promote books and reading, then you promote the purchase of the book, and you work toward halting the buying and selling of ARCs.
For what it’s worth, bloggers who practice the unethical buying and selling of ARCs are harming, rather than helping, everything that bloggers are working toward doing. They’re tarnishing the image of the role a blogger can play in sales and in promotion and in buzz. They’re also stealing from those who work to produce the content, narrowing, rather than expanding, the experiences the book world can bring.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).