I am a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), which recently sent a e-mail request to its members asking its members to write a guest post for their “Next Decade in Book Culture series.” The question was: Are you using e-galleys? If not, are you ready to make the switch?”
E-galleys are electronic versions of galleys or ARCs (advance reader copy) of books. These are often sent out to reviewers in advance of publication date, hoping that reviews will begin before or not long after the books hit the consumer market. There is something of a debate over them going digital. Certainly they are more cost effective for the publisher, but how many reviewers and review publications accept them?
Naturally, I turned to BiblioBuffet’s contributors for their answers. But let me begin by noting that at BiblioBuffet, the consensus from reviewers on e-galleys is a near-universal “no.” A few books being published now are going straight to e-book (just as some books are now issued as trade paperback originals, a relatively recent development). They will not be issued in any other format. So we at BiblioBuffet will miss those, but we also wonder if doing that is going to knock out a lot of readers as well as reviewers who might otherwise read them.
Our disagreement with only issuing the book in one format, particularly the electronic version, is that it eliminates a portion of the book’s audiences, and I am speaking of both the reviewing and the reading ones. If a book is issued only issued in hardcover, price will eliminate some readers. If it is issued only in trade paperback, publishers might miss those who prefer hardcover or e-book formats. If it is issued solely in mass market paperback, that would eliminate a lot of readers who don’t like the throwaway quality of these books. And if it is issued in e-book format only, and especially in only one version like the Kindle, the non-electronic audience—for whatever reason—is entirely dismissed.
We believe that it is foolish to eliminate certain aspects of your reading audience when readers themselves are not a large portion of the population. Can publishers afford to throw away readers? Can they afford to throw away reviewers?
We at BiblioBuffet are not for the most part using e-galleys, nor do we anticipate doing so in the foreseeable future. We do use online catalogs, which I view as a wonderful thing. They save money, time, and paper, and are easy to update. The only thing I would like to see is publishers sending links to them to reviewers on a regular basis because they know when a new one is out. It’s being pro-active about notifying reviewers, and with a database and e-mail groups it’s a relatively easy thing to do.
There is a site that reviewers can register at and request these electronic review copies—NetGalley. I have tried it. I found it most unsatisfactory. I work on the computer all day. Our publication is online. I read industry news, keep up with readers’ forums, and chat via e-mail—all on the computer. It is a relief when I can turn it off and open up a book with nothing electronic to distract me. It’s a a real mental, physical, and emotional break from that world into the one we call life where reading has always existed.
On the other hand we, as reviewers, are inundated with books. At BiblioBuffet, we hold that the books sent to us, whether ARCs or final versions are not to be profited from. Part of our official policy is that they cannot be sold. Would e-books help alleviate that deluge? As Nicki Leone, Managing Editor, put it:
I’m not against using e-galleys. In fact, ARCs and review galleys were the one thing I could originally see as being ideal for e-reader use, precisely because they are so transient and liable to change. (And because real, dead-tree review copies and galleys become something of a problem for an active reviewer in short order—you get so many of them, you can’t ethically sell them or give them away, it’s hard to destroy them, etc.) But I haven’t adopted the practice yet because e-readers aren’t in my price range and the technology behind e-book formats hasn’t settled into any kind of real standard. Once that happens, though, and once the price of the technology comes down under $100, I’ll probably adopt them. Not for my “real” books I want to own—those have a lasting, permanent presence in my life that electronic media just can’t touch. But for better handling the literally dozens of books I am sent every week—a workable e-reader would be a godsend. And once that happened, then I wouldn’t be adverse to reviewing e-book originals, as long as they met the same editorial standards BiblioBuffet requires of all the books it considers for review.
I also asked our other contributors to weigh in and got these responses:
David Mitchell, who focuses primarily but not exclusively on history, and World War II in particular, was more succinct: “I would not review an e-book unless there were NO bound books available anywhere in the English or French languages. I have tried the Sony Reader, Nook and Kindle. Unless the technology improves materially, I find that I cannot immerse myself in anything on one of those screens.”
Lauren Baratz-Logsted, a prolific children’s and young adult novelist, also has strong feelings that are applicable to reviewers who are also authors: “I’ve never used e-galleys and have no interest in making the switch. I spend all day in front of a computer as it is, writing, and have no wish to read review copies or pleasure reading on yet another electronic screen.”
Author Lev Raphael, is open to the possibility of e-readers but not for reviewing: “I have not been using them yet, and here’s why. I dislike the Kindle, don’t think it’s at all close enough to reading a book. I have, however, liked what I see with the iPad and intend to get the next model, because Apple will have to make one with Flash, HD Video, and a camera. My DroidX has those—why should I buy a reader that does less? I still do like physical galleys and though I can imagine turning to e-books some day, when I purchase the next model of iPad it will primarily be for reading on the road, not for review reading.”
Lindsay Champion, a writer and contributor to various publications, also opposes electronic reading any more than she does: “I spend my entire day staring at screens, and I read traditional books to allow my strained eyes to relax. The last thing I want to do is increase the amount of time I look at a computer, Kindle, or other electronic device. If I am considering a book for review, it may be helpful to check out the e-galley first to see if I’m interested in the writing style and subject matter, but when it comes to sitting down and reading the book, I would prefer to read a traditional, printed copy.”
Australian contributor Gillian Polack is actually the only reviewer who does use e-galleys, and the reason is that she is a historian (going for her second doctorate). “I use quite a few electronic reproductions of historical texts in my research. I just gave Nicki an article where I read all the books from downloaded versions. I think that the accessibility of nineteenth century books through libraries online has been a major factor in me being willing to review using electronic galleys,” she noted. As for the books she reviews:
I review using e-galleys, but I way prefer the print version and will choose it whenever I have that option. I also limit the number of e-galleys I’m prepared to accept in a given time—never more than four a month until they’re more reader friendly. I don’t have a dedicated e-reader—just use my desktop or netbook. The netbook means I can take work with me when I travel and settle down to read a review book on the bus. It’s not perfect by any means and my ideal interface is still with dead trees and rags, but if it means someone will let me see a UK or US book I would like to review and that otherwise I wouldn’t even be able to buy locally after release, then I’ll say “yes, please.” In my current to-be-reviewed pile I have five paper books (three academic, two SF) and one e-book. This is a good ratio.
Pete Croatto, who is a longtime reviewer and now focuses on sports books for BiblioBuffet, noted: “Would have to agree with everyone else. I find that I read a book with more depth and care than what’s on a screen. In fact, Nicholas Carr in The Shallows pretty much says as much. Plus, I find that a relationship with a book—whether it’s a galley, hardcover, whatever—is one that’s pretty intimate. And that’s one I’d like to maintain.”
For me, the founder and editor-in-chief of BiblioBuffet, I can say I was one of the earliest sign-ups with NetGalley. But I have no intention of printing out books and sitting down with unbound pages. And while I have had the opportunity to see, admire, and try both a Kindle and the iPad, and I like both, I have no interest in reading on another screen. It’s possible I might do it if I traveled a lot. Even if I did I doubt I would buy fewer books than I do now. It’s important to me to have them in my home. And it’s equally important to have the books I do review in bound editions. I find it easier to make notes, to mark passages, and to remember when I can flip through pages, make mental connections, and check things. (Yes, I realize e-readers can do all these things too, but having done it this way for so long I have to say that practice makes perfect.) But the primary reason I will not review e-galleys is that I want to get away from screens—and temptations like e-mail—when I can.
In addition to our reviewers, our audience seems to favor books over e-books too. But the fact that many of the books are available in both formats is a plus since an enthusiastic review of a good book gives interested readers a choice of format based on their preference—and giving readers what they want is key. To me, that means more choices, not fewer. But as far as our reviewers go? At BiblioBuffet, e-books, whether original or just another version of the paper book, will not be eligible for review consideration. Not now, and probably not for a long time. But we’re not worried. Given what Bowker said about the number of traditional books published in 2009, we have a long way to go before we run out of review possibilities.
And if all that is not a good enough reason to stick to books rather than electronic gadgets, there’s this from writer Diane Lefer:
Several years ago–and this is a warning to all you writers out there–I lost my eyesight for eight months when too much staring at the screen made all the focusing muscles go slack. When I could read, write, and drive again, I began to limit my hours at the screen. This spring, when my right eye started going blurry, I panicked. This time around, the doctor says my muscles are physically fine, but my brain is no longer communicating properly with my right eye. My left eye is good. I limit my hours at the computer. I function.
There really is life and health outside the virtual world. Let’s make sure we keep our hands and eyes as healthy as our minds.