a modest proposal: the ARCreader

Friday, March 20

"an embarrassment of riches" is the perfect way to describe a perennial bookseller problem: ARCs. we love them and we hate them. let me explain: we love them, because we love books and authors and being in the know and reading the next great book; we hate them, because we get so many and they pile up and up and up and then what do you do with them when you're done reading them, or for that matter what do you do with the ones you haven't read? we try all kinds of things--donating them, passing them along to friends/family/interested bloggers, letting customers take their pick--but the fact remains that all of those efforts combined will never, ever, drop that pile down to zero for most of us.

now, i know there are greater problems facing the publishing industry. but when i dug myself out of the avalanche of ARCs in my office yesterday, i couldn't help but think that there had to be a better way. how to get books read, decrease cost, and make everyone happy (or at least two out of the three)?

here is my proposal: ARCreaders, i.e., e-readers for booksellers.

my initial idea was pretty basic: publishers provide a small group of booksellers, who they already send loads of arcs to, with an e-reader. then, they make those ARCs available as, say, pdfs to download. the bookseller, in exchange for the e-reader, agrees to read x number of ARCs from those publishers per season.

of course booksellers love this idea. publishers? not so much. they love the idea of decreasing the costs involved in ARCs--Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books told me, "ARC costs vary a lot, based on 1) the length of the book and 2) the number of fellow prints. But it ain't never cheap." but the outlay of money to buy readers is not exactly small potatoes either. and then there's the question of who gets them? publishers value their relationships with booksellers--they have to, if they want their books read and reviewed and bought, but on top of that a lot of us genuinely like each other. so what if a publisher sends them to a specific bookseller at a bookstore, and other booksellers there develop a case of sour grapes? not good!

one idea proposed yesterday in our conversation (Twitter, #ARCreader, plus some pre-tag notes in my feed) was that the ABA would take charge of such a program. get in touch with Sony, get a special deal on their reader, and then the publishers would provide the virtual ARCs.

this is definitely a thought worth looking into, but i wonder if the ABA is in a position to do this. recently, they slashed dues for bookstores in half (thank you, by the way!) and reduced their staff through attrition. in addition, this program would clearly be of great benefit to the publishers, so shouldn't they provide some monetary support?

cleary this idea has lots and lots of loopholes. a look at the ups and downs follows, but please note: the phrase "i'm betting" appears a lot in this post, for the reason that i don't have numbers at my disposal. if i ever get some, you can be sure i'll put them in, and if you happen to know either way, please, comment!

the up-sides:

  • immediate decrease in printing and shipping costs for publishers. sure, not every bookseller will have one, but providing key booksellers who receive mammoth quantities of arcs should drop costs pretty quickly -- especially when you think about the effect over time. one estimate mentioned was between $6 and $11/arc, plus shipping. if i take home between 5 and 10 ARCs a week during the spring and fall seasons, that's between $60 and $110 every two weeks, not including shipping. in this scenario, your reader gets paid off within months, and then continues to save you money for potentially years to come.
  • increased access to ARCs for booksellers. if i could download an assorted range of titles without having to worry about where in my postage-stamp-sized office/closet-sized apartment i'm going to put them, i'd be that much more likely to look at more titles. this in turn benefits the publisher, because more of their upcoming books are getting read.
  • green, green, green. in our green-aware times, the cache involved in eliminating even a small portion of the carbon footprint involved would definitely be good for business. i am aware that tech does not necessarily equal green, but in this case i'm betting that the tech is greener than the ARC.
the downsides:
  • up-front cost. let's say you pick your basic Sony Reader, which retails for $300 (assuming that you can't negotiate a special deal, which i'm betting you could). that's $300 per bookseller involved. that's a sizable outlay of cash. as seen above, the cumulative savings add up fairly quickly, but an up-front investiture may not be in the cards for some publishers, or for the ABA, at the moment. which brings us to our next downside...
  • who pays? after all, those 5 to 10 ARCs i take home weekly are not usually all from the same publisher. if a publisher is paying, how do they make sure that i am reading their books? another idea brought up in the conversation yesterday was of a mandatory comment card, with brief notes on ARCs. of course, if the ABA pays, that question is moot.
  • who gets the readers? clearly no one (publishers, the ABA, bookstores) can buy a reader for every bookseller out there. plus, there is the aforementioned collegial sour grapes issue. this is a tough one with no easy answer, but i do think that there are a core group of booksellers out there (buyers, usually, but also frequent blurbers like myself) who receive ungodly quantities of ARCs and could immediately benefit from this kind of program. another thought that occurs to me is that, if the ABA is involved, the readers could be part of the IndieNext list process--for example, if your blurb is picked for an IndieNext list, you get a reader. this has the handy side-effect of potentially increasing the number of blurbs submitted to the List, which is good for everyone involved.
  • DRM. oh god, please not DRM. i don't even begin to know how to deal with this angle, other than to point out that the sale of ARCs (which is completely illegal) is a flourishing business all on its own--technology is not, and has never been, the only way that content gets where it shouldn't go.
some closing thoughts: after further contemplation, and a VERY VERY long post, i kind of like the idea of the tie-in to the IndieNext list. what if publishers put money into a pool, managed by the ABA, which then purchased (at hopefully a friendly negotiated price) and distributed the ARCreaders based on the IndieNext list? in addition, i imagine there are booksellers out there who want nothing to do with an e-reader, so that further limits the pool. then the questions of who pays, who benefits the most and who gets one are managed a bit easier and pretty fairly. i'm sure there are problems with this idea as well, but they seem a little less than other scenarios.

or, and this is a shout out to Sony directly, provide booksellers with a hefty discount on readers! i'm much more likely to be able to scrape together, say, $150 than $300. offer booksellers a special discount, and Sony has accomplished two things: made a lot of booksellers and publishers very very happy, which is good karma, and gotten a whole segment of their target population (i.e. people who read books) familiar with their product, which can only be good for business.


Fred Ramey said...

Beyond ARCs, I'm still wondering whether the ABA could approach Sony with some proposition like this: Sony could provide a Reader to all interested booksellers; in turn the ABA could work with Sony to establish a program by which IndieBound bookstores could sell from their stores and websites, Sony-compatible d-editions of books.