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Black Static


Why I Don't Especially Like ARCs

6th Nov, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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ARCs are Advance Readers' Copies (an alternative name is 'uncorrected proof copy' or some variation thereof, and often the same documents are sent to proofreaders), dispatched by publishers in the hope of getting some reviews in place for when the book hits the shops. For many reviewers, receiving ARCs is a coup, a sign that you have arrived and are recognised as a person whose opinion is valued.

ARCs come in all shapes and sizes. Many are pretty much identical with the finished book itself, others don't have cover art or any of the other trimmings, some are simply printed pages in a ring binder and on a few occasions I've been sent typescripts held together by an elastic band.

The benefits of using an ARC are obvious, from a publisher's viewpoint, but from a reviewer's perspective there are several areas of difficulty.

For starters, nearly all of them have this dire warning not to quote from the ARC without first checking back with the publisher, as the text could change before release. This is an inconvenience, and not always a minor one, as with a Californian publisher who, instead of the usual e-mail contact address, sent me a US phone number to call if I wanted to quote from their book. Yeah, right! That's going to happen!

Another inconvenience is that ARCs are nearly always marked 'Not for Resale', with further guff along the lines of 'This reader's copy is for promotional purposes and review by the recipient and may not be used for any other purpose or transferred to any third party'. Sometimes this is backed up by warnings about how it is illegal to do so (I understand there is a clandestine trade in proof copies). The reason is obvious - publishers understandably don't want inferior versions of their product roaming free in the world - but from the point of view of a reviewer who doesn't want to rent storage space for his ARCs it's a genuine concern. It seems an ARC is not just for review, but for life. You can't even dump the damned things on Oxfam. The only legitimate solution, if you don't want to have your house overrun by ARCs, is to destroy them, but destroying books is something I find it almost impossible to contemplate.

These are just minor points though. My real beef with ARCs is that they hamper the reviewer, and restrict his ability to do the job properly.

Reviews are not simply a matter of identifying good and bad literature, and books are not just fiction. They are also products, aesthetic objects in their own right, and it's incumbent on a reviewer to comment on such things as production values, quality of proofreading etc, to give the consumer an idea of what they can expect for their hard earned money, what degree of care and attention was lavished on the book.

ARCs deny us the option to do stuff like that. Their 'uncorrected' status means that even if we detect a typo on every single page we have to give the publishers the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they will be picked up before the book is released. We can't comment on whether the book is beautifully produced, or looks like something that was printed on partially recycled toilet paper held together with a piece of string, because what we see (and review) is not the finished article.

And, of course, there are implications for the reviewer's credibility here. Punters who buy a badly produced book after reading a positive review, and who don't know the reviewer was commenting on an ARC, could well conclude that the reviewer didn't mention these shortcomings because he was incompetent or an idiot, or taking backhanders to keep quiet, or some combination of all three.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don't like ARCs.

And, reading this through, it occurs to me that this blog entry would be a lot funnier if they were titled Original Readers' Copies, but you have to work with what you're given.


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