While it may not be criminal, selling an ARC is unethical and a serious threat to authors and publishers

Selling ARCs may not necessarily be criminal, but highly unethical and a form of piracy.

This blew up all over Facebook yesterday. A woman’s desperate screams to leave her alone. Apparently, she’d been caught red-handed with selling advance review copies of upcoming novels to others. Needless to say, most of the writing & reading community were quick to trash her, and I guess the poor lady lost a lot of friends last night. But she’s not alone. My friend and author colleague Brad Vance discovered (see below) that this seems to be wide-spread, and accepted by what I can only pray is a minority of readers.

There are, of course, things authors and publishers can do to make the distribution of ARCs safer and to reduce the risk of them being sold. And national legislation may look different, too. In most countries, selling a paperback or physical book isn’t illegal. If it’s given to you for free, as a present doesn’t make a difference. However, most publishers put specific wording into their books, excluding the sale of such books. Whether that language would hold up in court? I don’t know. This isn’t a new phenomenon either. Paperback versions of ARCs have been collector items for years, and six years ago, this Guardian article highlighted the same.

Just some people who sell and buy ARCs… #Scary

Today, few small publishers create paperback versions of ARCs. Most reviewers read the books electronically, partially due to the shortened time frame between a book entering the editing process and the publication. What used to be a year or longer can now be shortened to weeks.

I know from my own experience that the ARCs we send out are often high-quality products. Yes, they’ve not been proofed, but they’re always edited (knowing that some reviewers will call out on editing issues, rightly so) By the time we have ARCs, we’re less than a month from publication date. And an e-book sent via email can be distributed (and sold) onward to anyone. That is a risk we take. For my most recent novel, I asked for interested people to read the book against an honest review, a classic way to get many reviews early on. I had a good fifty people ask (and receive) review copies against a specific promise (in writing) to review by publication date. Roughly 40 did, which leaves about a dozen who didn’t…

So why ask for an ARC if you’re not going to read it? My take is that these people just saw a chance to get a free book. They will read it eventually. My newsletter distribution list is populated to 60% with people who got free books against signing up for it. People like free, and will go to great lengths to get free. Which is also why piracy is such a huge thing. I’ve been a member of Blasty, helping them through their beta process for over a year, and this is what my site looks like:

Here are the numbers of piracy sites on the web giving away my books.

Pretty sad, right? This doesn’t give you any information about the number of downloads. Mind you, I’m no famous author. I write in a niche genre about a minority people and I don’t see more than 400-500 books per year. However, imagine if I only sold 1 book from each of the 4,000 plus sites that give them away for free… That’s ten times the amount of books I sell, given away for free. If you are one of the readers who get your books from those sites, a word of caution: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Just as we pay with our personal information for using Facebook, you give those pirate sites something, every time you access them, either by accepting a virus/trojan infected file or by viewing commercials (best case) while there. But there is no site that will just give you a free book. Some might even provide you with ARCs, with all the mistakes still in those manuscripts…

Twenty years ago, we discussed piracy of music and films, and I guess it’s still an issue, despite the comfort and quality of sites like Spotify or Apple Music. I was once a music pirate, but I’ve long ago legalized my library. Why did I pirate? Because I couldn’t buy all the music I wanted, I couldn’t see movies here. Today, that’s no longer a problem. And money isn’t (cannot, mustn’t) the problem. Because piracy is theft. Stealing. If you can’t afford to buy a book, there are libraries. But stealing a book because you can’t afford it, isn’t morally acceptable ever because you take that money from someone else, not an evil monster corporation, but in most cases from other human beings, trying to make a living, paying their bills, feeding their families. We call ourselves authors. There are reasons why the big publishers (those big, bad companies we all love to loathe) only publish guaranteed best-sellers these days, because they, too, have employees to pay, invoices to pay, owners who want a return on their investment. And due to all of the piracy (obviously a much bigger problem for famous authors), they can’t afford to publish niche books any longer. The risk is too great. From a corporate point of view, I totally understand that. So more niche authors move to small niche and indie publishers, often mom & pop shops with little to no economic muscle power. My own publisher is something as unusual as a proud socialist house, not even trying to make money. But even they must pay suppliers, must pay their cover designers, their proofreaders, editors. As long as we have a money-based economy, people need money to stay alive. So keep that in mind next time you steal a book.

It’s interesting. If you can’t afford to buy a car, you don’t buy a car. If you’re at the store and you can’t afford that piece of meat, you don’t buy it. If you’re at the store looking at that new dress, but you can’t afford it, you walk away. But with the arts, there seems to be a difference. Can’t afford the latest from XYZ? Simply download it somewhere. Why wait for the library to stock it? It’s as if the months of work by the author, editors, proofreaders and cover designers aren’t valued, at all. In the long term, more authors will have to stop writing or will be forced to publish their work without editing, proofreading, with low-quality covers, making books, in general, less valuable, of less quality. All readers would suffer from that development. There’s enough of that already, we don’t need more of it.

Maybe it’s so easy to steal online? I don’t know. The same with ARCs. Yesterday, many authors said they’d stop sending out ARCs, making life a lot more difficult for review sites, not to mention making marketing even more difficult for indie authors. Yes, there are ways to distribute ARCs safely, but those solutions are expensive, and thus often prohibitive for most of us. Maybe this blows over after Suzanne and her friends have been hung out to dry for a while. Maybe this will get better. I doubt it. We live in a time of entitlement, where some people simply think they ‘deserve’ to read a book without paying for it.

In closing, here are a couple of simple tips on how you can help your favorite author:

  • buy their books, preferably on release day
  • review their work
  • tell your friends about your favorite books (best advertising there is!)
  • ask your library to stock them
  • if you can’t afford a book, here’s what you can do:
    • subscribe to the author’s newsletter. Most of us run regular giveaways!
    • send an e-mail, and ask for a book. I’d rather you ask me for a book than have you steal it. I doubt very much that I’m the only one who gives away books to readers on occasion. All I ask for in return is a review or a recommendation.
  • Don’t use piracy sites (for your own safety) and don’t buy electronic ARCs. Contact the author/publisher instead. The likelihood is great that you’ll get a copy of your own, for free, against an honest review. Too much to ask?

What is your take on this whole thing? Is piracy ever going away? Am I missing something here? Let’s hear it…

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