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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

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.


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.


  1. Betsy, thank you for raising this issue. I have been speculating about whether the practice of sending real books to reviewers would ever resume, and, unfortunately, I agree with you that it may not.
    Reading picture books on devices is awful. Reading novels and non-fiction is also difficult. I wonder if the smaller publishers, who will suffer more financially from the current crisis, will be in a position to send print copies, even though it might give them an advantage.

  2. Please let the picture books return. Vicky Smith wrote about this fairly recently and put it well:

  3. “E-galleys are … shockingly easy to ignore.”
    This has been my experience with ebooks in general. If they’re not taking up physical space, I am extremely likely to forget that they exist.

    • Right? When a physical book is sitting on my shelf, staring at me, guilting me into reading it, that has power. An e-galley? Heck, most of the emails I get for them don’t even include a cover image.

  4. The book as an object matters so much too – spot gloss, embossing, page weight – all of those intangibles change my views about books and e books simply cannot make up for touching the pages.

  5. Laura Harrison says

    I am so thrilled you wrote this post, Elizabeth. There is nothing like receiving a glorious pile of arc’s and especially picture book f&g’s to go through. They have my full attention no matter what project I am working on. Often I start reading immediately. I have never once had my heart pounding over an e-galley. I still miss physical catalogs. They were an important tool for book sellers and reviewers. Picture books were never meant as an e-galley. Especially today in this golden age of children’s books. Also, what is the thrill of BookExpo without the mad dash to that ultra organized (and often beautiful) pile of galleys? I hope publishers will continue to offer their advance copies. Those in the book industry really do appreciate them!

  6. I’m so glad you wrote this. I know that physical ARCs are expensive, but I really hope that publishers don’t discontinue them forever. I sort (and re-sort) my physical ARCs in priority piles and I have no idea how to recreate that kind of system with an ebook. I forget all about the digital copies I receive.

    I also have a horrible time “tracking” the narrative in an ebook. This may be because I am old, but I find that ebooks work best for me if it is a short novel that I can read in one sitting. I lose all sense of story in an ebook. I also just finished one that included a [much needed] glossary at the end which I didn’t find until…you guessed it…after I finished the book.

    I have friends on committees this year and the picture book e-galleys are as nightmarish as one would think. Also? They have to invest in some sort of external storage device to keep them all.

    I prefer to turn off all devices at the end of the day and curl up with a good, old-fashioned physical BOOK.

  7. Minor pet peeve… they are “advance” copies, not “advanced.” I’ve seen that mistake printed on actual ARCs. They’re printed “in advance” of the book’s publication; they are not “advanced,” which means in further ahead in development.

  8. All good points Elizabeth! And this is especially true for picture books, as mentioned. However, you seem to avoid a possible solution…
    The publishers can just send a final printed copy to reviewers. This can help the reviewer as pointed out, as well as helping the publisher (as they would not need to deal with the extra headache and expense of production and freight for the F&Gs). A drawback is that many publishers usually cannot send out final copies until close to pub date, perhaps sometimes around only a couple of months prior to publication. If reviewers relaxed their strict, or preferential laden, many-months ahead of pub date review copy submission timeline expectation, this would have great trickle down effect, and both reviewers and publishers can benefit.
    And as a bonus, it can help retire an inherent industry advantage that the largest trade publishers maintain over other publishers (as they can more easily afford and plan for F&Gs to ship 6 to 9 months ahead of publication), which system continues to be maintained to some degree with the tacit (naive for some) ongoing such support of many trade review publications and reviewers.
    (I am sure there is benefit for a publisher who is able to submit AND receive a trade review 6 – 9 months prior to the initial printing of a book in order to add a trade quote to the printed cover — but how common is that?)

  9. Travis Jonker says

    Great post – been thinking about this same thing

  10. Thank you, and yes to all of the above!

  11. Colleen Lindsay says

    I forgot about that post. I wrote it twelve years ago. And actually, in the intervening time, galleys production costs have gone down because they can be laser printed instead of offset printed. But they’re still expensive and a waste of paper and resources.

    Glad that you found my post useful after all this time!

    • It was incredibly helpful. Thank you for writing it in the first place! I wouldn’t mind it if someone updated it for today in terms of pricing.

  12. Harry brings up a good point, and that’s actually more how I work. I review catalogues digitally, and I actually don’t mind mid-grades and YAs in digital format. I’m also happy to look at a well-formatted PDF picture book before committing to a title. However, many of the PDFs I receive either run through Adobe Editions, which is clunky and titles often expire before I can get to them, which is annoying; or the files are enormous to download, which takes up time and space; or the PDFs show individual pages rather than spreads, which is pointless. In other words, there are a lot of folks creating digital picture books for review who don’t know what they’re doing. If they’re done right, I’m happy to have a quick peek digitally and then ask for a hard-copy for full review and to keep in trade for the publicity on my blog. Along with my subscribers seeing posts about the books, I use the good ones so often when teaching, they end up getting a lot of eyes. So, I have to believe they are worth the investment on the publishers’ parts. I hope they don’t go away, even if so many are on hold getting mailed out right now. e

  13. Thank you Betsy! This is an ongoing dilemma! I just hope everyone finds good books.

  14. Thanks for raising the issue Betsy. I read ARCs for the bookstore and for the Mixed Up Files blog. After spending 6-10 hours on a screen for the writing portion of my work day I don’t want to spend the remaining 2-5 hours of or my workday on the screen again. And because I’m working from my own computer, I have limited storage space for work not my own. Though I would like to get better at using Edelweiss and NetGalley, I can’t think of a single ARC I’ve gotten excited about that wasn’t something I read in a physical copy.
    In addition, one of my favorite parts of being a bookseller is boxing up the old MG & YA ARCs at the end of each quarter and bringing them to youth in foster care, teens in jail, and homeless family shelters. It’s thousands of books a year. In many cases the only books these young people will ever own. I know it’s not the purpose of the ARC but it’s a pretty cool side benefit.

    • Laura Harrison says

      You make a wonderful point. Most of the reviewers and booksellers I know distribute the arc’s to many organizations when they have completed the book. The kids are so excited when a new batch of arc’s are delivered. This is a win win for everyone. The children receive books they might not be able to own otherwise (hopefully becoming lifelong readers) and the arc’s continue to be promoted after our job is completed. Probably the best reasons I know to continue physical arc’s and f&g’s.

  15. Author here! Gotta say, I love getting physical ARCs of my books. I keep one for myself and give away a few on social media. (Fun fact: for a novel, I usually only get four ARCs.) Sometimes with the picture book F&Gs, I’ll hang up a few spreads in my office or sign a spread and give it out as prizes at school visits. Except for Macmillan F&Gs, which are stapled and more like paperback books. (Thank you for this, Mac!)

    With my new novel, MILLIONAIRES FOR THE MONTH, which hits shelves in September, PRH is only doing eARCs because of COVID. It’ll be my twenty-fifth book and the first without a physical ARC. I don’t have access to real-time sales numbers, but I will be watching if MftM releases to a less aware market than my other novels. Again, I have no real way of knowing. It’ll be more of a gut feel. I can watch Amazon rank, see reviews in trades, and read/count blog engagements.

    I want to point out one advantage to eARCs from an author’s perspective. (Other than better for the environment which is good for all Earthlings, right?) From what I understand, eARCs expire. Once the publication day rolls around, an eARC can no longer be read or at least downloaded. When I see people reading or passing along physical ARCs well past pub date (sometimes six months or even a year later), I’m thankful they’d use their valuable time to read my work, but I’d prefer they get the book from the library, or buy it if possible. And when we see ARCs for sale on eBay and such, that’s a knife to the heart. (That is a very cool suggestion about donating ARCs to shelters and kids in need.)

    Reader here! And I want to point out that I do enjoy (prefer!) physical ARCs of MG and YA novels, like most people in the comments. But I also read purchased novels on a device. (When I buy nonfiction, it’s always an actual book because I write in them.) I guess I’m a hybrid reader.

    I wonder if this is too long to post. I’ll stop now. 🙂

  16. E ARCs seem much more cost effective and less wasteful, although my students are thrilled when I have paper ones to share. Since I try to read all the new middle grade fiction that is released, I don’t care about the format. My ten year old Nook stopped working and the highlight feature on the tablet version helps a lot. Nonfiction can be a bit slow if there are lots of pictures to load. If it helps publishers to get through a difficult time, I’m fine with EARCs, especially if it ultimately helps authors.