Raiders of the lost ARC

Arts and crafts and authorship.

Authors’ uncorrected galley for “Red Team Blues” (2021).

I have screen-burn. Before the pandemic, I spent an unhealthy amount of my time sitting in front of laptop, in ways that were harmful to my posture and eyesight and mental health — but now, nineteen months in a lockdown where my laptop is also how I get groceries, see friends, attend meetings and “travel” to conferences, I am heartily sick of it.

I switch it up. I take walks (though fewer now that I did at the lockdown’s start, alas), I make short trips to shops (masked and anxious), I’ve even been to a small, out-of-town conference where masks and proof of vaccination were required.

Most of all, though, I read books. I lose myself in narratives and analysis, and I do it while holding an object that can only do one thing, that can’t interrupt me, that doesn’t tempt me to switch tasks. I don’t read as much or as often as I should or want to, but when I do, it is a gift I give to myself — a chance to use my eyes and brain and body in a different way that is both a pleasure unto itself and an opportunity to reset my screen burn so that I can return to all that nondiscretionary stuff I have to do at my laptop.

Paper books are great. The vertical book with a bound spine was a huge success from the start. From Wikipedia, citing 1987’s The Birth of the Codex (OUP): “The codex began to replace the scroll almost as soon as it was invented. In Egypt, by the fifth century, the codex outnumbered the scroll by ten to one based on surviving examples. By the sixth century, the scroll had almost vanished as a medium for literature.”

I am fully aware of all the deficiencies of paper books, relative to ebooks. They are unwieldy and heavy, they are difficult to warehouse and ship, you can’t search them or copy-paste them. I own many thousands of printed books and I have spent an ungodly amount of money, time and energy on the transportation, maintenance and care of these odd sheafs of pressed vegetable matter spattered with heavy-metal inks.

And yet, I love books.

My sagging industrial shelves laden with literal tons of authors’ copies.

I write books. I’ve written a couple dozen of them at this point. My authors’ copies — hardcovers, paperbacks, translations — pose a serious logistical challenge at this point. There’s literally tons of them.

Writing isn’t just my income-source, it’s also my therapy. Writing is how I work out my ideas and fears and aspirations. The worse things are in the world, the more I write.

I wrote four books during the lockdown. So far.

I’m not the only person who wrote a lot during the lockdown. I get 3–5 solicitations per day from authors, publicists and publishers’ marketing people, asking if I’ll read a forthcoming book for a jacket-quote or a review.

I like doing this. I like reading books generally, I like reading my friends’ books before they come out, and I really love reading books by new authors. I love reviewing books, and I love helping new writers get their books into the hands of readers. I benefited tremendously from the generous help of established authors, and paying that debt forward is a true joy. I take almost indecent pride in the career successes of authors whose early books I helped promote.

I read, blurb and review so many books that I’ve all but stopped re-reading books, even old favorites. It’s an odd trade-off, but ultimately, it’s worth it. When I re-read an old fave, I help myself — when I read a forthcoming or fresh-published book and post a review, I help another writer, and publishing itself.

Before the pandemic, about 95% of the review and blurb solicitations I received came by mail: a publicist or editor would mail an Advance Review Copy (ARC) to my mailbox along with a brief note asking me to consider it (sometimes this would be preceded by an email pitch, but the vast majority of times, the books came in over the transom). An ARC is like a trade paperback — 6" by 9", often with a plain white or tan cover, though increasingly, ARCs come with full-color covers. I knew from my own publishing experiences that ARCs were expensive to produce and jealously hoarded by publicity departments and editors, who faced severe constraints on how many ARCs they could distribute prior to a book’s sale.

I got my start as a bookseller, and ARCs were a powerful weapon in the publishers’ reps arsenals. I’ll never forget the day that our Bantam Books rep came through the door and said, “Cory, I’ve got an ARC for you. You’ve never heard of this guy, but you’re going to love him. His name is Neal Stephenson and this is his breakout novel. It’s called Snow Crash.” After I devoured the book and sang its praises to my boss, we placed a huge initial order, and I had a shelf-talker review ready for it the day it arrived. I hand-sold a mountain of copies.

Whether as a bookseller, a reviewer or a blurber, the ARCs always vastly exceeded my available reading time, by a ratio of 30:1 or more. But the ARCs kept coming, because, despite their expense and scarcity, it’s incredibly hard to get people to give a shit about a new book, much less one by a new author, and sending someone a compact, bound copy of a forthcoming book makes it as easy as possible for that book to get the kind of boost that can help it attain liftoff at launch.

In the Great Before, when my daily trip to the mailbox yielded a double-armload of ARCs, I lamented the wastefulness of the process. Not because I didn’t want ARCs, but because I wanted ARCs to be distributed more intelligently.

Every book publicist I’ve known is hard working and shrewd, but from being on the receiving end of the ARC bazooka, it really seemed like they were operating without benefit of basic record-keeping. If a publisher sent me book one of a series and I didn’t review it, I couldn’t understand why they’d send me book two. Or three. Or four. Or eleven.

Likewise, if I reviewed book one in a series, it was a crapshoot as to whether I’d get book two — even if the hardcover of the sequel included a quote from my review of book one! The most egregious example of this was John Varley’s Red Thunder books. The publisher sent me an advance copy of book one, which I both blurbed and reviewed. The sequel included my blurb, and its paperback had the blurb and an excerpt from my review. Book two came out in hardcover at the same time, also bearing my blurb and review — something I discovered when I found it on the new release table at my local bookstore. I bought it, took it home, reviewed it, and then a year later, when book three came out, it included quotes from both reviews and my blurb. But, as with book two, the publicist failed to send me an ARC of the final volume.

It’s not that I mind buying books. I will insta-buy any John Varley book I find. I even buy stacks of his books when I find them in used bookstores, just to give them away to friends. Varley is a genius. But reviews have their greatest impact if they coincide with the book’s launch. By failing to send the book to me for review, the publisher missed the opportunity to have my review providing a tailwind during the week’s initial publicity push.

It’s clear the publisher knew about and valued my reviews — they were emblazoned on the books’ covers and flaps. They just forgot to send me the books. Repeatedly. This is the kind of thing that you can easily track with any off-the-shelf customer relationship management tool, like, and from the outside, it seems like none of that tracking is going on.

What’s more, for all the internal rationing of ARCs, there’s seemingly little record-keeping of where those ARCs have gone — it’s not uncommon for me to receive two or more ARCs for the same book. Hell, it’s not uncommon for me to receive two or more ARCs for the sequel to that book, even if I don’t review the first one. It’s bizarre.

The pandemic changed all this.

The lockdown triggered all kinds of belt-tightening across big publishing, up to and including layoffs. Booksellers shut their doors. The post-office became an essential service and we were exhorted to ration our use of it, and then it became the locus of intense partisan politics and deliberate sabotage as part of the 2020 election.

The ARCs stopped coming.

Publicists were still trying gamely to promote books, of course! Tours were replaced with “virtual tours,” writers and their publishers tried all kinds of gimmicks to replace the already fragile and fraught business of bringing a book together with its audience, and ARCs went digital.

There have been digital ARCs for a long time— ever since the first writer emailed a Word file to another writer and asked for a blurb. But e-ARCs were always a disfavored way to publicize books. People don’t much care to read long-form work off their screens, attempts to add DRM made e-ARCs cumbersome (if you’ve got 30 times more ARCs than you can read, why bother with the one that involves a tech-support call?) and the fact that e-ARCs could be distributed without marginal cost led to a spam-bonanza that worsened the ratio of ARCs to reading time to something like 1:100.

E-ARCs had a way of disappearing, too. A pile of physical ARCs demands your attention — even if it’s only to sort through them and put some of them in a bag for a thrift store or a Little Free Library. Even if I don’t review a book from its ARC, chances are I’ll handle that ARC five or six times as I unpack it, skim it, shelve it, take it down, think about it, put it in a pile, etc. Each one of those contacts represents a chance that the book will find its way into my queue. E-ARCs, by contrast? They go in an email folder that I never, ever look at, no matter how much I intend to.

In other words, the median e-ARC is less likely to be interesting, and is easier to ignore, than a print ARC.

I tried. For most of the first year of the lockdown, I assiduously tracked e-ARCs, wanting to help authors who were trying to make a book happen at a singularly difficult moment (I published four books in 2020, and I felt their pain).

But as screen-burn set in and the lockdown lessened, publishing did not return to print ARCs. Even though book sales are up and the mails and print shops are running smoothly again, publishers continue to act as though ARCs are a relic of a bygone age — and not a vital tool for ensuring a book’s successful launch. This stinginess sometimes borders on the absurd: a friend of mine recently concluded a 12-volume blockbuster/bestseller series, bringing in more than decade’s worth of work for a superb finale.

The final volume is a long-awaited occasion for a legion of fans. It should have been a huge deal. There should have been ARCs in the hands of every reviewer in America.

The publisher — a subsidiary of a wildly profitable, multibillion-dollar, global media corporation — didn’t do any ARCs.

As the kids say, “What the actual fuck?”

Between my years selling books and my early career in digital pre-press, I always knew I was going to take responsibility for my own ARCs, especially early on in the process when the book was still going through final editorial revisions but I wanted to lock in reviewers and blurbers.

A homemade ARC for Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, ca. 2000.

Nearly two years before Tor Books published my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I spent $700 printing 100 homemade ARCs of the book, with a one-color cover. I did the layout using Word, and had a local print-shop run them off with perfect binding and a printed spine. The job turnaround was about two weeks. The fact that it was such a short book (barely over 50,000 words) saved me a ton of money here, because the interiors were xerographic — photocopied pages, printed double-sided, collated and trimmed before binding — and the per-page price was relatively high.

I numbered each copy, just to give them a little gravitas and make them seem like a special preview, not a first-time author’s arts-and-crafts project.

A xerographic ARC of Attack Surface (2019).

Before my next novel came out, I encountered another technique, one I used for years. A brilliant editor named Teresa Nielsen Hayden buttonholed me at a science fiction convention with an “ARC” for one of her authors. It was an 8.5"x11" sheaf of paper, laid out in two vertical columns, double-spaced, and bound down one edge with three staples. She had a whole backpack full of them, which she’d made by flowing the current text of the novel (reflecting the state of the editorial process) into a template and running them off at Tor’s photocopy room before heading to the airport.

This was a revelation. It was a pleasure to read, even on the road. I wasn’t going home right after the con — I had several more stops — and took this xerographic ARC with me rather than shipping it home with all the heavy books I acquired at the con, because I could literally tear off the sheets as I read them, making it progressive lighter and easier to handle. It was a perfect artifact — cheap, timely, tactile.

I plundered Teresa’s technique and made it my own. For the next several books, I made a point of having a stack of 10–20 of these printed off whenever I was headed to a con or other event. I gave them to reviewers, first readers, blurbers, booksellers. They were hugely effective at generating reviews, bookstore shelf-talkers, and blurbs. They weren’t cheap —small-batch xerography remains stubbornly expensive on a per-page basis — but for shorter novels especially, they were still affordable, below the $6/copy price-point. I dated and numbered each one, in part to help me keep track of them, but also to create a penumbra of specialness around each artifact that I hoped would intrigue the people I gave them to.

A ARC for Utopia (later Walkaway).

There are limits to this technique, however. Once a book crosses the 100,000 word mark, it becomes virtually impossible to staple together, even with the powerful, long-tined staplers at big, industrial copy-shops.

A homemade ARC of Walkaway.

For Walkaway (originally titled Utopia, until Kim Stanley Robinson suggested that I change it) I did a short run of 10 perfect-bound 6"x9" copies with at $8.16 each. I laid out the pages with LibreOffice (a free alternative to Word that runs on my Ubuntu Linux laptop) and flowed some stock art into Lulu’s cover design template. The price was a welcome surprise — a few years before I’d self-published a short story collection with Lulu, with a smaller book than Walkaway that nevertheless cost more than $12/copy to print.

The spines for homemade ARCs of Walkaway and Utopia.

A couple months later, I did another run, and Lulu’s prices had come down again, to $7.16/copy. During the year and a half between the completion of the submission draft and the appearance of Tor’s ARCs, I reprinted it a couple more times, using my homemade ARCs to score some fantastic early reviews and blurbs (including a great cover quote from Edward Snowden!). Of course, I hand-numbered all of these, too.

I wrote two novels during the lockdown: Red Team Blues (a noir heist thriller about cryptocurrency, capitalism, and corruption) and The Lost Cause (a utopian post-Green New Deal novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias). I’m still negotiating their publishing schedules with Tor (they didn’t expect me to turn in two books, but pandemic anxiety writing produced a bumper crop) and in the meantime, I’m circulating both for quotes and early reviews.

Title page of the homemade ARC for The Lost Cause.

Printing these at was a revelation. Lost Cause — 117,000 words! —came in at $6.84/copy. Meanwhile, the sprightly, 68,000-word Red Team Blues was $4.88/copy. I got a box of each shipped to my door in under two weeks, and I’ve been sending them to experts, reviewers, blurbers and first readers. They go out as media mail, which is very cheap, and I drop one or two off every week when I go to pick up my mail.

I don’t have any commercial relationship with Lulu. I’ve used them for years and I once volunteered as a judge for a writing prize they gave out, but they’re not giving me discounts or any other special treatment. Sometime between my first project with them and today, they’ve figured out how to make printing a bound trade paperback with a full-bleed four-color cover cheaper than photocopying a manuscript.

Of course, all of this just makes me more impatient with publicists who say that all they have to offer is an e-ARC, and only slightly less impatient with editors seeking a blurb who send a boxed loose manuscript (totally unmanageable, heavy), or a tape-bound, massive manuscript (mostly unmanageable, heavy), or a spiral-bound, massive manuscript (pretty manageable, but still heavy). There is no way any of that is cheaper than going to Lulu (or one of its competitors), flowing the text into a template and then drop-shipping the finished book straight to my mailbox.

Honestly, this should be the golden age of ARCs. People are staring at their screens until their eyes literally ache and they’re desperate for reading material that isn’t on a screen. It’s a no-brainer.

One form of digital distribution that I do like? Audiobooks. The audiobook market is completely dominated by Amazon, whose Audible monopoly is an shame and a scourge. The fact that Audible only distributes DRM-locked files to reviewers, and then only to promote audio editions, represents a huge opportunity for authors and publishers of books that have a print and audiobook release.

Remember how reviewers get 30 times more print ARCs and 100 times more e-ARCs than they can read? Those same reviewers get virtually no audiobook review copies. If you send a reviewer an ARC, there are 29 books competing with it. Send that reviewer an audiobook and usually there are no other books competing with yours.

Links to digital audiobooks are actually superior to audiobooks on physical media, which have to be ripped or downloaded to a computer and then transfered to a mobile device or standalone player. If your book has an audio edition that’s ready before publication date, you can distribute it to reviewers and blurbers, either by using a service like Sendowl to generate per-person unique download links, or by putting it in a standard cloud drive like Gdrive and asking people to treat the link as private (while crossing your fingers and hoping for circumspection).

And while digital audiobooks are superior in many ways to physical media containing audiobook files, there’s one use-case I’m looking forward to for the releases of Red Team Blues and The Lost Cause: custom USB drives for distribution to booksellers while on tour.

Homemade Walkaway audio USB-card.

I made a box of these to take with me on the tour for Walkaway, splurging for a 16GB version so I could put both lossless FLAC files and regular MP3s on it, and paying a little extra for a spot color to match the vibrant orange of the print edition’s cover (they came in at less than $3/copy).

For that tour, I went to 35 cities in 45 days in Canada, the US and the UK. In each city, I’d have a media escort who’d fill the time between press interviews and before the evening’s event by taking me to all the major indie bookstores and Barnes & Noble outlets, and I’d sign their stock and chat with all the booksellers, and give each one of them one of these business-card-sized audiobook drives.

These booksellers already had all the ARCs they could read, but because 90+% of all audio sales take place through Audible, no one ever gives a bookseller an audiobook review copy. Except me. I didn’t want them to listen in the hopes they’d sell the audio — I wanted to get them to listen so they’d recommend the print edition.

It worked. I heard from many booksellers in the weeks and months after the tour to let me know that they’d give the audio a listen on their commute or while they worked out or cleaned the house, and had liked the book enough to write up one of those coveted shelf-talkers recommending it.

The attention wars will always be a holding action at best. There’s just too many things vying for the attention of readers and the reviewers, blurbers and booksellers whom readers trust. But lately, it feels like publishers aren’t just fighting a holding action — they’re actually losing ground, focusing on invisible, weightless, easy-to-ignore e-ARCs.

It’s a major, unforced error, in an age of cheap and easy options for producing and distributing review copies. Writers can (and should) fill the gap themselves, but if publishers want to save money on ARCs, they’d be better off keeping track of which reviewers are likely to read them than by throwing text-files at reviewers and wishing.