The Tricky Ethics of Goodreads Giveaway Program

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Everybody loves freebies and, if you’re a bibliophile like me, you especially love it when that freebie is a book. Welcome to the Goodreads Giveaway, a program where GR’s reading millions can get in on some free action by simply registering for the many, many books that site offers for free consumption.

Of course, giveaways are not a new concept. In the publishing industry, ARCs (advanced reading copies) have been provided to readers since the beginning of book-publishing time. The purpose? To generate buzz and provide fodder for reviews leading to sales.

Amazon, the new owners of Goodreads, has its own giveaway program called Amazon Vine. In the beginning, Vine members only had to write reviews for some of the free books they received. After a year or two, however, Amazon changed the rules. All free books had to be reviewed or else you were cut off. That’s right. Your vine would wither and fall off the Giving Tree just like that.

Some Vinesters were not wild about this change, but I saw some justice in it. Why? Because, in this day and age, some people run mini-businesses out of their homes. E-bay is only the best known of the many ways to do this. You get something for free (or at a reduced price) and then resell it on-line for personal profit. It’s the American way, no?

But wait a minute. At least most Vine books are imprinted with “Not for Resale” or “Advanced Reading Copy–Not for Resale” on them. This is often NOT the case with the Goodreads Giveaway program. Meaning? The books obtained for free look like any book you might buy at a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Thus, reselling is easy-peasey.

But is it ethical?

It depends on how you look at it. Some publishers and authors see the purpose of a giveaway as buzz, pure and simple. It gives the book attention. After all, hundreds (and sometimes over a thousand!) readers sign up for the free book. Can this be a bad thing?

Yes and no. If the buzz translates to sales, readers, and reviews, then no, it can’t be a bad thing. But in the case of Goodreads Giveaways, books people sign up for (by default, they  get put onto “to read” lists) are as likely not to be read as read. Even after they WIN the book against hefty odds and it shows up gratis in their mailbox, participants are under no obligation to read or review the book. Life is busy, after all, and as St. Frank of Zappa once said: “So many books, so little time.”

According to GR, excited publishers and authors have good reason to use the Giveaway program. Up to 60% of winners review the books they receive, Goodreads tells us, but this seems optimistic. A look at the stats of some Giveaway participants reveals why. Many posters sign up for free books in serial fashion. Each day dozens upon dozens of additional books accumulate on their “to-read” shelves until you see poster stats like “To-Read: 23,749” next to “Read: 0” or “Read: 7.”

Ouch. Will they ever return to the hopeful author’s “to-read” book in three months or even three years? With 23, 749 books on deck, probably not. Heck, even with 749 or 49 on deck, probably not. There are even Goodreads Giveaway groups, where posters can brag about the spoils of war and the blessings of Lady Luck. If it sounds like fun, it apparently is.

What can we conclude? That, at least in some of the cases, people use the program either for the thrill of the win (an innocent form of on-line gambling) or for the chance to sell books for personal profit. In the case of those who do choose to sell the book, the publisher loses on printing costs and the author loses on royalties.

You might call this a form of piracy, but it’s not. It is legal, after all, and publishers and authors put their books up knowingly, eyes wide open and hoping for the best. Which is really what the Goodreads Giveaway program amounts to from the writer-publisher point of view: Hoping for the best (and what is the publishing industry if not a metaphor for hope?).

Bottom line: If I win a giveaway (and I haven’t among the few I’ve signed up for), I will read it and offer my honest opinion because, to me, that’s not only the purpose but the right thing to do. Could that be bad for the publisher or author? Sure. I could 2-star the book. Is that any worse than not reviewing the book at all and reselling it for personal profit? It’s an interesting question I’ll leave to the philosophers. At least until Goodreads Giveaways follows Amazon Vine’s lead.

 

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