They say curiosity killed the cat. In this case, curiosity killed the tiny little part of me that still believed in humanity. That might be a little dramatic, but who doesn’t love a little drama?
I recently visited eBay on a hunch. A few weeks back there were a metric shit-ton (that’s a legit measurement) of books handed out to bloggers, booksellers, and readers at Book Expo America (BEA). One in particular caught my interest – The Twelve, Justin Cronin’s follow-up to the bestselling The Passage. I knew I probably wouldn’t get a review copy from Random House since Cronin (obviously) doesn’t need my help to get the word out. Given my interest, and the hordes of readers that made The Passage a New York Times Bestseller, I wondered if any of those free copies would show up on eBay.
The answer, of course, is yes. That alone doesn’t shock or disturb me. I suppose there were probably dozens of people at BEA for that express purpose. With the number of freebies there, a motivated seller could make a couple hundred bucks reselling their swag. While I find that eminently annoying, I’m not offended by it. They’re not part of the industry. They’re bad actors, to borrow a political term. Unfortunately, my exploration of the underbelly of the advanced copy resale market unearthed something else that did shock me.
I found a listing for Cronin’s unreleased novel and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter Legion (package deal!). The bids were in the $60 range (ultimately sold for $70). I hadn’t heard Correia’s work was at BEA (it may have been), and it seemed an odd pairing. Curious, I clicked on the seller to search his other listings. There were over fifty since the beginning of July, including titles like:
I Googled the name. It turns out the seller is an employee of a prominent genre magazine that publishes short fiction and reviews. I’m certain they receive copious amounts of review copies in hopes of being included in the magazine. Based on the 2,000+ feedback scores, I suspect they’ve been selling those copies for some time.
I know many of my fellow reviewers have a favorite library they donate to, or a used book store they receive credit at, in order to dispose of the massive number of unwanted books that show up on their doorsteps. It’s not what I do, but I don’t begrudge the practice. Selling the books on eBay to the highest bidder? It feels dirty.
Every ARC I’ve ever received has a few words clearly printed on the back cover, “Uncorrected proofs. Not for sale.” When a publisher sends me a title for review, they’re entrusting me not to distribute it, not to sell it, and not to spoil it. They’re hoping I review, so it’s not to say their action is a favor to me, but the unspoken contract between publisher and reviewer does not include the reviewer making a “profit” off the novel itself, only the words the reviewer writes about it. To break that contract (to profit off the book itself), calls into question all other layers of trust between the two parties. Just as I would argue the publisher requiring a review or influencing the content of the review does the same.
Don’t get me wrong, if my ARC for Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer (sitting beside me this moment) is worth $500 after it becomes a HBO Original Series, I’m selling it. I won’t even feel bad about it. It’s a collectors item at that point, a historical relic. The words have proliferated far and wide, so far in fact that they’ve become part of the cultural lexicon. Winter is coming, and all that.
Many of the novels listed above will not be out for several months. This is significant. It’s hard enough asking readers to pay for books they can steal for free, but it’s even more difficult to ask them to wait for the privilege to pay. Publishers trust reviewers with intellectual property that in some rare cases can be worth millions. We’re trusted not to cut the binding, scan it, and send it to the internet. The readers buying these eBayed copies have no obligation to uphold that bargain.
Above, I spoke of contracts. The contract between author and reader is often discussed by reviewers. It’s vital that an author deliver on what he promises. Reviewers must recognize that we too have a contract with publishers (or authors, for the self-published). Selling ARCs, or finished review copies, is in spirit, if not in reality, violating copyright. I am profiting off a copy not intended for sale. How is that different than making a photocopy copy and selling it?
It’s not. Selling these books makes you a pirate and a thief, nothing more.
So, to the unnamed magazine and employee of said magazine… shame on you. Even if the profits from these sales go to charity, to your bottom line, or to the vacation fund, selling them is wrong. I don’t know how to put it any clearer.