Could COVID-19 Mark the End of the Physical Galley?
History lesson! Travel back in time with me 12 years to a blog post on the site The Swivet run by Colleen Lindsay, the then Associate Director Marketing, Social Media and Reader Experience at the NAL/Berkley Publishing Groups, divisions of Penguin Group, USA. The post, which dates back to September of 2008, is called Pimpin’ Your Book: The Economics of the Galley, or Why You Can’t Have a Zillion Copies, Thanks! To break it down, the post explains the money behind the distribution of galleys or ARCs. If this term is a new one to you, essentially these are Advance Readers Copies (ARCs) of books yet to be released by a publisher. In picture book form they are called F&Gs (or “Folded and Gathered”s) and have a propensity for falling apart at inopportune moments. When you have a new book coming out, galleys are sent to review journals, booksellers, librarians, etc. in an effort to build buzz. The more galleys they make and distribute, the bigger the buzz.
Of course, nothing in this world is free. In this piece, written more than a decade ago, Colleen wrote, “A galley costs roughly $6.75 to $8.00 to create, depending upon page count.” One must assume that in the intervening years that price has gone up. Certainly since that time the Big Six publishers turned into the Big Five with more mergers on the horizon. And, of course, virtual galleys were introduced. Sites like Netgalley and Edelweiss have tried to transition reviewers, like myself, to virtual advanced reader copies. And since the onslaught of COVID-19, there’s been a significant shift away from physical copies for clear-cut safety reasons.
From an economic standpoint, it would make a lot of sense for publishers to look at this shift from physical to electronic galleys and say, “Okay. This is how we’re doing it from now on.” The price-per-galley copy dips, and still the reviewers and influencers get their books. Perfect solution for everyone, right?
Now prior to the current pandemic, I’ll admit that I was really reluctant to look at e-galleys. This was as much an aesthetic choice as a practical one but we all have to change with the times so I’ve been monitoring the email offers I receive to look at e-copies of titles a little more closely. I review for a professional journal and have been reading e-picture books with increasing frequency. I’ve even been searching for e-galleys on Netgalley when I hear folks praising them online. So, like all of us, I have adjusted.
And I hate it.
Hate’s actually too strong a word. I don’t hate e-galleys. I just don’t care to deal with them.
First off, let’s talk about the simple act of attempting to read something in ebook form, that may never have been intended to be an ebook from the start. E-picture books are particularly terrible, no matter the final product. Recently my sister and I read Mirandy and Brother Wind for our podcast and I had to give her an electronic version of the book. To our mutual shock and horror, page turns, gutters, and even full-page spreads were a thing of the past. Suddenly Jerry Pinkney’s careful choices as an artist were rendered moot. E-picture book galleys fare little better. It’s not impossible to get a sense of how the physical book will handle, but there is something bloodless about swiping through a title that is meant to be handled closely with a small child. Likewise, my Netgalley edition of Premeditated Myrtle by Elizabeth Bunce was an experiment in patience. The mystery novel is filled with little asides in the form of footnotes. Unfortunately, when converted to an e-galley, finding the footnotes becomes a game of hide and seek. I literally would see an asterisk on one page and not see its footnotes until four swipes later.
But even these mild inconveniences could be overcome. I think what some publishers do not yet realize is how difficult it can be to sift through all the books published in a given year. When sent the physical galleys on a regular basis, reviewers engage in a kind of book triage. The interesting titles are put to one side, the possibilities to another, and the books that can be disregarded to yet another still. You sort, read the flap copy, make mental notes, make written notes, and maybe have some sort of organizational system in place to deal with them. Maybe you put yellow sticky notes on all the books that have gotten starred reviews. And if you serve on any kind of a book committee (like my library’s 101 Great Books for Kids Committee) then you know how important it can be in monthly meetings to hold up a title, booktalk it, and capture the interest of the other committee members before you pass it around.
Now imagine that all you are ever sent are e-galleys. Getting a reviewer to care about reading a book is tricky enough as it is. E-galleys are, additionally, shockingly easy to ignore. And what will all this mean for the ALA committees? I wonder how the members are dealing with this change in the books they are sent. It feels like it would be easy to lose track of things right now.
How likely is it that physical galleys will ever return? At least for some of the larger publishers (the “Big Five” I referred to earlier, which consists of Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster) I could easily imagine a system in which all future galleys, with the possible exception of some of the company’s bigger names, are relegated to permanent electronic status. In the event that this happens, small publishers could have a distinct advantage in still providing physical copies of ARCs to their reviewers. After all, you might find it much easier to ignore a mass email from Macmillan than a note from the publicity department of Eerdmans or Tundra Books. The irony being, of course, that smaller publishers are the ones that can least afford to chuck cash at purchasing galleys.
This is just me spitballing here. As like as not we’ll see everything shift back to normal in half a year and galleys will once more be built into towering stacks on the convention floor of ALA and BookExpo.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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