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.
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).