ARCs: Digital vs Dead Tree

John Scalzi’s latest blog entry, “eARCs: Big Fat PublicityFail,” points to a new tactic Eos Books is attempting to save money on printing and shipping Advance Reader Copies of their books to reviewers: a full-color card with book cover on one side, and scratch-off download code on the other for an eARC of the book.

Now, unrelated to the complicated process just to download the book (which is a bit boneheaded) and to the other publisher he mentions that releases eARCs with a 30-day DRM expiry date, after which, it is assumed, one can no longer read the file anymore (which is even more boneheaded), what I want to talk about is another point that Scalzi brings up: eARCs themselves. I’m not one to criticize eBooks or eARCs in general; I think that they’re fantastic ways to promote and disseminate books along a great distance. However, as a reviewer, I can’t stand them.

I’m lucky in that I’ve been reviewing books for about eight years, and have done so for a few notable publications, which means I have a bit more clout than a n00b reviewer just starting out, which also means that very nice folks at publishers like Tor and Subterranean are actually inclined to send me physical dead tree books in the post, even all the way to Singapore. It’s not cheap to do so, but they know that I can be counted on to review the book in a venue that will guarantee eyeballs, and there will be some level of enthusiasm about the book because I requested an ARC in the first place (my steadfast rule as a reviewer: I only review books that I feel have merit and will enjoy on some level).

Smaller presses have asked if they could send me eARCs rather than a physical copy of the book, for the reason above: posting expense. This is understandable. When Janet and I published A Field Guide to Surreal Botany in 2008, I sent PDF review copies to any blogger who expressed an interest, which, looking at my records, was about 35 people. However, I was also very fortunate to have Merrie Haskell in the US acting as my North American Distributor, and so I sent out almost 50 physical review copies (which were not ARCs, but the way; these were the final printed books) to newspapers, journals, and high-profile bloggers. I included the download code along with the physical review copies so that the reviewers could also take advantage of the digital version.

Looking back now at both lists — reviewers and bloggers — there is a much larger throughput on the reviewer side, meaning that a higher percentage of reviewers than bloggers actually reviewed the book. And the biggest reason for this has to be might possibly be that the reviewers could actually hold the book in their hands and enjoy its aesthetic qualities; this is of course an anecdotal conclusion, but it makes a lot of sense, especially for a book like Surreal Botany, which begs to be caressed. They reviewed the book because they had the physical copy.

Same goes for me as a reviewer. I much prefer to have an actual physical copy of the book in my hands. I do plenty of reading on the computer screen, but it takes enormous effort and concentration to read an entire novel on my computer. As Cory Doctorow states: “The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.” There are an infinite number of distractions that my computer loves to inundate me with, to the point where I just cannot sink into that cozy narrative space that lying on the couch with the book in my hands allows me to do.

So if a publisher insists on only sending me a PDF for one of their titles, I’m very up front about my likelihood of reviewing their book. I appreciate that they sent me the file for review, but amidst all of the other things on my computer clamoring for my attention, not to mention the dozens of actual paper books in my current To-Be-Read pile, I’m less likely to actually read the eBook. Sad, but true.

Here’s the list of eARCs or otherwise free eBooks that I’ve accumulated in the last couple of years (in alphabetical order by author’s surname), almost all of which I have not yet read [ETA: not all of these books I intended to review, but many of them I did]:

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
Seeds of Change ed. by John Joseph Adams
Grey by Jon Armstrong
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Windup Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
My Own Kind of Freedom by Steven Brust
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull*
Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods by Frank Darabont
Content by Cory Doctorow
Labyrinth Summer by Rudi Dornemann
“Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” by Andy Duncan
Die! Vampire! Die! by Hal Duncan
Surveillance Self-Defense International by Peter Eckersley
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet no. 22 ed. by Gavin J. Grant et al.
Dubliners by James Joyce*
Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey
The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush by Congressman Dennis Kucinich
Realms of Fantasy vol. 16 no. 1 ed. by Shawna McCarthy
Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming by Jane McGonigal
The Magician of Lhasa by David Michie
In the Midnight Hour by Patti O’Shea
The Potemkin Mosaic: First Dream by Mark Teppo
Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest*
True Names by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
Orthodox Chinese Buddhism by Chan Master Sheng Yen
Dogland by Will Shetterly
Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery
Nefertiti Was Here by Jasmina Tesanovic
The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove
Secret Lives & The Situation by Jeff VanderMeer
Farthing by Jo Walton
Starfish by Peter Watts
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Speaking Treason Fluently & White Like Me by Tim Wise
Shimmer no. 10 ed. by Beth Wodzinski
Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright
The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Jonathan L. Zittrain
The Last Book by Zoran Zivkovic

* I have read these books already in print form.

Lots of great books, yet they’ve been languishing on my hard drive for months, if not years, unread. The Last Book is the only book by Zoran Zivkovic that I have not yet read by him, for the simple reason that I don’t have a physical copy, and I’m the webmaster for his website, fer crissakes!

And here are the physical ARCs that are currently waiting for me to review for SF Site or other venues:

Makers by Cory Doctorow
Clementine by Cherie Priest
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendelsohn & Edward James
Technologized Desire by D. Harlan Wilson
Imagination/Space by Gwyneth Jones
The Well-Built City Trilogy (The Physiognomy, Memoranda and The Beyond) by Jeffrey Ford

Guess which ones I’ll be getting to first.

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