Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"Advance review copy: Not for resale" --- my ass

Rosina Lippi points to an irate discussion at a romance novel fansite called "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books": a couple of authors are mad that reviewers are reselling the free "advance review copies" that authors send them.

My reaction: get real, control freaks. Authors have no legal standing whatsoever for preventing reviewers from reselling advance review copies --- as authors and publishers know perfectly well, otherwise they'd be tracking down these reviewers and suing them. An advance review copy is a gift, i.e. a transfer of property, not a license for use. If providers of review copies were serious about controlling redistribution, they would do what people do when they really want to control how something is used, and make the reviewers sign a contract before mailing them copies. And no, a notice inside the book saying "NOT FOR RESALE" does not qualify as a contract, for any number of reasons that a lawyer could explain to you in great detail.

OK, so authors have no legal standing for preventing resale of advance review copies. What about the reviewer's ethical obligations?

My reaction: What ethical obligations? The review copy showed up one day in the reviewer's mailbox. The reviewer didn't ask for it, and certainly didn't promise to engage in any particular behavior with respect to it. If the reviewer doesn't feel like keeping it, then she has exactly the same ethical obligation towards the book as she does towards a supermarket circular or a credit card offer or any other piece of unsolicited junk mail that appears in her mailbox. It so happens that, unlike most junk mail, some advance review copies have economic value, and can be disposed of by selling on eBay, rather than by tossing into the shredder or writing "RETURN TO SENDER" on the package and dropping it in the mailbox. More power to the reviewer.

Advance review copies are gifts. The recipient of a gift has no particular obligations w.r.t. the giver. That is the nature of a gift. And, in fact, authors want advance review copies to be gifts. They are quite happy to take advantage of the properties of gift-giving, such as the fact that gift-giving does not require prior consent or up-front costs for the reviewer. An author who requires reviewers to pay for copies or to sign contracts isn't going to get very many reviews, so authors choose the regime of gift-giving rather than the regime of market exchange or contractual negotiation. The authors complaining at SB/TB, having chosen gift-giving because of certain advantages it affords, are now upset because other consequences of gift-giving are biting them in the ass. Tough cookies, bitches. There are good reasons that unsolicited gifts don't come with ethical obligations attached.

Now, I wouldn't be posting about this at all, except that it strikes me that there's a common thread running between the notion that authors have a right to control redistribution of advance review copies, and the notion that record companies have a right to tell you what devices you're allowed to play your music on, and the notion that the guardians of Nabokov's estate have the right to prevent the publication of Lo's Diary. In all these cases, somebody holds an intellectual property right in a piece of information, and somehow believes that this entitles him/her to essentially unlimited control over what happens to any embodiment of that information. There's a deeply vainglorious sense of entitlement here that just makes me angry.

Every act of creativity draws from a rich oceanic well of human culture and achievement, built up over thousands of years, that the creator never asked permission to use. Most of the people who shaped and transmitted that culture are dead and anonymous and were never compensated for their role in building that culture: retelling the folk tales that populate our cultural subconscious, or inventing the vivid turns of phrase that give our language its flavor, or keeping the memory of certain arts and crafts alive by practicing them. For most of these people, creativity was an inevitable corollary of being alive, not a professional activity for which they needed to be compensated. And you come along, draw up a bucket from this well, and use that to invent one more story, write one more song, draw one more picture, and all of a sudden you think that you have a moral right to impinge arbitrarily on the property rights of everyone else in the world, now and forever? Step off, son. Redistribution of legally acquired copies, fair use, and production of substantially transformative derivative works are all perfectly justified activities. Your feelings may be hurt, or you may make less money than you would if your rights were unlimited, or you may be aesthetically offended, but none of these give you moral standing to stop other people's exercise of their rights.


  1. Just for the record, my personal objection is limited to ARCs being sold before the pub date. After that, I have no objection but a point to make.

    It's your right to buy books/music in whatever format pleases you. Got a thing for ARCs, go to it. Make a career out of finding the cheapest possible used copy of the latest book by your favorite author? Nobody can stop you.

    But people who get their books this way should remember that an author or artist is dependent on royalties, and royalties only get paid once, with the first sale (or not at all, with an ARC). It's common sense to make an effort, at least once in a while, to support the person whose work you enjoy. So they can keep doing what it is that keeps you coming back.

  2. Also for the record, I don't know of any books on my shelves that are ARCs, although there are a good number that I bought used. Of course, the Authors Guild also tried to stop Amazon from offering used books alongside new ones, so maybe that's objectionable too.

    If an author wants to stop ARCs from being sold before the publication date, then the author should get the reviewer to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Of course, that won't happen, for the reasons I describe above. At some point you need to give up and accept that you don't have any control, and that this is part of the bargain you have struck by giving away review copies.

    Finally, I find it hard to believe that ARC resale has much impact on the market for a book. A hardcover must sell on the order of tens of thousands of copies in order to turn a profit. As I understand the book business, no more than a couple hundred ARCs are printed for a typical book, and often fewer. These copies cost the publisher more to print than a regular book, but each copy substitutes for a plain old book sale. Not every ARC gets resold, so you're talking about a few dozen "lost" book sales, even under the pessimistic assumption that all ARC buyers elect not to buy the final printing. The anger at ARC resale is not economically rational, and would be better directed at any number of other ridiculous features of the book industry that have a much bigger economic impact.

  3. When hardback sales of tech books number in the several thousand of royalties, and when the cost of promotional copies is frequently deducted from royalties, it can be a big deal when people are reselling. Presumably, after the 100 or 200 advance copies are sold, the aftermarket sales will return to normal. But for technical esoteric titles, that can take a long time to this to happen.

    I wrote about the ethical considerations of reselling review copies a few years ago in my share the music essay : "If a label gives out promotional freebies and forbids you to resell them, don't do it! By reselling promotional material, you are essentially letting yourself be bribed. This is unpleasant advice; I know how unrewarding the reviewing profession can be. But accepting gifts implicitly obligates you to give something in return. (To understand why reciprocity influences behavior, read Robert B. Cialdini's book Influence: The Art of Persuasion). A more honest way to handle the "promotional copy dilemma" is to rely on mp3's instead of CD's for previewing artists. Perhaps promotional CD's are simply a convenience, but remember that it's just another bit of overhead that major labels swallow up (and unsigned artists can barely afford). If you accept promotional CD's, donate them to a library or an organization where many people can access them for free."

    As an aside, let me say I receive review copies from technical publishers quite often. I used to review books once upon a time, but I haven't done it in a while, and I've written these publishers several times asking them to no longer send me stuff. But they still keep coming. And you know, it's harder to donate books than you'd think. My city library refuses to accept donations of brand new books, especially if they are on esoteric stuff like haptics, solaris, etc.. It can be a real chore to get rid of these reviews; why not sell them?