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Monday, July 30, 2012

As Close to Investigative Reporting As I'll Ever Get

They say curiosity killed the cat. In this case, curiosity killed the tiny little part of me that still believed in humanity. That might be a little dramatic, but who doesn't love a little drama?

I recently visited eBay on a hunch. A few weeks back there were a metric shit-ton (that's a legit measurement) of books handed out to bloggers, booksellers, and readers at Book Expo America (BEA). One in particular caught my interest -- The Twelve, Justin Cronin's follow-up to the bestselling The Passage. I knew I probably wouldn't get a review copy from Random House since Cronin (obviously) doesn't need my help to get the word out. Given my interest, and the hordes of readers that made The Passage a New York Times Bestseller, I wondered if any of those free copies would show up on eBay.

The answer, of course, is yes. That alone doesn't shock or disturb me. I suppose there were probably dozens of people at BEA for that express purpose. With the number of freebies there, a motivated seller could make a couple hundred bucks reselling their swag. While I find that eminently annoying, I'm not offended by it. They're not part of the industry. They're bad actors, to borrow a political term. Unfortunately, my exploration of the underbelly of the advanced copy resale market unearthed something else that did shock me.

I found a listing for Cronin's unreleased novel and Larry Correia's Monster Hunter Legion (package deal!). The bids were in the $60 range (ultimately sold for $70). I hadn't heard Correia's work was at BEA (it may have been), and it seemed an odd pairing. Curious, I clicked on the seller to search his other listings. There were over fifty since the beginning of July, including titles like:

The Skybound Sea by Sam Sykes (Pyr, ARC)
Bared Blade by Kelly McCullough (Ace, Finished Copy)
The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit, Finished Copy)
The Legend of Jig the Dragonslayer by Jim C. Hines (DAW, Finished Copy)
This Dark Earth by John Horner Jacobs (Gallery, Finished Copy)
Legends of the Dragonrealm: Shade by Richard A. Knaak (Gallery, ARC)
Wards of Faerie by Terry Brooks (Del Rey, ARC)
The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (Tor, ARC)
Windeye: Stories by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press, ARC)
Wildcatter by Dave Duncan (EDGE Science Fiction, ARC)
Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson (47 North, ARC)
The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams (DAW, ARC)
Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson (Tor, Finished Copy)
King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (Ace, ARC)

Only a snapshot of what was available, I list these titles for two reasons. One, every publisher is affected, from the tiny Edge to the massive conglomerates of Random House and Penguin. Two, obviously, these didn't all come from BEA.

I was suddenly very interested in who this bookseller might be. Perhaps the local used book store down the street from Pat's Hotlist? Thankfully, where there's a will, there's a way.

eBay has a little known feature (little known, because I can't imagine another scenario where I might use it) that allows a bidder to reveal the real name and location on the selling account. I placed a bid on Terry Brooks's Wards of Faerie (I didn't win) and requested the seller's information. Seconds later, a name and city showed up in my inbox. I would point out that the username of the individual in no way connects the person behind the account, or the entity the person works for, indicating at least superficially a recognition that it's something best done discreetly.

I Googled the name. It turns out the seller is an employee of a prominent genre magazine that publishes short fiction and reviews. I'm certain they receive copious amounts of review copies in hopes of being included in the magazine. Based on the 2,000+ feedback scores, I suspect they've been selling those copies for some time.

Although it's en vogue these days, I'm not going to name and shame. I don't see a point in it, but my discovery is something that needs to be addressed.

I know many of my fellow reviewers have a favorite library they donate to, or a used book store they receive credit at, in order to dispose of the massive number of unwanted books that show up on their doorsteps. It's not what I do, but I don't begrudge the practice. Selling the books on eBay to the highest bidder? It feels dirty.

Every ARC I've ever received has a few words clearly printed on the back cover, "Uncorrected proofs. Not for sale." When a publisher sends me a title for review, they're entrusting me not to distribute it, not to sell it, and not to spoil it. They're hoping I review, so it's not to say their action is a favor to me, but the unspoken contract between publisher and reviewer does not include the reviewer making a "profit" off the novel itself, only the words the reviewer writes about it. To break that contract (to profit off the book itself), calls into question all other layers of trust between the two parties. Just as I would argue the publisher requiring a review or influencing the content of the review does the same.

Don't get me wrong, if my ARC for Jim C. Hines' Libriomancer (sitting beside me this moment) is worth $500 after it becomes a HBO Original Series, I'm selling it. I won't even feel bad about it. It's a collectors item at that point, a historical relic. The words have proliferated far and wide, so far in fact that they've become part of the cultural lexicon. Winter is coming, and all that.

Many of the novels listed above will not be out for several months. This is significant. It's hard enough asking readers to pay for books they can steal for free, but it's even more difficult to ask them to wait for the privilege to pay. Publishers trust reviewers with intellectual property that in some rare cases can be worth millions. We're trusted not to cut the binding, scan it, and send it to the internet. The readers buying these eBayed copies have no obligation to uphold that bargain. 

Above, I spoke of contracts. The contract between author and reader is often discussed by reviewers. It's vital that an author deliver on what he promises. Reviewers must recognize that we too have a contract with publishers (or authors, for the self-published). Selling ARCs, or finished review copies, is in spirit, if not in reality, violating copyright. I am profiting off a copy not intended for sale. How is that different than making a photocopy copy and selling it? 

It's not. Selling these books makes you a pirate and a thief, nothing more.

So, to the unnamed magazine and employee of said magazine... shame on you. Even if the profits from these sales go to charity, to your bottom line, or to the vacation fund, selling them is wrongI don't know how to put it any clearer.



At July 30, 2012 at 8:02 AM , Blogger Mazarkis Williams said...

"We're trusted not to cut the binding, scan it, and send it to the internet." That happens too. My book was up for free downloads over a month before it was released for sale. From my understanding it could only have come from 1) the publisher or 2) a reviewer. But at least, I suppose, the person in question was not making money from it, as the people selling the ARCs is doing.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:04 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Well, hopefully, the point I'm making is that if a reviewer is selling his books, then the pirate could be ANYONE. In reality, the pirate is the person who sold the book in the first place.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:05 AM , Blogger Mazarkis Williams said...

Oh, yeah. I'm a bit slow in the morning.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:17 AM , Blogger Yagiz said...

Wow! This is pretty big. It's frowned upon for a reviewer to sell even one ARC but at such a large scale it's something scary. I simply hope that the management of the magazine in question ignores this practice and that it is the wrong-doing of a member of their staff.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:26 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

I'm dishearted and disgusted.

Turning ARCs that you receive for free into a profit center--well, I am struggling to comprehend how someone can justify doing this in their own mind.

Doesn't the phrase "kill the golden goose" ever resonate with people like this?

At July 30, 2012 at 8:35 AM , Blogger RobB said...

Selling ARCs is just a bad form especially BEFORE the book is published. That's all sorts of screwing the author and publisher. After the fact when it becomes a collectible? A different story.

There's terrific organization where I've been sending my ARCs and other books:

The handle of finished copies after they are on the shelves? Different story, from my perspective.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:35 AM , Anonymous Martin said...

I can't understand the issue here. If someone gives you something then it is up to you what you do with it. Equally, if someone wants to pay over the odds for an uncorrected proof because they just can't wait or they are some sort of uber-completist then that is their lookout. It is absolutely nothing to do with piracy or theft.

Out of curiousity, how do you dispose of your massive number of unwanted books? I donate mine to charity but if that and libraries and second hand bookshops are out, what is left? Destroying them?

At July 30, 2012 at 8:41 AM , Blogger Eric Rhoads said...

In the US at least, these users aren't violating the spirit of copyright or anything else by selling ARCs. The First Sale doctrine covers even promotion copies given freely. UMG v. Augusto is the precedent. It is their legal right. Publishers are trying to claim a privilege that doesn't belong to them. What you're inferring via the contract language is that the book comes with a license or terms of service both of which have been rejected by US courts.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:47 AM , Blogger Anne Lyle said...

I think the words printed on most ARCs - "Uncorrected proofs. Not for sale." - should be your clue there. These books are distributed purely for review purposes, because that's the only way reviews can be written in time for the book's publication. I'm sure the publishers would love it if review copies had an expiry date like beta software, but sadly they don't.

Ideally, yes, you should destroy an ARC - or at the very least, not give it away until the final book has come out. Anything else is abusing the relationship with the publisher.

(I'd feel bad about selling an ARC or giving it to a library - it hasn't been proofread, and may be missing important last-minute author changes as well.)

At July 30, 2012 at 8:51 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are plenty of legal things you can do that aren't 'right'. If the magazines weren't ashamed of doing this then they wouldn't do it covertly. I say out them and let the publishers send ARCs to responsible recipients instead.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:53 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Hence why publishers don't do anything about this. I recognize there's no legal standing here. But the spirit of the law is to protect copyright holders. And there is, in my mind, an unspoken contract between publishers and reviewers that we don't distribute the books, especially prior to release. When they are sold, they're going to be pirated.

Sure, we can pretend that whoever buys it is the pirate, but the selling of the ARC is enabling.

At July 30, 2012 at 8:59 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Unwanted ARCs, I give away. ARCs I read and don't want to keep I toss. ARCs I read and want, I keep.

I don't really have a problem with selling books to a used book store, or even on eBay after the release date. But, by selling ARCs as much as two months before release date, not only are you enabling the pirating of the text, but you're (potentially) drastically impacting an author's sales. AND, you're profiting off it. How is that not functionally intellectual property theft?

At July 30, 2012 at 9:00 AM , Blogger Justin said...

"(I'd feel bad about selling an ARC or giving it to a library - it hasn't been proofread, and may be missing important last-minute author changes as well.)"

@Anne, I didn't publish that issue as it varies so much book to book, but I did write up a few paragraphs on it. It's food for thought, if nothing else.

At July 30, 2012 at 9:08 AM , Anonymous Martin said...

a) I don't believe there is a inevitable, direct line between selling an ARC on eBay and it being pirated.
b) Reviewers giving away ARCs carries the same risk of piracy and, indeed, does publishers sending out ARCs in the first place
c) I don't believe piracy will have had any impact on the sales of any of the titles you list.

Basically, piracy is a massive red herring in a conversation about what you can do with your own property.

At July 30, 2012 at 9:10 AM , Blogger Becky LeJeune said...

Urgh, it's just bad form. I fear that these very public abusers of the system will, in the end, ruin it for those of us who are following the rules.

At July 30, 2012 at 9:27 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I were a publisher I would _so_ not send you an ARC and _so_ not care what you did with your property.

At July 30, 2012 at 9:47 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a really great indie book shop near me that sells all of its ARCs (some months before release -- I picked up Leviathan Wakes and The Dragon's Path nearly five months out). They change a nominal fee for them -- $2.95.

My main feeling of guilt there was always that I was paying $3 for a copy instead of the evental $16, meaning the store didn't pull in as much revenue (though I suppose that's $3 of profit free-and-clear; not sure in which scenario they make more money unless we're talking a hardcover release).

At July 30, 2012 at 10:14 AM , Blogger Eric Rhoads said...

The selling of an ARC is the selling of a used book, nothing more and nothing less. There isn't a theft involved. The publisher paid for the ARC. The reviewer read it, and then sold it.

If publishers were honestly worried there are a number of alternatives such as electronic ARCs that would limit the resale of books.

The enablers are the publisher providing un-restricted copies to the general public.

At July 30, 2012 at 10:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd call that an indie bookshop that deserves to go under.

At July 30, 2012 at 10:23 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Used book stores have books that at least once were sold and brought the author money.

ARCS are different--they never directly give the author a dime of royalties.

At July 30, 2012 at 10:27 AM , Blogger Eric Rhoads said...

Also, I don't subscribe to the theory that a sold ARC necessarily equates to a lost sale. A lost sale being the sale of a new book that generates a payment back to author, etc. A shopper shopping at a used book story is likely to purchase a used book which doesn't generate that same revenue stream back to author, etc.

At July 30, 2012 at 11:07 AM , Anonymous Elspeth Cooper said...

If I was a reviewer and a publisher sent me an early bound proof in exchange for possible review, I would feel morally obligated to respect the "Not for resale" on the cover. My publicist goes to considerable pains to ensure his mailout list contains only people who are genuinely interested in reviewing new books.

If I had earned his trust enough to get onto that list, yes, I would feel there was an implied contract between us: he entrusts me with an early release in return for publicity, and in return I get to read and review a new story before the general public does. All the publisher asks is that I don't flog the book on and distribute it into the wider market before it's ready.

Obviously other people don't feel the same obligation.

As an aside: there were ARCs of my first book on sale on eBay a month before release - one of them went for £40, more than three times the full retail price of a trade paperback. My WTF-o-meter broke.

At July 30, 2012 at 4:45 PM , Blogger Kiera bot said...

I have received a few ARCs either from the author, Goodreads, or publishers. I love it. It makes me feel almost... Well, special. I honestly couldn't imagine giving away most of them, as they've been books I've enjoyed. I absolutely love comparing them to the final draft and seeing things that are different, better, etc. I can't even begin to fathom selling mine, and have difficulty even loaning them out to others before the release date, so it's nearly impossible for me to understand how someone could possibly be violating that trust between the author/pub and the reviewer. I couldn't do it. I just... Seriously... Eh my two pennies don't mean much, but I really feel that it's a personal ethical obligation thing. You get the books early with the implied consent that you will read them and review them, and not make bank off of them. It just makes me sad.

At July 30, 2012 at 5:11 PM , Blogger Stefan Fergus said...

If I can, I send unwanted ARCs to other reviewers who want to read the books in question. That way, they're still fulfilling their purpose. It's something I'd certainly like to do more of - an ARC exchange between reviewers, perhaps? More and wider exposure for advance reviews?

Finished copies I don't want I either include in giveaways, or donate to charity shop after publication.

@Anne - not sure I like the idea of expiring ARCs - what if we want to read them again? Or are we assuming we'd get finished copy afterwards? (Does happen with some publishers - in some instances, I've been send ARC, Hardcover, Paperback, MMPB... And in one instance also a Galley... They REALLY wanted me to review that one!)

I think it's interesting that people have less of a problem with selling the ARCs after they become "collectors" items. For many authors and books, aren't they automatically a collector's item?

At July 30, 2012 at 5:18 PM , Blogger Stefan Fergus said...

What about ARC giveaways? Publishers, bloggers, authors do it - where do these fall?

(Not trying to be difficult, just curious about people's thoughts on this variation of spreading ARCs for non-review purposes.)


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