23 November 2007


Sometimes I just have to wonder about my fellow writers. Too many of them seem to have little appreciation for the business we are in. A great many of the responses that I got when I posted the details of my problem with Powell's selling my ARCs - and only my ARCs - seemed to indicate that a lot of writers have self-image problems. They think they are in business to create great literature and then if someone is kind enough to publish it, well, that's reward enough. Everything else is just gravy - if not the kindness of strangers, then the kindness of publishers, booksellers and book reviewers.

Now I have to confess to harboring a bit of that sentiment myself. It is a great privilege to have something I've written published. I feel honored by the mere fact of its publication and that people who don't know me are actually willing to pay money for my books and to read them.

But I also know that like any business, the point of what we do is to sell something - in our case, books. If that wasn't the point, we wouldn't need to worry about all this nonsense with agents and publishers and editors and bookstores; we'd just write 'em and stick 'em in the closet, maybe take them out every so often to show to friends.

But that's not what we do. We are in a partnership - with our agents, publishers, editors and booksellers to sell books. Sending out Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of our books, is part of that sales effort. ARCs are the sample products that we send to potential buyers and readers to generate sales. Just like most companies do. Just like auto supply companies do. Just like movie makers - another "creative" group of people - do.

There's a simple, ethical rule that governs what sellers do with product samples - whether they are auto supplies, new candy bars or books. If they receive a sample, they have every right to decide whether or not they are going to sell the product. If, however, they decide not to sell the product, it is unethical to turn a quick, easy buck by selling the free sample they received. Give it to a friend, use it yourself, well, okay, but don't sell it. In many businesses, it is not merely unethical, it is illegal. (Most samples are stamped somewhere: Not For Resale; or something similar. Review copies of movies and music CDs are, I've even seen bags of new types of potato chips with a notice like that on them; and, oh yeah, so are ARCs.)

The film industry is a good case in point. The most important aspect of film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance, isn't who wins what prize. The most significant activity at those events is the film market. Filmmakers bring their movies to show to buyers for theater chains, TV and DVD production companies. Sometimes, though they aren't usually accepted for the competition part of the event, they bring rough cuts to those events because the final product isn't fully finished.

Rough cuts of movies are a lot like ARCs - often uncorrected proofs, without the final cover on them. They are not the product that the director, writer, producer, actors and other participants in making it, want public audiences to see. Filmmakers have an advantage, though; they can show their rough cuts to controlled, large audiences in theaters rather than giving them each their own copy to take home and show or sell to whoever else they want. Or, when they do give out DVDs of rough cuts - a relatively new phenomenon, they keep a very tight rein on what people do with them.

There's a good reason for that. Copyright infringement is one of the major issues in the movie industry. Film studios are doing whatever they can to avoid having thieves - which is what they are - make and sell counterfeit copies of their movies. If they, say, handed out DVDs of rough cuts of their films, and those DVDs then found their way into shops for the public to buy, theaters where the public can view them, or on TV; the companies selling or showing them would soon be put out of business from the lawsuits that would follow.

It is hard to imagine that any of us in "creative pursuits" can't sympathize with that.

Filmmakers also invite reviewers to advance screenings, sometimes of rough cuts if they want to get reviews in advance of the release of a movie. Or they send rough cut DVDs - but heavily stamped throughout to make it clear they are review copies only. They take a chance doing that. It costs them money and there is no guarantee that the movie will get reviewed. That's just part of business. But they do whatever they can to avoid having those unfinished movies find their way into the public market.

Book publishers don't have that luxury. They need to send out a lot more ARCs far in advance to try and get reviews scheduled for when the book is published. Booksellers make their orders far in advance of publication as well, so they need to get ARCs early.

None of that, however, excuses anybody from the basic, simple ethics of the situation.

But, we writers, and our publishing companies, do, for the most part, cut everybody some slack with regard to ARCs. (Although, I don't recall seeing too many ARCs for sale from big name authors, or the bigger publishing houses. Perhaps they actually enforce those "Not For Resale" notices.)

If a store has customers who are collectors, who want ARCs for their collections, I have no problem with that if they are also selling the real book. A couple of days ago, I happily signed an ARC for a store that is also selling the final, finished copies of my books. In a lot of businesses, even that wouldn't be tolerated.

When my fellow writers tell me that things like what happened with my ARCs at Powell's are simply the price we pay for trying to get our books reviewed and stocked in stores; or that we should even be thankful for the fact that only our ARCs are on bookstore shelves because in some way that helps promote the real book; all I can be is aghast at their remarkable lack of professionalism.

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