ARC Book Review Etiquette

At the end of last week a 3.5-year-old blog post made fresh rounds on Twitter. It prompted me to wonder about ARC book review etiquette and what that means to me versus what it might mean to others.

In the circulating blog post, the author provided suggestions about what to do if one finds one cannot review an ARC (advanced review copy) of a book. My personal philosophy about reviewing ARCs generally aligns fairly similarly with this blogger. However, this person also alleged that not reviewing an ARC amounts to theft of the ARC. In short, I agree with this person on some points, but not on others.

So, here I am, looking at ARC book review etiquette. Before I launch into the thick of it, please understand that much of what I wrote is personal opinion. I try to hold myself to it, but others may not feel it’s the correct course of action for them. I also am not perfect all of the time with my own philosophies, and I’ve learned to give myself grace. However, I recommend that reviewers consider and understand that there are some basic rules of etiquette in life. And those “rules” are perhaps good to apply to establishing and maintaining relationships. This includes for the book review world.

In this post I share my opinions on what is an ARC review commitment and why it’s a good idea to follow through on them. I also discuss why it’s not the end of the world to not leave an ARC review. Lastly, I discuss why I don’t believe it’s theft if the receiver of an ARC does not leave a review. This is not a post about book review etiquette with respect to style and faux pas, as Nicole described here. Rather, I provide, for consideration, the positives and negatives of leaving or not leaving ARC reviews.

Acquiring ARCs

There are several outlets through which a reviewer can receive an ARC of a book. If you’re reading this, you probably already know how this publicity circuit works. Many reviewers and librarians use conglomerate sites like NetGalley or Edelweiss. On these sites publishers list upcoming releases. A reviewer can request an ARC book and the publisher will eventually accept or reject one’s request. Reviewers will sometimes approach an author, typically one who self publishes, for an ARC, or even a published copy of a book. The reverse can also occur whereby an author asks a reviewer if they want a copy of a book in exchange for a review.

With respect to sites like NetGalley and Edelweiss, when a publisher accepts a reviewer’s request, it’s with the understanding that the requester will submit a book review on the site. Generally, the publisher wants the review before or by the publication date. Similarly, when a reviewer and author interact directly, my understanding is they typically agree on some time frame within which a reviewer will read and review the book. However, this is not always the case.

I have both witnessed conversations about and been part of a situation where an author gave a free copy of a book with no discussion of wanting a review. In this latter scenario, the area is quite grey about whether to leave a review because there is no stated review agreement. I discuss this situation later. In many situations, though, I think, broadly, that if a publisher or author provide a free copy of a book, then they would like to eventually see a review.

Committing to an ARC Book Review

After a publisher approves one’s request, or a reviewer and author decide on a timeline, one has essentially made a commitment to write a review. Hold on to this thought because I can already feel some clamoring with rebuttals. Keep reading.

Why It’s Beneficial to Complete Review Commitments

My personal philosophy on ARC book review etiquette is to review a book before or on its publication date. This also happens to be when most publishers prefer a reader leave their reviews. There are several reasons why I choose to follow this. The first is that I initiated this commitment. Unless a publisher or author sends an ARC/book unprompted to the reviewer, requests are very driven by the reader/reviewer. It is a conscious decision to hit the request button or to direct message an author for a copy of their book. Even a publisher’s auto-approved list of reviewers leaves it in the hands of the reviewer whether or not to request a copy. (At least, that’s how it works with the one I’m on.)

Another reason I stick with the publisher’s preferred timing is that it allows me to present myself as a reliable and consistent reviewer. NetGalley’s website states that, “Publishers tend to approve requests from members who have a history of providing meaningful feedback for books they’ve accessed, and who can demonstrate their reach as an early influencer or reviewer.” I interpret this to mean that a reviewer will receive more request approvals if they consistently complete their commitments. Moreover, it seems early reviews are important to the publishers. This means, to me, that those who abide by a publisher’s preferences for early reviews will more consistently receive ARC request approvals. In summary, this establishes a positive reviewer-publisher relationship.

Additionally, reviewing early or by a publication date helps me with time management. I bet many of us ARC reviewers initially made (and perhaps still do) the mistake of going on a requesting spree when we first joined NetGalley. After this experience I learned to note upcoming publication dates and request accordingly. That is, now I request only ARCs for which I’m very interested and I make sure to space those requests out based on their publication dates.

However, the caveat here is self control. We readers love to share our experiences with others and spread awareness of great books. So naturally we get excited and accidentally overcommit ourselves. It happens to the best of us. If one is in this situation, Kal at Reader Voracious has some excellent suggestions on how to manage ARC stress.

Why It’s Not the End of the World to Not Leave a Review

Best Laid Plans Can Change

To continue with the over commitment thread, it’s not the end of the world if a reviewer doesn’t leave a review on NetGalley by the publication date. Often reviewers request a book on NetGalley months in advance. Sometimes the publishers approve those requests with sufficient time for a reader to review the ARC. And still there are times when a publisher lets a request idle. This can occur for literal months before approving it one month prior to publication, or flat out mass rejecting them. (Ask me how I know. I had this happen to me.)

What I’m trying to say is that some of us reviewers try to coordinate our ARC requests. We know that we’ll receive rejections as well as approvals. So if some requests have been sitting idle in NetGalley for months, we basically write that one off and request a new one. (The withdraw request feature is a godsend feature now, but doesn’t help if it’s an ARC we really want to read, yet the publisher sits idle on request decisions.) Or we read from our backlist or plan other reads while we wait. What I’m trying to say is that I, and probably others, try to space out requests accordingly. But best laid plans don’t always come to fruition and so we adjust to the situation. In this case it might mean submitting a review later than we wanted to.

Life Happens

Next up is the old adage, “life happens.” ARC reviewers can’t predict what will happen in the future. This includes everything from publishers’ request decisions to personal work load to personal health to everything in between that throws a wrench in plans. Give yourself grace when this happens. “Repaying” a $20-$30 book by providing hours of free labor worth more than said book (at a minimum, not to mention potential web domain fees, etc.) is not more important than tending to your personal life.

This may not feel easy to accept or do, because a reviewer wants to read and boost authors, but “real life” commitments are more important. If “real life” events persistently and continuously interrupt reviewing commitments, then it might be in an ARC reviewer’s best interest to abstain from requesting more ARCs for the time being. But no one can force an ARC reviewer to stop requesting books. As for myself, I know it would add to my mental strain to continue to receive approvals if I knew in the near term I couldn’t review them before or by the publication date.

Cost of ARCs

While I’m not in the publishing industry and don’t know this for a fact, I assume traditional publishers budget for ARCs. I imagine they have an idea of how many reviews they’ll likely receive for a certain amount of ARCs they send out. It also seems to me that it’s more cost effective (i.e., cheaper) for publishers to provide ARCs than to pay hundreds of reviewers for their time spent reading and reviewing. My guess is this is especially plausible if most ARCs are e-books rather than physical copies. If I chose to be cynical (or realistic?) about it, perhaps publishers also rely on the psychology of commitment. That is, they hope a reader’s perceived loyalty to an author/publisher and honor to review “on time” will drive the return of reviews.

With direct reviewer-author agreements, I feel the above still broadly applies, though perhaps less so with respect to the marketing budget. If something unexpected arises, I feel it’s courteous to let the author know the review will be late. I don’t feel this is as imperative on NetGalley because the relationship between a reviewer and publisher is very impersonal. And the publisher deals with dozens or hundreds of reviews at a time.

In short, it’s always good to be considerate of the other party’s expectations. I think most authors are understanding. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that if a reviewer consistently reviews late and there’s no communication about it, then it shouldn’t be wholly unexpected to find that impacts future opportunities. To be frank, don’t underestimate the potential for a whisper network. This isn’t a threat, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such a network exists, both for reviewer recommendations or warnings.

Late Reviews Matter

Lastly, a late review still matters. Although it seems publishers prefer to see reviews prior to or by a publication date, late reviews have value. That value may be lesser on NetGalley, but if a reviewer leaves their review on their blog, social media, or Goodreads, it has impact. A late review raises the profile of a book post rather than pre publication. For example, when I reshare older book reviews, I still receive interest in them.

Not Leaving a Book Review Does Not Equal Theft

Before I launch into this next bit, let me just state that I’m not a lawyer. With that in mind, these are my interpretations, which may or may not be correct, of some NetGalley text. As the heading of this text states, I don’t believe it’s theft when a reviewer doesn’t provide a book review after receiving an ARC.

NetGalley ARCs

NetGalley’s website states, “NetGalley members are expected to provide feedback for the books and audiobooks they access, in exchange for receiving free digital review copies.” Note that they used the word “expected,” not “required” or “mandated” or “should.” To become a user of NetGalley I don’t think a reviewer is legally obligated to provide feedback. I also skimmed through the Terms and didn’t notice any text legally obligating a user to leave a review. (However, if I missed something, please feel free to let me know.)

ARCs or Books From Self-Published Authors

Admittedly, the area is greyer when it comes to an agreement between a reviewer and an (typically self-published) author. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think those agreements are legally binding, either. It’s certainly in a reviewer’s best interest to establish a positive relationship by completing the comittment. This opinion assumes that the reviewer and author agreed upon a timeline. But, ultimately, even a self-published author is relying on a reviewer’s free labor to help them market their book. Again, the time spent to read and write a book review will always sum to more than the cost of the book itself. (When not considering the upfront costs of getting an ISBN, copyright, etc.)

To Be Or Not To Be a Thief

Some may have the opinion that not leaving an ARC review when one committed to do so is theft. (Or perhaps, one means ethical theft and not literal theft?) But, again, that’s a feeling, not a fact. No matter another reviewer’s opinions, they are not the gatekeeper to a reviewer’s decision to request or receive an ARC. That decision ultimately lies with the publisher.

Remember when earlier I mentioned creating a positive reviewer-publisher relationship? If a publisher notices that a reviewer is consistently late with reviews, or never leaves reviews, then that trust-based relationship will likely deteriorate. And when that happens, that means less opportunities for the reviewer to receive ARCs. (Ah, full circle!) To reiterate, though, it’s not theft to not leave a book review on NetGalley. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be long term consequences.

Are ARCs Gifts?

There are both reviewers and authors who perceive that receiving or providing an ARC/book, respectively, is a gift. Influencers, which include book reviewers, must state whether they received something for free in exchange for their thoughts. Technically, I think this is a law in Europe and the U.S. Posts from the U.K. often use the word “gifted” in posts such as this. Regardless of whether there is the expectation of a review after receiving a free book, it’s in a reviewer’s best legal interest to state that the book was gifted or received for free. (No, I’m not an expert on this.)

Legal stuff aside, I think whether a book is a gift depends on the context in which the reviewer acquired the ARC or book. When I receive an ARC from NetGalley, I feel that there are strings attached. So, it doesn’t feel like a gift. Rather, I feel I’m in a soft agreement to provide a review in exchange for receiving a free ARC. However, if a publisher sends an ARC unsolicited to a reviewer, then I believe that falls more within the gift realm. In this latter situation I don’t feel obligated to read it and write a review unless I want to. (But a reviewer should still state they received it for free when presenting their review.)

Within the world of self and independent publishing, there are many generous and kind authors. (The same goes for traditionally-published authors. Don’t twist my words here!) They don’t have the backing of traditional funding. Sales are often word of mouth. So it’s not uncommon for these authors to make their books free for a short amount of time. Or to privately reach out to reviewers and provide them with a free book copy if the reviewer expressed enthusiasm for the author’s work(s).

In these types of cases, acquisition of a book falls more within the gift realm. (If the book is free on Kindle Unlimited, then I think technically it’s a purchase. If the book is free via author-provided Amazon links, then I argue it falls more within the gift category.) There’s technically no agreement to review the free copy. Certainly the author would appreciate a review, but there was no agreement to do so. Some authors find joy in gifting their book to reviewers “just because.” There doesn’t always have to be a reason.

However, the context and nuance is, again, if the author and reviewer set a timeline for a review in exchange for a free copy. I feel this puts acquisition of the book more in the influencer realm rather than the gift realm. And while I think it’s a good idea to honor commitments, a reviewer isn’t legally obligated to complete said review. There’s no doubt that an author takes a risk when providing a free copy in exchange for a review. If a reviewer cannot honor their review commitment, then neither is an author obligated to provide free copies in the future to that reviewer.

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, a reviewer is their own best friend or worst enemy when it comes to ARC book review etiquette. (And what the community generally perceives as etiquette.) I feel that it’s in a reviewer’s best interest to generally provide reviews within or by the publisher’s or author’s preferred deadline. It fosters a positive, beneficial relationship between the reviewer and the publisher or author. It opens more opportunities for the reviewer and it provides a helpful service for the publisher or author.

However, I am not a gatekeeper here. What I prefer to do is not something I expect others to abide by. At the end of the day we all need to do what works best for us. Most of us try to do the right thing and do right by others. But no one is perfect. Mistakes happens. Life happens. Most of us work full time or have other responsibilities and we can’t predict what will happen. So we have to be understanding. Which is why communication is important. Don’t be like that hated miscommunication trope when it comes to a commitment, particularly with respect to direct reviewer-author commitments.

Be courteous. Remember that reading is supposed to be fun. That’s why many of us started reviewing books and ARCs of books. For the community and, yes, for the free books. But to continue to receive free books, there must be a benefit to the publisher/author, too. The cynical side of me also wants to remind everyone that free things can have strings attached. Some strings may not be as obvious as others.

Finally, while it’s ok to have opinions, it’s also good to mind one’s own business. It doesn’t directly affect you* if a reviewer doesn’t complete their review within the commitment time frame. It especially doesn’t affect you with respect to NetGalley approvals. Your own actions (i.e., completion of commitments) will speak for themselves and affect how publishers and self-published authors view you as a potential reviewer. Let other reviewers handle their own business.

*I wish English had a plural “you” like French.

If you reached the end, then thank you for reading. I know this is a long post. But I wanted to do my best and cover as many angles as I could think of to try to be as objective as possible. I am not here to police the ARC review process, but rather provide my opinions. However, I am only one person and I welcome other thoughts and perspectives on ARC review book etiquette. If I missed an important perspective, then I am sorry and I hope you will share that view with me. I especially welcome insight on how publishers view ARC reviews as that world is rather opaque to me.

11 thoughts on “ARC Book Review Etiquette

  1. What a wonderful post – it’s detailed and informed while also being open and kind. Reading this I found myself wondering if we were as into policing each other’s actions before social media was a thing. Like would this be as big an issue within the bookish community if the performative and public piece of the condemnations and the back-and-forth on social media wasn’t out there? Or, in other words, how much of this is driven by people who feel the burning need to condemn theft and how much is by people who want to be seen doing so and/or “stirring things up”? I don’t know. Either way, I loved what you said here and I agree. To thine own self be true! And be kind! How can anyone argue with that? In fact, as I read I found myself thinking you were so logical, so clear, and so kind in how you laid this out I was hard pressed to imagine anyone disagreeing with this :).

    1. Michael, I often wonder about this as well, specifically with all of the book drama that seem to show up weekly, if not daily, on social media. My hunch is it was happening beforehand, but not as “loudly,” and is now facilitated by the ease of social media. Without social media I don’t think this would’ve been as big of an issue because that opinion would’ve had a shorter reach. I think about this with respect to a lot of things (e.g., propagation of hate speech, among many other things). I bet some of it is related to “stirring things up”–I see a lot of tweets that are formulated specifically to get interaction that aren’t drama-laced (e.g., asking for book recs because they don’t want to do an internet search first, or asking for “besties”), so I suppose the same could be true with respect to stirring up drama. But I do also think some of these opinions people share are genuinely held beliefs. And that’s ok, but beliefs that are accusatory of a community of people like book reviewers are going to get some flac for being as such.

  2. Such a well thought out post!

    The wild thing about the original tweet is that I think most reviewers agree with the OP on a fundamental level that it’s best practice to review if you can and to send an email explaining you won’t be able to get to the ARC if something comes up. I firmly believe most reviewers are operating in good faith and do mean to review the books they have committed to, which makes it even more grating for someone to come along taking a hard line calling them morally bankrupt thieves if they miss an ARC here and there! Most reviewers I know are really committed to promoting books and get super stressed out about meeting deadlines, etc. when WE ARE NOT PAID AND ALL THE PROMOTION WE DO IS VOLUNTARY.

    Mostly I was annoyed this guy (and some other people in the conversation) seem to have no sense of nuance or extenuating circumstances. I said I was extremely sick for nearly a year at one point and basically could not bring myself even to send an email saying I wouldn’t be reviewing my ARCs. Forget reading them and reviewing. I got no response from the OP, like this wasn’t a valid “excuse.” I saw someone on Twitter say she broke her spine at one point and missed some ARCs, and an author replied, “Well you could have sent an email saying that.” When the woman BROKE HER SPINE? And was probably always at a dr. appointment, always in pain, always refilling some prescription, possibly sorting out health insurance or worrying how she was going to pay for her surgery. It’s crazy to me people think she should have been worried about reading ARCs.

    If people want this level of commitment from reviewers, they need to pay them. I probably would have dragged myself sick out of bed to email people about ARCs if they’d sent me payment to read them and I knew I’d have to send that money back for missing a deadline. Otherwise, no.

    I get the argument that, especially for indie authors, ARCs cost money. Apparently even e-ARCs in some cases? But there is no way around the fact that, as an author or publisher, it’s basically impossible to get 100% of the ARCs you sent out reviewed. I think the only practical thing to do is factor that in as a cost of business, just like you have to set aside money to pay for copy editing and ads or whatever. You will spend money sending out ARCs that people do not review. It’s part of the process, even if it’s disappointing or frustrating.

    1. Sometimes publicists and authors forget to send us things too, i think everyone understands when something slips through the cracks once in a while.

      I take this seriously and I have a spreadsheet to track the books I have, and I try to get to them all reasonably, but if something comes up and I’m constantly worried or occupied, this will truly be the last thing on my mind, even if I read some books, because it’s voluntary, and I think most people I have worked with understand that it’s sunk cost in marketing

  3. One thing about ARCs is that I’ve always felt the pressure to leave a positive review – I suppose because it’s a “gift” of sorts and you’d expect that a publisher/author wants positive press before publication. That idea gave me quite a bit of stress when I did end up with a book I didn’t enjoy and didn’t want to finish – I used to write to authors/submit a “review” that as I didn’t enjoy the book enough to finish, I couldn’t leave a fair, positive review.

    Now, I rarely request for e-ARCs and I find that makes for much less stress on my part! So I suppose authors and publishers will also have to grapple with the etiquette around neutral to negative reviews from ARC readers.

    1. I used to feel nervous to leave a negative review, too. But then I talked myself into leaving them because a) I want to be honest and true to myself, b) I want potential readers to have fair and diversely-opinionated reviews, and c) NetGalley is anonymized, more or less, so I don’t feel intimidated to leave negative reviews. If the publisher gets upset, then fine, they don’t have to approve me for any more books–that’s on them. I also find that as I get older I care less about what others think about me, which helps take that perceived pressure off.

      But the important thing is that you do what makes you comfortable. If it stresses you out to leave positive reviews when you feel otherwise, then it sounds like your decision to cut back on e-ARC requests was a good one for you! 🙂

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