In December 2020, author Tess Sharpe asked on Twitter what other authors felt the results would be of publishers moving towards using almost exclusively e-ARCs rather than physical ARCs (this may be a result of the pandemic, but this was a trend publishers began even before COVID-19).
In response, a number of authors agreed they saw a difference in online buzz, based on whether physical ARCs had been available for their books or not. Particular concern was raised over the very visual platforms that publishers seem to have been favoring over blogs in recent years– for instance, Bookstagram, where the entire point is to provide one’s followers with an original photo of the book being promoted or discussed.
There’s a lot to unpack in this conversation about ARCs, marketing, and the labor provided free by bookish influencers, but personally I was struck by some quote retweets and side conversations where multiple people active on Bookstagram raised the idea of Photoshopping the cover of a book they did not have a physical ARC of into a photo.
This was generally presented as a positive thing, a little fix influencers could to do promote authors when no physical ARCs were forthcoming, but the whole idea struck a bit of horror into my soul. Is this the wave of the future? Will bookish influencers be asked to do even more work, the work of fancy photo editing to pretend they have a physical copy of a book when the publishers haven’t actually sent them a copy?
This proposition irritates me on the base level that the prevailing argument for why bookish influencers aren’t generally paid for the promotional work they do is that we “are paid in free books.” (Not everyone gets review copies at all, but that’s a different conversation.) However, if you take away physical ARCs, what exactly are influencers being “paid” in? Early access to the book? The chance to read it two months before the general public? I suppose that’s somewhat exciting, but personally I don’t mind waiting for the actual release date, and I don’t consider “early access” to the manuscript to be “compensation” on the same level as a physical book (or, you know, money).
However, if publishers no longer send influencers physical ARCs, it can affect influencers’ stats, as well (in addition to the decreased buzz for the authors noted above). I’ve seen some Photoshopped Bookstagram posts already, photos that have an image of a hot, upcoming release with a small disclaimer in the caption saying something to the effect of, “I don’t actually have an ARC; I Photoshopped the book cover in,” and I am always disappointed. I feel as if I’m looking at something fake, and I’m no longer interested in the photo.
It’s difficult to explain, but part of the appeal (at least for me) of Bookstagram is seeing what other readers actually have. Even while many people in the book community struggle with what can seem like the extolling of consumerism, the veneration of the influencers who own the most books, subscribe to the most book boxes, have the most stuff…that’s arguably what is interesting about the photos– the sense that these people have something a bit rare, a bit unique, a collection of books and bookish items that is aspirational for many. If people are just Photoshopping photos to show things they don’t actually have, well…anyone can do that. So what’s the point of looking at the photo?
And some of the responses to Sharpe’s original tweet got a bit at this; they suggested that views for a post on Bookstagram went up if the photo showed (what appeared to be) a physical book, rather than an e-book. If publishers stop sending influencers physical books, those influencers might see their own stats drop if they can’t provide followers with the types of photos they want to see– and, of course, lower stats might lead to receiving fewer ARCs.
So, really, this whole thing sounds exhausting to me. Are bookish influencers going to have to buy Photoshop or learn new photo editing skills and then dedicate extra time to create photos that give the illusion they have a physical book that a publisher never actually sent them? Setting up an impressive Bookstagram photo can take a lot of time in the first place, but it certainly takes a lot less time to plonk an actual book down somewhere and snap a photo of it than to set up and take the photo and then Photoshop it to include a book cover.
And influencers will be asked to dedicate this extra time and money in the name of supporting authors. Publishers won’t send the influencers physical ARCs, but they will ask for links to reviews and posts on Bookstagram and other social media sites that generally rely on photos. It’s just more free labor asked of influencers.
I genuinely hope that physical ARCs become more common again after the pandemic ends. Digital ARCs should, of course, be an option for those who prefer them or find them more accessible. I just don’t want to see authors and publishers start thinking that asking influencers to Photoshop book covers into photos is a reasonable or common thing to do.