June 30, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Have we reached peak ARC?


This is what we got when we typed "free books" into shutterstock. (Image via Shutterstock; cover image via Twitter)

This is what we got when we typed “free books” into Shutterstock. (Image via Shutterstock; cover image via Twitter)

Topics discussed: advice, Nick During, New York Review Books, Linda Rosenkrantz, Anna Wiener, ARCs, galleys, hyperbole, Twitter backlash, #JadeHelm15, limited edition boxset superproofs, City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg, Jonathan Cape, Knopf, Stereolab, buzz, Leon Neyfakh, The Next Next Level, New York Observer, status galleys, Twitter, Instagram, #amwriting, French flaps, Operation French Flaps, Winter Institute, BEA, Richard Price, Jonathan Franzen, Roberto Bolaño, Elena Ferrante, David Brooks, “want culture,” Goodreads, Amazon, the crummy music Mark listened to when he lived in the Soviet Union, Dire Straits, Ratt

Mark: Alex! Could you give me some advice?

Alex: Uhhhh . . . neither a borrower nor a lender be?

Mark: Hmm, okay. Yes, that’s very helpful. But let me rephrase: I’m experiencing a quandary, and I’d love to hear your advice about how I should proceed. Could you give me said advice?

Alex: Sure, whatever.

Mark: Thanks, Alex. That’s really gracious. You’re a good friend.

So here’s what’s up: just before we started talking, I was composing an e-mail to our friend Nick During, the publicity guru at the great New York Review Books. I was going to ask him for a copy of Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk, which, it seems, all the cool people are reading this summer. And I, too, want to be cool. (I should add that I also read Anna Wiener’s terrific and persuasive review in the New Republic, so the desire to be cool is only a subordinate factor.)

But Alex, am I wrong for thinking about writing to Nick for a copy of Talk? Should I go out and buy it myself? Should I never ask for free books again? I believe that you’ve been spending your time involved in some discussions on this very subject. Is that right?

Alex: Hey, tell Nick to throw in a copy for me, will you?

Mark: No.

Alex: That’s probably for the best! Because I recently took a stand that proved to be quite controversial: I tweeted that publishing employees should not necessarily feel entitled to advanced copies (or free copies of any kind) of books from other publishers.

I tweeted that in response to a piece we published last week by our own UK managing director, Zeljka Marosevic about the rise of the ARC in the social media age. That article is fantastic and gets at the structural reasons for this rise (technology + everyone is desperate for word of mouth) while providing an overview of some of the season’s hottest new ARCs.

A few things about that tweet. One is that I was being hyperbolic—many people in publishing buy books regularly! Another is that I was a bit imprecise when I said “people in publishing.” I meant people who work for publishers. Booksellers, critics, and bloggers shouldn’t have the faucet shut off (where agents fall is an open question). In any case, I was being a bit flippant and I didn’t make my point particularly well.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when people started to push back. And people pushed back! I checked at one point and saw that I had something like 300 notifications, all stemming from that tweet. Over the last few days, I’ve joked that threatening to take ARCs away from publishing people is like threatening to send out the black helicopters to take Middle America’s guns. Before I get into my thinking or some of the counterarguments, let me ask you this: offhand, was I wrong? And what do you think about the rise of the ARC?

Mark: I actually–for once–thought you made your point quite well, and as you know I don’t say that often.

You’ve asked two big questions, and by “big” I mean “hugely important for a very small group of people.” I’d like to tackle the second question first, because I want to delay the inevitable moment when it is revealed that I, too, want to pull a #JadeHelm15 against the employees of America’s publishing houses. In short: I mostly agree with you, but we’ll get to that.

What do I think about the rise of the ARC? In her piece, Zeljka singled out the UK “limited edition boxset superproof” of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, which is being published there by Jonathan Cape. I first saw the Knopf ARC a couple of months ago, and I thought that was pretty nuts (French flaps???), but this is something else altogether. A seven-volume ARC with fancy artwork? W, as they say, TF?



There’s a risk, I know, in trying to draw conclusions from something as showy as the limited edition boxset superproof (which, while ridiculous, sounds like a Stereolab song very much worth listening to) when most (indeed, all) ARCs are much less flashy. Still, the shift toward pre-publication opulence is a strange phenomenon. Zeljka is absolutely right that Twitter and Instagram have changed the dynamic of galleys and ARCs. The audience for these objects is simply much larger than it used to be, though I imagine that that audience is considerably more theoretical than tangible: does posting a picture of a galley really have an impact on buzz? I think that the most confident answer one could give would be a very tentative “maybe.”

Many years ago, when you were still enrolled in Oberlin’s most popular class, Introduction to All Things Problematic, our writer Leon Neyfakh (the author of the brilliant The Next Next Level) published a somewhat infamous piece in the Observer about something he termed “the status galley”:

This is what happens when someone reads a galley (a.k.a. ARC, or advance reading copy) in public: publishing people take notice and begin to wonder about certain things. There’s the galley’s provenance, of course. But what about its owner? Where does he work? Does she like the same things I do? Is he single? It’s almost like a secret society, a world of readers set apart from the majority, bonded together by their ability to spot a galley in the first place, and to know what possessing such an object means. These people can find each other in parks, coffee shops and, perhaps most often, subway cars.

What was so great about Leon’s article (other than the writing, which was sharp and punchy and very old-school Observer-y) was that it said almost nothing about the tangible buzz that can emerge in response to the possession or sighting of an ARC. It was, instead, a piece about social and romantic life in New York, which seems right: the benefits one might accrue from galley possession are more likely to be personal, not professional.

Of course ARCs can generate enthusiasm, but to my mind, the most effective way they can do that is by being . . . well, good books. A galley with a good cover, good copy, and good quotes will get attention. French flaps probably can’t hurt, but they’re expensive, and short of offering more room on which to display copy, I don’t think they help.

That was a long answer, and we haven’t even gotten to your second and more controversial question!

Alex: We can get into whether or not galleys should be seen as “perks” for undervalued or underpaid people people—and, without a doubt, many publishing employees, critics, bloggers, and authors are underpaid—in a moment. For now, I think the question you’re asking is an interesting one: who benefits from the status galley?

The “status galley” has only grown in significance, thanks to Twitter and Instagram. It’s a way to communicate membership in a community, and I think that shouldn’t be downplayed—if tweeting #amwriting or whatever suggests a desire to be seen as a writer, then posting a picture of a status galley suggests not only a certain identity but, I think, a certain level of success. That kind of differentiation has become more important in the Internet age (or at least, I think it has), when everybody’s a critic and everybody can be a writer. So, I think it’s fair to say that one of the ideas behind the status galley is that the recipient benefits, not only because they get to read a book for free, before it’s released, but because the galley offers some sort of potential social capital.

But how much do publishers and, by extension, authors, benefit? I think that’s an open question, though I don’t really know if it can be answered. The biggest problem with the “status galley” is that “status galleys” are coveted—they’re books that people are desperate to get their hands on as soon as they possibly can. This kind of excitement is good and is something that publishers should do whatever they can to encourage—as we both know, it’s a rare thing. Most of the time, a lot of the back end work you do publishing book is trying to get people to care—it’s an incredible thing when a lot of people care without you having done much of anything.

These books—like all books—should be sent out liberally to booksellers and to any critic or writer with something approaching an “audience.” But how far should they be circulated outside of that audience? Industry buzz certainly goes a long way in building some books up, but I’m not sure how much of that buzz is galley-dependent. And yet, sending galleys within the industry at large has become the norm—a lot of publishing employees I know don’t buy books. The publishing industry has weirdly ceded what should be its most loyal demographic: itself.

City On Fire is a useful example. The book sounds excellent, but the buzz surrounding it largely came from the size of the book’s advance—around $2 million, an extraordinary amount for a debut. The large advance may be corporate publishing’s favorite marketing tool—it instantly guarantees a ton of curiosity, which will then become coverage. But Knopf’s strategy with City On Fire seems to be “bigger=better.” They printed 6,500 galleys with French flaps. French flaps!!! I cannot get over the French fucking flaps.

Let’s take a quick step back. Before there were galleys there were bound manuscripts, which were distributed at Winter Institute. Galleys were then sent to booksellers around the U.S. That is a good use for advanced copies! Booksellers sell books. Getting a bookseller to read a book often means that you will sell several copies of that book. Therefore, it is worth giving booksellers free books. These galleys were also presumably sent to any outlet of a reasonable size, which is also good. Mainstream review coverage still sells books—they sell less than they used to, but accumulating a ton of coverage makes up for that.

But printing 6,500 galleys means that you still have a ton to give away. Some of these were distributed at BEA. Whether or not these help is, I think, an open question—anyone who’s seen the pictures people post after BEA, of suitcases filled to the brim with ARCs, knows that most of the books given out there will not be read. But galleys—and status galleys in particular—have become an expectation at BEA, and therefore, they are given out.

They’ve also become an expectation within the industry itself. My question for you is: do these free copies of books actually result in sales? I would also ask if I am taking this too seriously but then I thought “Yes, of course you are, how do you sleep at night?” so let’s just stick to the first question, unless you have other thoughts on “status galleys.”

Mark: Well, yes, you’re obviously taking this too seriously, but when have we not taken things too seriously? As I recall, we once devoted an entire column to the concept of “transparent pseudonyms,” which are only sort of a thing and are not worth taking seriously, and then the subject of our column, Richard Price, decided that he wouldn’t even use a transparent pseudonym on the paperback edition of the book we spent so much time talking about. Which means that we took transparent pseudonyms more seriously than a person who had deployed them on his own book.

Do free copies of books actually result in sales? No, I don’t think so. They can, of course. Or rather, if a book breaks out and becomes successful, then the impulse is to credit every aspect of the book’s campaign with said success, when in fact the fundamental ingredient(s) is (are) pretty ineffable. If City on Fire becomes the bestselling literary novel of the decade, we will point to the wisdom of Operation French Flaps as key to the triumph. But I doubt that there’s a strong causal relationship.

To me the more interesting, controversial, and equally unprovable question is whether a large galley print run can actually depress sales. I’ve never been convinced by this argument, but given that it’s a) provocative and b) allows us to get back to your original question, I’m more than happy to entertain it. The thinking basically goes like this: heavily buzzed about books may or may not find a larger audience, but if they’re buzzed about, it means that people who work at publishing houses and literary agencies are probably trying to get their hands on galleys. (We’re using galleys and ARCs somewhat interchangeably in this column, but that’s because the distinction has eroded over time, I think.) And if they get to said galleys, they’ll have no reason to buy the finished books.

Now, I don’t know how much this happens in practice–most of the time, it probably amounts to a rounding error. Knopf wouldn’t have printed 6,500 ARCs of City on Fire if it didn’t think that it would print (and hopefully sell) many times that amount of books. And again, that’s a very unusual amount of ARCs–galley print runs are almost always far, far lower.

But this gets us–finally–to your original question: do people like us deserve free shit? Probably not. Again, we’re not speaking here about booksellers or critics, who obviously deserve free shit. The Michael Schaubs of the world deserve all the free shit. But it’s just not clear to me that I’m building buzz by receiving a galley. Am I thrilled to have received a galley of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I subsequently read very quickly? I am. But I don’t think my status (ha!) entitles me to such a perk.

This is not to say that publishers should shrink their galley print runs and become vigilant about never allowing ARCs to fall into publishing employees’ hands. As you’ve said, people in publishing tend to make very little money, especially when starting out. (In some cases, I believe they’re even paid in galleys.) And part of what made my first year in publishing tolerable was getting access to the very status galley that Leon writes about in his article: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. You wrote about the role of social capital here, and it really can’t be overstated, especially given how little actual capital is at play.

But still, we shouldn’t feel entitled to stuff! Or . . . not? Am I about to subject myself to a galley- and buzz-less future?

Alex: I am of two minds about all of this, and I don’t know if I can reconcile the warring positions about ARCs that are currently throwing sweet ass ninja stars at each other in my brain. What am I going to do, Mark!! The ninja stars are cool, but they are also very sharp.

First, I feel your doubts about what galleys do within the industry itself and I think that they probably ultimately depress sales, rather than increase them, though maybe not by much. (I should also indicate that we are not advocating publishing employees not receiving galleys published by the presses that they work for. That would be insane.) I think word of mouth in general is very, very difficult to isolate or quantify and, in most cases, it’s a chicken and  egg scenario. Are people excited about Elena Ferrante because of the galleys or are they excited about the galleys because of Elena Ferrante?

Actually, that may be a pretty interesting case to start with. Ferrante hit off because of genuine word of mouth—I remember working in a bookstore when Europa published the first two came out and you could feel a wave cresting. The strange thing about Ferrante galley fever is that it stems from people who probably bought (at least) the first two books and would definitely buy this one, given the chance. They just don’t want the chance. (No offense, Zeljka. You are my favorite person at Melville House and I would never do anything to upset you.)

What worries me, I guess, is what I recently described to you as “want culture.” (You told me that I sounded like David Brooks. I’m putting this insult in myself so you don’t have the satisfaction of deploying it again. It hurt me.) People want to put out galleys that get people to respond with “Want.” on Twitter. That’s not a bad strategy, so long as the person “want-ing” isn’t going to turn around and ask for a galley. I worry that in many cases though, that’s exactly what happens—that galleys are good at building word of mouth for galleys, but not for the books themselves.

But what do you do about it? Most people in publishing make shit—that’s a truth universally acknowledged—and galleys are undoubtedly a perk. They not only save you money, in most cases, but they also, I would argue, make you feel like you’re part of something—I forget this because I was a book blogger once and was therefore totally inundated with free books, but galleys can make you feel like you’re part of a special club. Most publishers aren’t very good at doing that and, in general, a lot of people have shied away from thinking of publishing as “special” work—galleys can be a quiet reminder that it is. Taking free books away from publishing people is literally taking money out of their pocket, so I understand some of the reluctance to join me in my high-minded “Buy Books” campaign.

But committing to buying a few more books does make a difference—it certainly does to authors, who tangibly benefit, but it does to most presses and imprints as well—same goes for bookstores. Again, most publishing people do buy books, but I’m saying that some could probably buy a few more, to everyone’s benefit.

Here’s where I’m of two minds, though. I actually think that giving books away is a great idea, as long as you’re smart and targeted as to how you give them away. Goodreads/Amazon giveaways are a topic we should save for another one of these, but I have real doubts about their efficacy. The New York publishing world is an echo chamber that is far, far, far, far, far, far, far too homogenous, but it is also a targeted audience—the perfect audience for, say, Elena Ferrante.

But most of the “status galleys” that circulate within it are books that already have word of mouth buzz, that people would buy anyway. Those are not good giveaways. Giveaways are good to build word of mouth when there is none, or to sustain it once you have it—they shouldn’t be the end of the campaign. In most cases, in publishing, at least, they are.

Buy more books.

Mark: Yes, I’m pro-giveaway. Indeed, I always want to enter our giveaways because they seem fun, but then I remember that I can just go downstairs and pry a book from your hands, which is even more fun than a giveaway.

And yes, buy more books. That’s the most important thing.

Readers, is this more than you ever wanted to know about galleys, ARCs, and the purchasing habits of your columnists? Probably. But no matter where you stand on the question of whether Alex and I should be entitled to free stuff, you can take comfort in the sweet sounds of the Dire Straits. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I listened to the Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms on vinyl, and that album was probably my first sustained exposure to the English language. But that touching story did not prevent Alex from saying, just moments ago, “dire straits smh” and “seriously one of the worst bands ever. ratt is better” and “mark knopfler is like bruce springsteen if he was english and had a frontal lobotomy.”

Alex Shephard: he’s a sentimentalist.

Here is “So Far Away” and “Walk of Life.”