by Jas Faulkner
At a recent gathering of writers in Nashville, the conversation turned to the recent popularity of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy. Everyone weighed in on their ability to write erotica and whether they felt it would hurt or hinder a writer’s credibility. During the conversation, Trisha, who was one of the attendees, yawned and mentioned that she was a little disappointed by their final choice of covers for the books. It turned out that she had received ARCs (Advance Readers Copies) from the publisher long before the general release date.
“How?” The question of getting a look at anything early, much less for free had everyone intrigued.
“I’d love to have a job like that!” another writer nodded towards her, “How did you do it?”
“It’s not a job, really, ” Trisha said, “Well, actually it is a job. It just doesn’t pay anything, except for the books.”
Trisha is not a reviewer for a media outlet, a holder of an advanced degree in a field that requires her very specialised expertise, or the owner of photos of various publishers’ media relations people in compromising positions. She doesn’t really need any of that to get her hands on of the hottest titles to come out in the last few years. She is on the short list because she is an established book blogger.
In the last five years, the boom in book blogging has had an impact on the ways publishers have promoted their books. Shortlists of regular reviewers and entertainment reporters grew to include the names attached to websites devoted to nothing but the latest book to occupy the owner’s nightstand or beach bag. In the early days, books were purchased outright or won in contests. Roughly two years into the blogging boom, that began to change as publishing houses began to realise the value of the publicity generated by a good review from a respected independent reviewer.
Book Expo America held their first book bloggers’ conference in 2010. Figures for the first BEA conference were not available, but the attendance for the 2011 was 13,412 and the 2012 was listed at 14,057. Among those present were site owners, independent reviewers, publishers, and bloggers who had made the jump to mainstream media jobs or published books of their own. A straw poll conducted at the conference suggests that the majority of the books reviewed were ARCs that were sent -sometimes solicited, sometimes not- by writers to the publishers webiste or through programs such as LibraryThings Early Readers of AuthorTracker.
Around this time last year, a number of bigger publishing houses announced that they were reducing the number of ARCs they would send out, not only to bloggers, but to mainstream news outlets. I contacted a friend who covers business news for a respected daily in a large city in the southwest (and who agreed to be interviewed if I did not mention her name or her paper. We’ll call her Brenda Starr.)
BSB: It’s been almost a year since Harper Collins and Random House announced they were changing their criteria for advance copies. Have you seen a difference in the volume and quality of books that have arrived at the newsroom since then?
Brenda Starr: Definitely. We used to have a box that was sometimes spilling over with copies of books from all kinds of publishers, the big guys, indies, small print houses, and self-published books. What didn’t get claimed by the reviewers was left up for grabs by everyone else. Now almost everything we get is preceded by a letter asking if we would be interested in getting a review copy. More often, the arts and leisure editor gets e-galleys that he distributes to the five people who do our reviews.
BSB: Do you think this is a good thing or…?
Brenda Starr: Well, it’s certainly greener. I don’t really miss seeing the piles of orphaned books because it seemed wasteful and I felt a little bad for the authors whose work was going unnoticed. One thing I think but cannot say for sure is happening is that the bloggers who are now so much a part of this process have probably adapted to the e-galley concept far more easily than we have.
BSB: How do you feel about the bloggers? Was Brian Williams right in 2008? Is it a case of amateurs flooding the market?
Brenda Starr: Not at all! My only concern about bloggers is the potential for companies who might be tempted to co-opt writers by offering sponsored websites or creating communities of dedicated reporters. I could see something like that being well-intentioned, but also fragile to abuse. I hope that as the media publishers use changes, bloggers aren’t forgotten. The perspective they provide is important to the publishing industry.
The future of building reviewer relationships may be less dependent on the packages that pile up in the mail and more in the emails offering PDF copies. Sites such as NetGalley.com serve as clearinghouses that connect readers with authors and publishing houses offering books. These nexus points may make it far easier for new readers to develop connections than the pioneers of half a decade ago. The digital versus paper argument continues to simmer along, sometimes bubbling over as another person declares a visceral need to flip a page made of paper. For reviewers, there may not be such a choice if they want to work with arcs, but the tradeoff in terms of access might be worth it for everyone involved.