Michaeline: Bujold’s eARC, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (also: What’s an eARC?)

a Holliday Junction -- some sort of DNA thing. In four colors. Should be three for this book.

Genetic manipulation is a little bit scary — if we set it 800 years in the future, it’s a little easier to look at.

First, the biggest news of my week. On October 21, 2015, Lois McMaster Bujold’s new book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, went up for sale as an eARC over on Baen.com (her publisher’s website here).

GJ&RQ is a wonderful book. If you love the Vorkosigan series, I heartily recommend it. If you haven’t sampled the Vorkosigan series yet, I suggest you start at the start with Cordelia’s Honor (an omnibus of Shards of Honor and Barrayar) and work your way through the entire saga. Not because it’s necessary, per se, but because you’ll be able to really appreciate Bujold’s fine sense of nuance. She’s a master of backstory, of showing how past events continue to echo throughout a life. On the one hand, the parts of GJ&RQ add up to a beautiful wholeness in a territory we don’t see much in either speculative fiction nor romance. But when you know what came before, you get something even bigger than the book in your computer files. You get a life. A life that isn’t finished at 76 by any means.

But, more about that in a future review. What I wanted to mention is that for us as writers, the eARC system is . . . kind of weird. But it may be some kind of wonderful.

What’s an eARC, anyway? Well, ARC stands for Advanced Reader Copy, and was traditionally unproofed books printed off in small batches and sent to reviewers of various sorts. It was a marketing tool to get the review process started, and thereby help major bookstores choose which books to buy. An eARC is a digital copy of these unproofed books.

I first heard about eARCs when Baen got the bright idea to make these eARCs available for sale to anyone who could jump the electronic hoops of having a computer and being able to commit eCommerce. (More solid details about when they began, and Baen’s take on why.) (More details from Baen Publishing, here.)

I suffered through my first Bujold eARC because I didn’t have the technological confidence to order one. I had to drop out of my mailing list to avoid (well-labelled and otherwise) spoilers, and the general fizziness of fans given a treat that I couldn’t (wouldn’t) take part in yet.

This time, I had the space on my computer, and both my and Baen’s experience in eCommerce had advanced significantly. But, it was still a little weird. Bujold herself wasn’t sure when the eARC was going to drop. She was not smothering a November release date suggested by a fan, but she was also not hinting that we should get our credit cards dusted off, either.

And then, in the middle of the night my time, a fan posted that it was up. It was up! The cry went up around the list, and by the time I’d woken up, there were already subject lines containing the filter tag SP: for spoiler. It was up!

But isn’t that weird? Most of the time with a published book, there’s a long build of marketing, and everyone knows exactly when the book is coming – because if many people buy the book in the first days, the book could get on important bestsellers lists which further boost sales as more people hear about it.

This is a different model. I suspect it’s largely fanatic fans willing to spend twice the money they’d pay for a paperback to read a book that lacks the final proofreading. I know that I, and many other people on my list, will wind up buying the hardcover book, as well. (In fact, many are already signed up for pre-ordering. So, I don’t know if the eARC directly increases the number of pre-orders, which boosts the first-day sales numbers, I assume.) What’s this eARC doing, besides providing fan service?

I’ve heard of two things. First, amongst the many purchasers, you probably have at least a dozen free proofreaders who will shoot an email off to Baen or Bujold with a list of typos they found. (This is contradicted by Baen’s official stance, but I’ve heard of it happening.) Second, you have a large pool of reviewers – the majority of whom are very favorably disposed to the author. They are encouraged to post online reviews in various venues. And if the book is good, the word of mouth is going to be good, too.

Famous illustration of the chess piece, the Red queen, dragging Alice in Wonderland through a scene.

The poor Barrayarans have to adapt as fast as they can just to stay still. The Red Queen drags them along in her wake.

And let’s face it. This book is great. Bujold knows how to plot. She writes very cleanly, so typos and klunks are not a problem at her eARC stage. And oh, my goodness, the memories of past books, so deftly evoked . . . . We’re not talking about space battles, at least I’m not, and many of my fellow fans are not. We’re talking about love and marriage, about career and family, about making choices for personal happiness for both ourselves and others, and how to multiply that happiness and take it to the next power by loving others, trusting others, and encouraging others as we would be done to ourselves. Those are memories made dramatic in Bujold’s scenes, and made long-term by the way we can apply them to our own lives. Well worth the price of admission: the $15 for an eARC.

And now, I come down from good-book-high with a solid thunk. I’m interested in the business aspects of this. Bujold mentioned on the list that authors get a good cut of the eARC profits. Have you seen this model being used in the romance genre (or anywhere besides Baen?) I found a 2010 blogpost by John Scalzi here (the comments are insightful, too, especially down near the bottom). Would love to see what you have to say in the comments (and I think I’m back from my commenting hiatus. My family emergency is still a little unresolved, but it’s not in a terrible place, thanks to the modern miracle of antibiotics and my sister holding down the fort).

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Bujold’s eARC, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (also: What’s an eARC?)

  1. Welcome back, Micki, and very glad to hear that your family emergency is resolving if not resolved.

    Thank you for such an interesting start to the day! I think ARCs have become a different game since John Scalzi wrote that blog post. I’m sure there are still physical ARCs, and if book publicists want quotes or reviews from big names, they would do well to make it as easy as possible for said Big Names to read the book, and that would include asking them which format they’d prefer. An alternative or complementary approach these days uses the interwebs to generate pre-publication reviews and word-of-mouth buzz from ordinary readers and book bloggers. It’s about reach and volume, and as the ARCs are offered free, I’m pretty sure it’s only possible (economically and logistically) in e-format. If you’d like to know more, check out NetGalley https://www.netgalley.com. You’d be surprised at the books one can find there!

    Baen and Bujold appear to have gone one better than NetGalley – they’re actually charging Bujold’s die-hard fan base for the privilege of buying ARCs which the purchasers will then review and discuss and squee over, making a huge buzz before the official release of the book – and like you, they’ll probably still buy the published book as well. The upside of charging for the ARC, from a fan point of view, is that anyone who is prepared to pay can join the party. That means the ARCs will go to readers who are already enthusiastic about the author, instead of readers who’d like a free book, and there’s a positive feeling of insider-ship instead of a feeling of rejection among those fans who would have loved a free ARC but didn’t have sufficient marketing clout to get one. With free ARCs at sites like NetGalley, you have to request a copy, and if you’re not a librarian, or a book blogger with lots of followers, you may not be selected for the most popular books, however much you love the author.

    Do Baen take this approach for many authors? I can imagine it would work perfectly for an author with a large and committed readership (like Bujold, good for her!), but I would think the writers who could pull this off are few and far between.

    • I think they do; depends on how many you consider many. I see at least seven for sale right now.

      (-: I also suspect that some of their other authors may not work as cleanly as Bujold does, considering the “don’t send us typos” at the top of their info about eARCs page. So, I’m not sure how “good” you have to be to be put in the eARC list.

      I don’t know if you need a large readership for this, but I think it would work best for a committed readership with fans who like to talk things up. Baen has been very smart about building a community. I used to frequent the Miles to Go section of Baen’s Bar (basically, their author online forums). The fans talked with each other, and Lois would drop by regularly. They have had some spectacular crashes, and I lost touch with them during one of those crashes. But anyway, Baen gives readers plenty of opportunity to discuss.

      It’s really a great way to add depth to a book — being able to talk with others about it, and hearing the smart opinions about your favorite author’s books. I’ve learned so much in the various Bujold forums I’ve hung out at.

      I think that training of talking about a book also makes for a readership that can leave a decent review on Goodreads or one of the chain electronic bookstores.

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