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The Free Book Travesty

Netgalley is an online platform which aims to connect publishers and authors with 'readers of influence' such as librarians, booksellers, educators, reviewers and bloggers. Unlike websites like Goodreads, you can only see reviews if you're a member, so Netgalley shouldn't be thought of as review site for ‘normal’ readers to access.

The hope from the publisher and author point of view is that by sending free review copies to these 'readers of influence', their resulting reviews can be used for blurbs, and create word of mouth. Plus they should also appear on platforms outside Netgalley, such as GoodReads and Amazon. Not to mention, it might help publishers when selling a book into retailers. Eg. '2k people requested an ARC, this book is going to be huuuuuuge!’

When it works, it can be quite useful (though as discussed in my previous post about blog tours, there can always be the risk all you’re targeting is the echo chamber).

The problem comes when it doesn't work. Specifically, when people treat Netgalley as a 'free books' website. And many people do. I call these people ‘book blaggers’. They see legitimate book reviewers receiving free books and think ‘yeah, I’ll have a piece of that.’

How do I know these people are blagging?

I’ve seen this myself in book groups on Facebook. Other authors regularly report seeing the same too. I’d love to share screen shots here but I don’t want to cross a line! So here’s how a conversation will usually go:

Blagger A: Does anyone know where I can get free books? I’m off on holiday soon and need some new books.

Blagger B: Netgalley! It’s a great website where you can request FREE books before they’re published in exchange for reviews. Just make sure you give as much info in your bio as possible for publishers.

Blagger A: Ooh, this sounds great, thanks. What sort of info should I include?

Blagger B: Mainly the kind of books you like but also where you will leave your review. It helps if you have a website too.

Blagger A: What do you mean by website?

Blagger B: Like a reviewing blog.

Blagger A: Oh, I don’t have one of those.

Blagger B: No worries, they’re easy to set up for free using a site like Wordpress.

Blagger C: Sorry to butt in, but that’s what I did. It was easy. You don’t even really need to leave a review to be honest, I don’t always leave reviews and still get freebies.

Blagger A: Awesome! Going to check it out now.

These people aren’t ‘readers of influence’. They’re purely doing it to get freebies. Even worse, they’re passing on their tips to other aspiring book blaggers! Ergh.

It’s pretty easy for book blaggers to play the system, pretending to be reviewers just so they can get their hands on a free book. As Blagger A said, anyone can set up a blog for free these days and make it seem legit. If we’re ‘lucky’, they’ll post a quick badly written review on Netgalley, maybe even duplicate it on their low traffic blog too. But most of the time, there will be no review at all.

Of course, if vetted properly, the book blaggers shouldn’t get a look in. As Netgalley states, anyone requesting a book to review should ideally have:

a history of providing feedback for books they’ve accessed, and can demonstrate their reach as an early influencer or reviewer. Members improve their chances of getting approved for more books by providing meaningful reviews, by connecting their accounts to verified industry organizations (ALA, ABA, Booksellers Association (UK), ALIA (AU), and others.), and linking to their blogs, social and Goodreads accounts.’

I know many publishers work super hard to vet requests via Netgalley and chase up reviewers. And yet somehow, book blaggers still manage to slip through the net. I hear it all the time from other authors who are members of the Savvy Writers’ Snug I run on Facebook. Many notice a lot of their Netgalley reviews do not end up on a website which will actually benefit readers, like Amazon.

Authors also often complain about the fact that some of the reviews on Netgalley offer no constructive or useful feedback either. The review might be less than a paragraph, or a vague plot overview with no insight at all.

I recently did a bit of an exercise on one of my own books to get a sense of how many people getting my books via Netgalley are there for the freebies or there for the love of reviewing books.

My most reviewed book on Netgalley is my sixth novel The Family Secret. This is what I discovered after a bit of research:

  • 86 of the 130 reviews didn’t seem to appear anywhere else, such as Amazon, GoodReads or a blog. That’s 66%.

  • 58 of the reviews were less than one small paragraph long. That’s 44% of reviews.

  • 44 reviews were both super short AND didn't appear on a site like Amazon. That’s 33%!

So a THIRD of the reviewers who posted some kind of review on Netgalley didn’t do a proper review nor did they seem to place it anywhere useful. That doesn’t include those who requested the novel and then didn’t even leave any kind of review on Netgalley itself!

I'm not alone. Many authors report a disparity between the number of free copies requested (sometimes in the hundreds) and the subsequent number of reviews received on Netgalley itself and elsewhere. Sure, life can get in the way. Plus a reviewer might absolutely hate a book and rather not post a review at all (better to say nothing at all to say something nasty, right?).

But I suspect a lot of the time, the ‘reviewer’ never intended to post a review in the first place.

That, frankly, is unethical. How would they feel if the same happened to them?

Ironically, one of the reviewers who posted a pointless review of The Family Secret on Netgalley and nowhere else actually sells products themselves from what I could gather when Googling them. Imagine me knocking on their door, asking for a free product in exchange for a review and then not publishing that review? How would they react?

The question is, how is this allowed?

The publisher I worked with on The Family Secret are one of the best when it comes to getting reviews. They offer incentives for reviewers, send reminders on publication day to encourage them to transfer their review to Amazon and try their best to vet reviews.

And yet still, blaggers have clearly slipped through the net.

I imagine when super busy, it can be tempting to just approve requests without doing too much digging, especially if it’s a digital copy. Even the cost of sending a physical copy can be negligible when you’re trying to save time.

You might argue what’s the harm in this? Publishers bulk print ARCs anyway, better getting them into the hands of readers, any readers, than have them stay in a warehouse.

But it’s the principle. Freebie grabbers do nothing for authors. They’re the same as the people who download books from piracy sites. They are undervaluing the hard work we put in. This is made even worse when they post about their freebie and encourage others to try and get one.

(And by the way, this is completely different from free books via programmes like Amazon First Reads. This helps drive books up the Amazon ranks and get it noticed.)

To sum up, I think Netgalley can be useful when utilised professionally for all the reasons I listed above. Genuine reviewers and bloggers are skilled writers who offer essential insight for readers and great blurbs.

But I worry many publishers’ focus on this platform don’t justify the benefits. Is a quote from a reviewer who's unlikely to be recognised by your readers going to stand out compared to a quote from a normal genuine reader sourced from Amazon or GoodReads?

If you struggle to get that bulk of reviews on release day on, say, Amazon, then it might be better for you or your publisher to hold their own database of reviewers and bloggers with a focus on quality over quantity.

Regardless of what your publishers do, think about taking it into your own hands. Set up your own street team of readers, create a Facebook group for readers, begin building those relationships yourself so you can ‘own’ them.

Netgalley isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to reviews.

I hope this provides some insight!

PS. Just to add some extra insight, my latest book Wall of Silence received 24 reviews on Netgalley with a 3 star average. The reason for the low number of reviews is that my publisher Lake Union don’t focus on Netgalley reviews. On Amazon UK, it has 1423 reviews with a 4.5 average, and is the most read of all my books. Interesting, hey?


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