#BookReview: Housewife Chronicles 2 by Jennifer Snow

Fun Middle Ground, This Time With Interesting Meta-Commentary. When I wrote my review for the first book in this series last October, I mentioned that it was a “light-ish, women’s fiction level mystery”, and that holds true here as well. Maybe a touch more suspensful/ action oriented than a typical women’s fiction book, though nowhere near enough to come into the actual suspense/ thriller genres. And funny (and at times outright hilarious), yet ultimately too serious to be a true comedy. Which ultimately makes this series a *great* “middle ground” of sorts between Snow’s bubblegum/ Hallmarkie romances and her dark-as-3AM JM Winchester persona. All of which speaks to just how talented a storyteller she is. And yet here we get enough meta-commentary about the publishing world and authors’ lives that one begins to question things. 😀 Truly a great tale here, again excellently told, and I for one can’t wait to see what these housewives manage to get wrapped up in next. Very much recommended.

This review of Housewife Chronicles 2 by Jennifer Snow was originally written on July 27, 2021.

Book Outrage In The Era of Self Publishing

Over the last couple of weeks, a couple of different outrages have been ravaging the book world. In one, a romance publisher that published predominantly non-white authors shut its doors claiming low sales, while a particular seller claims that sales of non-white authors’ books account for 60% of its bestsellers. In the other, at least one author is complaining about the amount of physical bookstore shelf space dedicated to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

These controversies wouldn’t normally seem to be linked, but in the era of self publishing they most certainly are.

In the era of self publishing and in the new freelance economy, quite honestly the Mega Publishers don’t have the stranglehold on the market they once did. There is no doubt that they still hold considerable sway, I’m not denying that reality at all. I am simply noting that in this new era, one does not have to possess the ability to churn out hundreds of thousands of printed books and distribute them to a worldwide network of physical stores to be able to publish a book and have it do well enough to support an author.

Indeed, in my near decade of being Kindle exclusive, I have read literally hundreds of books – over 400 verified books in just the last 3.25 years alone. While I do not keep track of the actual publisher of the books I read, I can tell you from having run experiments trying to find them in my local brick and mortar stores that such stores normally only carry about 10% of the books I’ve read. Using the 400 number, that means that I’ve read 360 books in 3.25 years that you will never find on a shelf of a physical bookstore. And since my average lifetime rating on Goodreads is around 4.8 stars, it is rare that I find a book I don’t like. So clearly there are many quality books out there that don’t find themselves on the shelves of at least the physical bookstores I have checked.

But what about the actual controversies? Should publishers make a concerted effort to publish minority books or books featuring minorities on the covers? Should physical stores devote less space to legendary authors in order to give a wider range of authors a chance?

I’m not going to directly answer those questions, as I think they are actually irrelevant.

You see, in the Era of Self Publishing, there are actually better questions to ask:

If I see a particular group not being served well enough, is there a chance to make money myself by serving that group? If I see a particular small subset of authors dominating a particular space, is there a way to make money by highlighting other authors in other spaces?

Ultimately, for authors and publishers in particular, the book business is indeed a business. Yes, you want to create things you are proud of, but you also want to be able to feed your family with the money you earn from people paying for your creation. And so that means that you have to find ways to do that – which is why these controversies exist. The thought there is that these authors are owed these publishers or shelf space.

Instead, why don’t we seek out alternatives? Invest in or create new publishers that serve these particular niches. Invest in or create new marketing companies to push these books just as hard as the Mega Publishers’ internal marketing personnel do. Figure out exactly how they operate – and it isn’t exactly a secret – and figure out ways to undercut and oversell them. Any elephant can be eaten one bite at a time, no matter how big or ornery it is.

And the Era of Self Publishing, the freelance economy, make all of this possible.

We see it every day. 20 years ago, the taxi cab companies were the only real way to get around many urban areas. Getting in with them was a pain, but nearly instantly rewarding. Now with the rise of Uber, Lyft, and others, far more people can provide cabbie services far more effectively… and the cabbie companies of old are falling.

Why can’t the same thing happen to the Mega Publishers? Are authors any less creative than Uber drivers? Can we not find some way to undercut the Megas?

Wait a minute. What if I as an Autistic began publishing Autistic authors via Kindle Direct Publishing (which now includes CreateSpace for actual printing of physical books)? Could I get an author published that a Mega might never take a risk on? Oh yeah, I’ve been doing that far longer than I’ve been operating this site, and almost longer than I’ve been reviewing books. And I’m open to taking on more authors. I’m open to showing you what I know so that you can serve your community just as I serve mine. I relish the opportunity to help others – and to compete with them. There is more than enough money to be had in the book space for all of us, there is no real reason to hoard knowledge or opportunity.

And there is no reason for outrage that someone else isn’t doing something that you can do for yourself with a little hard work.

The Business of Advance Review Copies

In the next few days, I am going to write an article with my answer to the age old question: “How can I get an ARC?”.

But in thinking about my answer to that question, I realized that there is a more critical topic that needs to be discussed before we can intelligently look at how to obtain an ARC – “What are ARCs and why do they exist?”

Quite simply, Advance Review Copies are the literary equivalent of an early screening of a movie – they exist as part of a marketing strategy to build word of mouth (aka “buzz”) about a particular book in the days/ weeks/ sometimes even months before its release. But the goal is always pretty obvious: To sell more books. Period.

It doesn’t matter if a particular author just wants to be published at all and would maybe like to make enough money from their book to buy a Nintendo Switch or if the author in question is a “mega/ mega” – has a mega contract with a major publishing house. At the end of the day, writing books is a business and it is about making money. Yes, authors by their nature are very creative people. And particularly at the Indie level, they tend to be almost Renaissance People with how many different artistic abilities they have to have, since they themselves do *every* job that a major publishing house can farm off to dozens or potentially even hundreds of people. But at the end of the day, the goal is always the same: to sell this product – in this case, books – to make money. And the money isn’t just for the author, even on the indie level. While the author and their family are important enough, many times authors will realize that they are simply not capable of being a master of all things, even if they have the ability to do all things – which not all authors have to begin with. So an entire industry of assistants and editors and cover designers and marketers exists even in the indie realm, though obviously with a fair degree more independence and a fair degree more reliance on individual books selling particularly well.

There are many components to making a book stand out. It needs a compelling story, obviously – but there are many compelling stories that you will never hear of. It needs a solid, eye catching and mind engaging title – but there again, there are books with such titles that do not get the attention of others with lesser titles. It needs to be from an author that a reader recognizes – but how do you get this recognition without selling more books? It needs a compelling cover, preferably one that relates to the book in some way – but again, other books have sold well with little more than the title and author name in black ink on a white background. Once all of these factors draw a reader to at least glance at the book’s description, that discription needs to compel them to buy the book if the other things didn’t quite get them to do so.

And while all of these are important, there is one step in there that is specifically where Advance Reader Copies come in: what the marketing people call “brand recognition”. Maybe it is just the author – which is excellent and can lead to major sales in and of itself. (Looking at you, Stephen King, Lee Child, Nicholas Sparks, among many, many others.) Sometimes it is just the title – “1984” is arguably more well known than “written by George Orwell”.

In order to build this “brand recognition”, businesses – not just authors, but businesses generally – are often willing to incur small, short duration losses if they can genuinely expect these losses to lead to larger gains in the mid to long term than would be possible without these losses. The business people even have a term for this: “loss leaders”. The entire definition of the concept is simply “a product sold at a loss to attract customers”.

Which is exactly what an ARC is – literally giving a book away for free in the hope that it will attract many more paying customers. And this is the very reason ARC etiquette is so very important – if you don’t leave the review or if you share the ARC with someone without permission, you are cutting into the very reason you as an ARC reader exist. And if it ever gets to the point where ARCs stop leading to higher sales in the long run because of poor etiquette on the part of ARC readers, it will no longer make business sense to offer ARCs at all.

On the other side, of course, are the Lee Childs and Stephen Kings and such who already have such brand recognition that loss leaders are far less critical, and therefore can be far more tightly constrained so as to maximize profits. (Though even Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher book was on NetGalley for ARC copies, though I didn’t have the courage to apply for it, anticipating the very scenario where such ARCs were only authorized for the biggest players in the review side of the business.)

Again, authors make money by *selling* books, not by giving them away… but Amazon and other retailers also trigger internal promotion mechanisms based on a critical mass of reviews, and it is via this very “priming the pump” mechanism that ARCs become loss leaders.

If a particular book can get X number of reviews in Y period – whatever those numbers are, and I don’t think Amazon actually releases them, for somewhat obvious reasons – then Amazon, one of the most powerful retailers on the planet today, becomes at least somewhat of an ally in helping the publishing agents to sell books. And often the best way to hit that target is to give away ideally exactly that number of ARCs and have every single person that receives one leave a review within the time period needed. But unfortunately not everyone can be trusted, and unfortunately far too many break the (usually implicit, but I see becoming explicit more and more often these days) ARC “contract”. So publishing agents have to have ways of finding out how sincere and trustworthy you are, and that is the very subject of the next post.

So there you have it – a brief look at the business side of ARCs. Next time, we look at ARCs from the intersection of the business and the reader and explain some ideas of how and why certain actions can help a reader be a better candidate to receive ARCs – to become a loss leader – while other actions may make a particular reader a less desirable candidate.

The Ethics of Sharing Advance Reader Copies

Last month, I wrote about a troubling trend I’ve been made aware of recently among Advance Reader Copy (ARC) readers. Continuing discussions around ARCs, mostly with fellow ARC readers this time, has revealed another troubling topic.

Specifically, the question has come up in multiple discussions on different walls and groups regarding what to do with ARC copies once you are done with them and in particular whether it is acceptable to share them.

The very first time an author gave me a book – I don’t even remember if it was an actual ARC or not – was several years ago now. I had been reading this author for several years already and had interacted online with them for at least a few of them, and had been absolutely devouring a particular series. But I was unexpectedly let go from my job – just a couple of weeks before the new book in the series came out. This author was kind enough to send me a copy of the book at their own expense, even the shipping. But they specifically told me that I was to never give the book to anyone else.

Thus, my first “ARC” came with explicit instructions.

Over the years, I would become more active with more ARC work for more authors, and at least for me it was always understood implicitly that these ARCs were never to be shared without explicit permission from the person who gave them to me. It honestly got to the level that I just assumed everyone understood this, particularly anyone who accepts ARCs.

But these recent discussions have revealed that many people do not know, either from not being told, not thinking about it, or actively avoiding finding out. Some think that it is acceptable to give the books to just a single other person. Others think it is acceptable to donate the ARC to a library, be it public or church. Still others go so far as to think it is ok to actively sell these ARCs to used bookstores.

Dear reader, let me be explicitly clear: To my understanding of the implicit contract of accepting an ARC, you have exactly two duties:

  1. Leave an honest review in open book review forums. Consult the person who gives you the ARC for specifics, but generally at least Amazon and/ or Goodreads.
  2. Keep the ARC to yourself. Do not ever pass it to anyone else without explicit authorization from the publishing agent (author and/ or publisher).

To violate either of these two basic rules is, to put it bluntly, theft.

I dealt with the first case in the post last month.

In the case of the second rule, you are stealing from them via denying them the sale that would occur if whoever you give the book to were forced to instead buy it from the author. That is a bit more concrete case of theft than the first – no longer are we talking theoretical sales, now we have discrete persons to point to. *That* person would have been a sale had you not given the book away without permission.

But Jeff, what about second hand sales? Don’t I have a right to sell any book I have? NO! In at least some countries (including the US, where I am based), you do in fact have a right to sell any book *that you purchase* to anyone you so choose, via yard sale, giving it to a library, selling it to a used bookstore, or anywhere else. To my knowledge, the legislative acts that permit this – and there are pros and cons to even this system – do NOT cover ARCs. But I could potentially be wrong on that point, in which case I hope a lawyer familiar with literary legal issues will chime in at some point. HOWEVER, even if it is “legal” under the legislative acts, that does NOT make it ethically correct, and in that sense “theft” is a correct term regardless of specific legislative acts.

But now let us turn to what can be done about this phenomenon?

For one, I think we can have these conversations where we illuminate what is happening and why it is wrong.

For two, I think authors can be explicit when giving ARCs, even if just the first time. Such as this statement that was on the signup form for an ARC group I applied for just this morning:

ARC Non Disclosure Agreement: By clicking ‘YES’ to request an Advanced Review Copy of any book by [Author] you are acknowledging that the ARC is copyrighted material protected by [Author’s country] and International copyright laws. Furthermore, by accepting an Advanced Review Copy of any book by [Author], you agree that you will not distribute, copy or share your advanced copy to or with any person or entity without prior written consent from [Author]. If it is discovered that you have violated this agreement, [Author] reserves all legal rights available to [Author pronoun], including pursuing a lawsuit for breach of contract which may claim damages including, but not limited to, lost profits caused by the violating distribution.

And maybe we can re-iterate these points from time to time in ARC oriented groups, just as many corporations have ongoing training for employees just to remind them of things they already know.

These issues have been shocking to me to discover – maybe I’m just too much of a goody two shoes at times. But by working together, we, the people of the written word, can work to put an end to them.

And no matter what, always remember:

Never give away an ARC without explicit permission to do so from the publishing agent.

The Troubling Trend with ARC Readers

As the end of the year (and the holiday season) approaches, I’m noticing authors asking for reviews more than normal- which they tend to do at this time of year, as more and newer reviews tend to kick AI algorithms at various retail/ recommendation sites into gear.

And that is all well and good, but I’ve also become much more involved as an ARC reader this year, branching out from doing it consistently for one author to joining a few different ARC programs for various publishers, genres, and general (NetGalley). And it is within this ARC work that I’ve been noticing a troubling trend over the last few weeks in particular, though I’ve seen evidence of it literally for years.

That trend?

People who will receive an Advance Reader Copy from an author or publisher with the understanding that the person will read it and leave a review of the book, with most authors and publishers desiring the review to be left on release day or week… and then not leave a review.

Now, the various “publishing agents” (authors, publishers, and anyone else giving out ARCs) will usually try to gently remind people to leave the reviews and couch it in conciliatory language such as “Maybe you got busy or forgot, but could you please leave your review this week” or some such. Others are quicker to remove the reader from the ARC program.

But here, on this blog today, I want to speak to these readers a bit directly:
Continue reading “The Troubling Trend with ARC Readers”