This librarian related story about conferences and ARCs (Advance Reading Copy, for those not familiar) blew up on the blogosphere and Twitter to the point where it got its own hashtag (#ARCgate). You can read the blog post that started it all on Kelly Jensen’s blog, Stacked. It’s good background material for this post so you may want to take a few minutes to go through it. For the lazy or those in a hurry, I’ll sum it up.
Kelly, a librarian and YA book blogger, attended the most recent ALA annual conference last week. She had multiple commitments to various committees that held meetings there in addition to giving a session presentation. After attempting to navigate the exhibit hall crowd on both Friday evening and Saturday, on Sunday she went back to meet with publicists as well as get some ARCs that publishers give away as part of their book promotion strategy. The majority of the books she was interested in were not there after being given away over the last day and a half. She was able to get the publicist to send her copies of the ones she was interested in. Otherwise, she did leave the conference with 23 books (according to her post conference blog entry detailing the books she got at the conference. I’m not sure how many books are being sent to her by publicists as she did not elaborate so I don’t know how many books in total).
We now fast forward one week. After posting said blog entry, Kelly did a Google search for “ala book haul” and found a 22 minute video in which a book blogger shows off approximately 150 ARCs she got from the same conference. (The blogger’s sister appears in the video as well and got the same books, bringing the total number of books procured to roughly 300.) Needless to say, Kelly is understandably not pleased with this discovery.
In writing her post, she is calling for a different system for ARC distribution at ALA. As she is a due paying member, Kelly feels a bit cheated to have given up time and money to do things that run the organization as well as educate her peers and missed multiple chances at talking with publishing industry folks and getting some advanced copies. As a solution, Kelly is calling for exhibits only passes to be allowed only one day admission at the end of the conference. That way, people like herself can get first shot at the books and face time without as much competition.
Ok, that sums it up.
On its face, I totally understand and get the outrage factor. That $25 pass that the book blogger purchased netted her around $2,250 in books. (I’m using a conservative average value of $15 a book; at $20 a book it goes up to $3,000.) Given what both sisters got, that puts their total score in the $4,500 to $6,000 range, a 9000%+ return on their initial investment. Compared to Kelly’s $345-$460 ARC value after spending money on conference registration ($220) and association memberships (my guess is about $290 in total on the basis of her blog post detailing her memberships), there is a dramatically smaller and even negative rate of return. In pure economic terms, it’s a slam dunk case.
Alas, this is not a simply case of economics. It has turned into apparently another row between book bloggers and librarian book bloggers, an ongoing epic struggle of book lovers fighting over their mutual object of affection. In looking at it from a step back, it’s a set of opposing forces competing for the same limited resource, the coveted ARC. Publishers can only bring so many a conference or trade show, therefore competition for them is inevitable.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: go read Kelly’s post. Some see her post as an excellent way to ensure that a professional conference serves its members first on a perk that matters most to them. Others see her post as an expression of whiny entitlement in the same vein that every government worker will eventually hear, “I pay your salary, therefore you must meet all my demands”. I invite you to draw your own conclusions. I’m not inclined to share mine since I’d rather move on and focus on the meat of the matter that interests me the most.
The first question: is this “book haul” behavior typical or a fringe case? This isn’t limited to book bloggers or librarians, but it means everyone who goes: how common is this sort of greedy behavior? If it is a minority whose actions are impacting the larger whole of interested individuals, then yes, there needs to be a corrective action taken. I can agree that 150 books is pretty excessive and an unreasonable amount for any one person to take away from a conference. If enough people did that, then it would take away from others.
But if it is a fringe set (the proverbial bad apples in the bunch), then why would an organization like ALA have to completely revamp a system on the basis of the actions of a statistically insignificant few? If one person out of ten thousand fell down a flight of stairs and died each year, it would not make sense to mandate that everyone has to live in a one story house. (For the sake of comparison, your chances of dying in an automobile accident are roughly 1 in 23,000, a risk people take everyday.) To create and implement a more complex system on the basis of a tiny minority element is simply not the best use of an organization’s time and resources. Even at 1 in 1,000 incidence rate with 20,000 people attending this year’s conference, that’s only 20 people. Somebody who is better at crunching numbers would have to figure out the point at which is becomes an issue on the basis of the number of available ARCs and the number of ‘greedy’ types.
The second question: how do you quantify or measure such behaviors? I’m guessing that registration statistics are out since they are not a true measurement of those who are interested in ARCs. What’s left is recorded observations of such behavior (like the YouTube video) or reported observations from attendees. While the former is excellent in being able to be easily shared and evaluated, the latter is subject to its own human observation bias. No one taking over 100 books is going to report themselves. Those who do not get all the books they wanted are more likely to report their dissatisfaction as well as the behavior of others. It would require door checkers observing who leaves with how many books and something to measure it over a couple of days. (Consider the fact that the book blogger got her 150+ books over 3 days, not one.)
It’s not impossible to measure, but currently there is no data set for this issue. There is always personal anecdotes that could attempt to gauge the prevalence of the behavior. Corroborating stories build on each other and create a better picture as to the incidence and prevalence of the “book haul” types. Larger number of reports are harder to ignore or otherwise dismiss when you are trying to convince colleagues to take action. I realize this might sound a bit crazy to ask for data (whether in the form of stories of numbers), but it might one of the few times that there is actual ‘science’ in ‘library science’.
The third question: in presuming that there is enough data to support action, what is reasonable and fair? I’d say that Kelly’s proposed solution is a reasonable one to consider in theory, but not in practice.
My solution — and note this is my solution and mine alone — is that bloggers/non-professionals who pay the minimum amount to attend the convention be limited to one day attendance at the end of the convention. That they be allowed to attend but that their attendance is after librarians and other professionals using this convention to develop as such have the opportunity to get what it is they need and what it is they want out of their own convention. If they choose to pay the full conference amount or are themselves members of the organization, then they can have full access just as anyone else does. I don’t think this is hard and I do not think it’s at all unfair on any side of the equation. Those who would find this disagreeable are part of the problem. (Emphasis mine.)
That’s quite the discussion squelching closer. “Here is my solution. You are either with us or against us.” Nevermind how one determines the difference between a blogger or non-professional and a librarian or professional; I presume Kelly’s solution includes checking that people are from the libraries that they say they are from. (It would be logical to presume that if it is restricted to only librarians/professionals for the first few days, people will give fake information so as to continue to grab books.) Or there is some sort of qualification checking mechanism that is developed, implemented, and run by the organization. If it turns out that fellow librarians are part of the problem, then there will be some other system put into place.
I’m not certain what other solutions are being offered given how recent this development is, but I’m guessing they will embody a “members first” mentality. That’s not a bad thing, per se; we grew up hearing the motto of a credit company that told us “membership has its privileges”. Given the time, energy, and efforts of the membership to keep the wheels turning, it can be an added and advertised perk of joining the organization. In game theory terms, solutions like Kelly’s are a move to not only get to cut the cookie in half but to get first pick of the pieces. This is not the conditions for creating a fair solution in terms of the societal concept of fairness but fairness as it relates to proportional contribution. Given the general mood of neutral egalitarianism in the ALA organization, it would be an interesting fit.
Regardless of what happens, my final question is this: what do publishers think of this entire issue? Slipping into their shoes for a moment, this is an issue about who gets access to things they are giving away for free. For free. As corporate members and conference sponsors to varying degrees, they have already paid for the chance to display their wares, flown in their sales and marketing people for face-to-face time, and utilize the books as marketing and public relations tools. How does implementing an ARC giveaway system of any sort benefit the publisher?
If I was in a publishing house, a question I might ask myself is whether or not it is worthwhile to give an ARC to a casually interested librarian (free is still free, right?) versus a very interested book blogger or other non-librarian professional. I can’t imagine anyone from the industry reading anything that has been put on blogs or Twitter and really feeling too terrible about this ‘issue’. Nor can I imagine other vendors who give away swag to bring you to their booth will be ready to shed a tear.
This whole #ARCgate affair just makes the librarian profession look bad when it boils down to an argument about who gets access to free things. Conference fees and membership pay for many things, but they don’t put a dime in a publisher’s pocket when they print out those ARCs. That point cannot be lost in this mess. One could argue that their reviews drive traffic and sales, but I would say that it is a risk that publishers take on. Changing that dynamic is changing that calculated risk for them, not for librarians. It deserves consideration.
For what it’s worth, the book blogger posted about her conference experience. And she had a great time. I was originally going to post a link to her blog post, but I’d rather not have someone go from this page and be shitty to her. It would not be the professional thing to do.
Update: I redacted the name of the book blogger. I debated
on including her name but since I went over and found a couple of unkind comments on her blog I dropped it.
I’m certainly glad at least two people took “professionalism” into their own hands and set her straight. I do hope some other more supportive people would send her a message and be a bit more constructive. For a profession that touts the value of education, it certainly doesn’t seem interested in providing one in this case.