Why Do Reviewers Include Disclaimers About ARCs?

ARCs (advanced reader copies), also known as galleys, e-galleys and DRCs (digital review copies) are a staple of the bookish world. They’re versions of books that publishers (and sometimes authors) give to reviewers, critics, booksellers, librarians, and other book-related media people before the book is actually published. If you’ve ever wondered how a review can drop on publication day, or why people are raving about a book months before its publication date — ARCs are your answer.

Book professionals often receive ARCs unsolicited from publishers hoping they’ll review them. It’s also a common practice for reviewers and journalists to reach out to publishers to request ARCs of books they’re hoping to read and review. But you don’t have to be a professional book person to read ARCs. Anyone can create an account on NetGalley or Edelweiss, two platforms with huge catalogues of digital ARCs. If you talk about books on social media, have a BookTok account, write a blog, or actively review on Goodreads — there’s nothing stopping you from requesting early copies.

But what happens after you’ve read that ARC and are sitting down to write your review? Do you have to disclose that you received an ARC? Does it matter if you do? Let’s get into it.

Are reviewers legally required to disclose?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is sometimes. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issues guidelines about reviews, endorsements, and testimonials of products and services. The guidelines essentially exist to ensure that someone reading a rave review of a new vacuum cleaner knows if that reviewer has been paid by the vacuum cleaner company to write the review.

In 2010, the FTC updated the guidelines to specifically address bloggers, social media influencers, and other people who review via word of mouth. Here’s what the FTC said in their press release (from 2009):

“The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

This is pretty straightforward: if you’re paid to review a book, or if you receive a free copy of a book with the explicit understanding that you will review it, you’re required to disclose. Back in 2010, a lot of bloggers interpreted this to mean that they would now be legally required to disclose every time they read and reviewed an ARC. I am honestly still baffled by this, because it is extremely rare that reviewers receive review copies in exchange for anything. Receiving a “cash or in-kind payment to review a product” is not common in the book world. Most of us get review copies with the understanding that we might write a review.

I’m not going to wade into the legalese, but the takeaway is that ARCs are not in-kind payments. There are a few obvious exceptions. If you’re paid by a publisher to write a review, you are legally required to disclose that they paid you, whether your review is positive or negative. This is also true for affiliate links: if you might receive money when someone buys a book by clicking on a link, you’re required to disclose. This article from the Independent Book Publishers Association does a great job of breaking it down.

So, why do so many reviewers disclose that they’ve received ARCs? To find out, I polled 20 Rioters and Bookstagramers. 35% of those I surveyed reported they disclose. 55% reported they disclose sometimes, depending on the context, and 10% said they do not disclose. Reasons varied from person to person.

Why Reviewers Disclose

I was surprised by the diversity of reasons reviewers have for disclosing. In general, the respondents who do disclose mentioned doing so for transparency and honesty. A few reviewers mentioned that it’s a way to help people from outside the book world learn about how the book world works. It can be disorienting, if you don’t understand the system, to scroll through Goodreads and see tons of reviews of a book that hasn’t been published yet. Mentioning ARCs explains this phenomenon.

For a lot of reviewers, it depends on context. One person pointed out that they disclose they read an ARC if they’re reviewing the book before publication day, but not afterward. Another reviewer makes a practice to always disclose if they received a finished copy from the publisher.

Rioter and author Susie Dumond makes this excellent point, something I’d never thought of:

“A fair amount of people review books on Goodreads before the book comes out, either with enthusiasm about the concept/cover/marketing copy or to bash or 1 star a book before it’s even available. I want to be clear that I’m leaving a review after reading the book, since that’s not always clear if it’s pre-publication. I know as a reader, before I started writing about books and had access to ARCs, I didn’t understand how Goodreads reviewers could review books before they were out.”

Why Reviewers Don’t Disclose

I personally rarely disclose because it just doesn’t seem that interesting or important. This sentiment was echoed by many of the reviewers I polled — ARCs are a tool, and receiving them does not affect our reviews in any way.

I was intrigued by this insight from Rioter Jeffrey Davies:

“I’m sure we’re all inclined to say we got a free review copy as a form of ‘hey look at me’ that exists across social media regardless of one’s intentions.”

I’d never thought about this, but it’s a good point. Disclosing that you received an ARC can be a form of signaling that you have a certain “status” in the book world. I won’t deny that it’s pretty fun when free books arrive on my doorstep. But there’s nothing special about it. ARCs are a part of the industry. I’m not sure what anyone gains by me announcing that yes, in fact, I receive the tools I need to do my job.

Rioter Annika Barranti Klein makes this excellent and relatable point: “I rarely disclose because I genuinely don’t remember which books I get as ARCs.” She is very good at bringing the humor, but this sentiment speaks to the fact that when you write about books for a living (or even if you’re just an avid reader and reviewer) ARCs are ubiquitous. They’re part of the landscape. The blend into all the other books on your shelf or your Kindle.

“I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.”

I see this sentence a lot on Goodreads especially, and it’s what inspired me to write and research this piece. It baffles me that this particular phrasing is so common! As I mentioned when discussing the FTC guidelines, there are very few instances in which a sentence like this is actually true. Let’s break it down.

The phrase here, the one that makes no sense to me, is in exchange for. I read a lot of ARCs. Sometimes I download them from Edelweiss or NetGalley. Sometimes they arrive unsolicited on my doorstep. Sometimes, when I’m excited about a book, I reach out to a publisher directly and ask for a galley. Never in my life have I been given an ARC in exchange for an honest review. I’m given ARCs in exchange for the possibility of a review. I haven’t signed a contract or made any promises. I’m under no obligation whatsoever to review every ARC I receive. I receive considerably fewer ARCs than other book professionals I know, and I still could never read them all if I tried. I just don’t have the time.

I’m not saying I view ARCs as a perpetual source of free books. They exist for a purpose. Early buzz helps publishers sell copies. Access to ARCS allows writers like me to make lists of books you definitely want to check out this fall — I’m confident about those lists because I’ve been able to read a lot of those books. They’re an integral part of what makes the book world go. I don’t treat ARCs as some kind of never-ending library for my own personal pleasure. I treat them as what they are: a tool I need to do my job.

I know this is small in the scheme of things. But this sentence, this idea that people receive ARCs in exchange for reviews, gives readers, and people new to the book world, the wrong idea. It portrays the relationship between publishers and reviewers to be something other than what it is. Unless I’m paid to write a review, I have no formal relationship with publishers. I am my own person. I read books that interest me. I read upcoming books that interest me so that I can help get them into the hands of readers who will also love them.

Publishers make early copies of books available, which makes early reviews possible, which hopefully generates some buzz and encourages people to buy books. That’s it. It’s not an exchange. It’s just how publishing works.

What about paid reviews?

Paid reviews are a different beast. I do want to point out that publications that publish sponsored content make it clear up front that they’ve been paid (and if they don’t, they should). Being paid to write a review is a situation in which an exchange occurs: you’re given money (and presumably the book) in exchange for a review.

But what about writers like me, who are paid by publications like Book Riot? As long as I’m not being paid by the publisher, I don’t consider writing like this an exchange. Several of the reviewers I polled came to the same conclusion. Rioter Trizah Price pointed out that she doesn’t disclose she receives ARCs in her work writing and podcasting for Book Riot because it’s implied. Have you ever seen a disclaimer at the bottom of a a review in The New York Times stating that the reviewer received an ARC? No.

Other Ways of Disclosing

I’d love to see the “I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review” sentence disappear forever, though I doubt I will. But there are lots of other ways reviewers disclose that strike me as a lot more accurate — and useful to readers and publishers alike.

About 60% of the reviewers I polled who do disclose they get ARCs reported they use some version of this phrase: “Thanks to the publisher for the gifted copy.” This is my personal favorite way to disclose. I like that it names ARCs for what they are: a kind of gift, with no obligations or expectations attached. I also like the expression of gratitude. I love getting to read early copies of books because my favorite thing in the world is championing books I adore. One of the best ways to do that is to talk them up before publication.

Another common version of this to tag publishers on social media. On Bookstagram, it’s common to see reviewers tag publishers and add a comment like, “thanks to the tagged publishers for the gifted copies.” About 40% of people who said they disclose ARCs use this strategy. This makes sense to me because it’s a bit of a good-faith gesture. A publisher sent you a book, hoping you’d review it. Tagging them is a way to let them know that you have; they can take it or leave it. One person I polled summed it up nicely: “For me, mentioning that I got a book from the publisher and tagging them feels like fulfilling my half of the deal.”

I read a lot of books from small indie presses. It takes a fair bit money and time to produce ARCs, and I am genuinely grateful that publishers do it. When I read a book from an indie press and love it, I almost always tag the publisher if I post about it, not just as a way of saying thank you, but as a way to potentially boost my review’s reach, and get that book into the hands of more readers — which is always my goal when I fall in love with a book.

Another popular way to disclose is simply: “I received a free copy of this book.” I like this better than the “in exchange for” sentence. But do I also need to mention that I read a book via the library? That I borrowed it from a friend? That my dad gave it to me for my birthday? One respondent pointed out that, in some ways, receiving an ARC is no different from checking a book out of the library. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than that, but think about it for a minute: are you more inclined to give a library book a positive review because you got it for free? I doubt it. For every reviewer that I polled or have spoken with, even the ones who do disclose, ARCs are the same.

Rioter Margaret Kingsbury uses this phrase: “The publisher sent me this book for review consideration but all opinions are my own.” While I personally feel no need to disclose, I love this because it so accurately describes exactly what happened. This reader was sent a book for review consideration, decided to read it, and has now written a review containing her honest opinions.

Is Disclosing Important?

It depends who you ask. Among the reviewers I polled, the response was mixed, though leaned toward disclosure not being that important. Four respondents expressed some version of: yes, it’s important and people should disclose. Twelve respondents expressed some version of: it doesn’t matter much. A few people mentioned that it depends on the context.

It became abundantly clear, while I was working on this piece, that all reviewers approach this issue differently. People choose to disclose or not for different reasons. What this means for those reading reviews is that, while seeing an ARC disclosure might tell you something, it doesn’t tell you much. Read the review. Read other reviews. Follow people on social media whose opinions speak to you. Read media websites that consistently publish reviews that you find thoughtful, challenging, enjoyable. Judge the work.

Does Seeing ARC Disclosures Change How You Read a Review?

The majority of respondents agreed that seeing an ARC disclosure doesn’t change how they read reviews.

Susie Dumond noted: “It doesn’t really change my opinion of the review, although sometimes it’s a sign to me that the reviewer is someone involved in the book world in some capacity and therefore is likely a frequent reader and reviewer.”

This struck me as a good point — a review disclosure often tells you more about the reviewer and their role in the book world than it does about the review itself.

Someone else mentioned that seeing a disclosure sometimes makes them more skeptical of gushing reviews. This brings up another layer of complexity. I rarely review books I don’t love. I’m not a critic. Sometimes I mention something that didn’t work for me, and every now and then, if I feel strongly about a book I didn’t like, I write about it. But generally I’m jumping up and down about books. Is this one of the reasons I don’t generally disclose? Is there a chance that, while the idea behind disclosing is honesty, people will think I’m dishonest because I only write positive reviews? Another respondent mentioned that they don’t think disclosing is important unless the review is very positive or very negative. There’s a lot to ponder.

The Book World vs. Everyone Else

I couldn’t agree more with this observation from Rioter Jamie Canavés: “Anyone who knows anything about the industry is aware that reviewers get galleys (same as when you read a review for a film that hasn’t come out yet you know they had early access). I guess the disclosure is only for people who would never have thought about this or don’t know how it works.”

This got me thinking about the book industry more broadly. Why is the onus on reviewers to disclose? Books, it seems, are one of the few forms of art/media where this is the expectation. Granted, I don’t have any data to back this up. But when you read a review of a movie, do you look for a disclosure saying the reviewer saw an early screening? What about plays? Isn’t this what previews are — a series of performances before the official opening night, to which a theatre invites all the critics? Are theatre critics expected to disclose they went to a preview? They literally cannot review the show without seeing it. Who cares if they paid for a ticket or not.

Another respondent wrote: “I think it’s useful for people to know generally that most early reviews come courtesy of publisher provided copies but this really matters most when a book is newly released. Once a book has been out in the world does it matter if you bought it or checked it out from the library or borrowed from a friend? Book reviews fall in a different category to me than reviews of most goods or services. Paying for a book does not make you more or less likely to post a positive review, IMO.”

What I’d like, rather than scrolling through disclosure after disclosure in every review I read, is more transparency about how the publishing industry works. Readers have a right to know that early reviewers receive galleys. Despite being an avid reader all my life, I didn’t know what an ARC was until I started writing about books professionally. It’s not a big secret, and we shouldn’t treat it like one.

In Conclusion

I love books. I love reading books and I love writing about books and I love recommending books. That’s why we’re all here, right? I’m also fascinated by the inner workings of industries I’m involved with and/or care about. But the bottom line is that there is no right answer regarding disclosing ARCs. There are reasons to disclose and reasons not to disclose, contexts where it matters more and contexts where it matters less. Do what works for you. Follow reviewers whose work you love. And then get back to reading.


Related Reading:

How to Get Audiobook ARCs

What To Do with the ARCs You Want to Unhaul

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