As the next part of my Author Resources series, we're going to talk about how to set up and run ARC teams that don't violate the rules of your publishing platforms!
There's always discussion on how to handle ARCs, especially for self-published authors who have to handle this independently. That being said, it's important to understand the rules that you have to abide by before getting started and sending out ARCs.
I am a rule follower. A goody-two-shoes if you will. Breaking rules knowingly makes me itch. So, when I first heard about this conversation, we all know that I went down my research rabbit hole to figure out what the rules are. In this post, I'll be sharing that research, complete with links and sources for you to check for yourself.
What are ARCs and Why Do I Need Them?
First, let's define what ARCs are, and what the purpose of ARC teams are.
ARC stands for Advance Reader Copy. These are digital or physical copies of your FINAL, FORMATTED book that are sent pre-release day to individuals in exchange for their honest reviews.
There is a notion going around that ARCs are sent so that your ARC readers can provide feedback and corrections. You should have already done that. If you're sending out ARCs for that purpose, your ARC readers are actually beta readers. This post goes into more detail about the differences between alpha, beta, and ARC readers.
The purpose of sending out ARCs is to get early reviews. These early reviews help retailers, specifically Amazon, boost your book in their search algorithms and signals to them that "hey, people are reading this book." For Amazon in particular, getting reviews is incredibly important, as Amazon's algorithm doesn't start prioritizing your book in searches until it has 50 reviews.
That being said, it doesn't matter the RATING of these reviews.
Negative reviews, and all reviews, provide social proof to potential buyers that other actual humans have read this book and have opinions on it. If your reviews are all positive, people will think they're not genuine. You WANT some negative reviews. They provide legitimacy.
You will never write a book that everyone likes. It's physically not possible. So if you don't have any negative reviews, it's going to seem forced, faked, and staged, and people will be wary.
At this point, I'm sure I'm getting the question, "Do I even need to send out ARCs?"
No, you don't. This is a totally personal decision based on your risk tolerance, personality, marketing plan, and business strategy. You don't have to send them out, and in fact, many authors don't send them out, especially if they're more established in their readership.
But, this post is going to assume you are sending out ARCs. So first, let's talk about the terms and conditions we have to abide by, and then we'll talk about how to actually get ARC readers and run your team.
Terms & Conditions
The practice of giving out free copies of your book in exchange for a review is a transaction, even though no money is changing hands. Thus, many retailers have rules about "paying" for a review.
I want to be very clear here: you cannot, and should not, pay money for reader reviews. This is underhanded and not allowed.
Only an exchange of a free or discounted book can be given for reviews. As a small caveat that we'll discuss more later, paying for a company to organize ARCs for you is not the same as paying for a review. We're talking about giving money directly to a reviewer.
Note: This clarification also does not include paying for trade or editorial reviews like Kirkus, Reedsy, or Publishers Weekly. These are a different beast entirely, go on a different part of your book's page (and are uploaded by you to your Author Central page, not the customer reviews section), and I'll do a full post about these later.
Next, I'm going to go through the T&C for Amazon reviews, because that's where most authors find themselves getting into trouble. However, these rules generally apply to all retailers that self-published authors can reach. If you have a question about a specific retailer's rules, I'd encourage you to Google "(PLATFORM) review conditions" and see what comes up.
According to Amazon's Reviewer Guidelines, author's cannot require or influence a review in exchange for a free or discounted copy of their book.
What is meant by influencing a review? It means any actions or behaviors that make readers want to leave a review different from one they would have left without the author being involved.
As far as the requiring bit, it's important to explain to your ARC readers, that according to the Amazon Review Guidelines, they have to disclose they got the book for free. However, the standard language of "I received this book in exchange for an honest review" makes the review seem like it's required and can sometimes get flagged.
While you shouldn't tell your ARC team what to put in their review, educating them on the Amazon rules is important, and a recommendation for wording ARC reviews that both discloses that the reader received the book and is not being required to leave a review could be something like the below added at the beginning or end of their review.
"I received this book for free from the author and am voluntarily leaving this review."
However, Amazon does have a history of not following its own rules, especially when it comes to book reviews (which are notably one of their only exceptions for review conditions). So the wording above may still get your review dinged. It's ultimately up to you and your readers what you're both willing to risk when reviewing. That said, it's important to have all the information.
Examples of influencing reviews can include:
Offering other free books in exchange for reviewing a particular book (if you review book 1 of this series, I'll give you books 1-3 of this other series for free)
Incentivizing positive reviews with benefits (if you leave me a good review, you get to stay on my ARC team and get ARCs of all future books)
Offering unrelated discounts or giveaways (if you leave a review, you get a discount code for my merch shop or you get an Amazon giftcard)
Obviously these are not all the ways authors can influence reviews, but they are some of the most common.
Amazon is very strict with their reviews, and if you are found to be influencing customer reviews or curating your customer reviews, you can get in big trouble. Your reviews can be removed, your KDP account can be closed, or you can have legal action taken against you if you're found to be violating federal trade and anti-competition laws.
I know that all might have been...intimidating, but it's very important to do this research before you publish.
Just like with any law or rule, ignorance of it is not a valid defense. Authors, especially self-published authors, are generally not in a position to be able to defend themselves against these lawsuits should they happen.
I also understand that no author wants bad reviews, especially not on release day, so I get that your instincts might point you towards wanting to only have those who review positively on your team, but then that's not a valid ARC team, that's a Street/PR Team.
I'm working on a post about the distinctions between an ARC Team and a Street/PR Team, but for now, here's a quick and dirty one:
ARC Teams - read and review the book early. that's it, they have no obligation to talk about it after they've left their honest review.
Street/PR Teams - promote the book before, during and after publication, hyping it up and talking positively about it on social media to help the book and the author gain new readers.
Some authors combine their teams, which make the boundaries a little muddy, so I'd highly encourage having separate teams. Even if they're filled by the same people, having the distinction in your mind and on paper will help keep the appropriate boundaries for your ARC readers.
So, What Can I Do?
You can still have a lot of leeway in terms of organizing your ARC team! Just because there's rules to follow doesn't mean you don't have ownership over how your team is set up.
Like always, I'm going to present you with a few options of how some authors run their ARC teams, and you can decide which one is the best fit for you. You can also decide that none of these fit, and do it yourself! That's the beauty of it; there's still a lot of wiggle room while not breaking your KDP contract.
You can also still request that ARC readers who will be leaving lower than a 3 star review to hold off on posting their review until a week or so after release. This keeps you from having a negative review on your release day, while also keeping from influencing the reader's review.
While being on an ARC team isn't a right, it's a privilege, it's highly unethical and questionable to remove someone from your ARC team simply because they are leaving a negative review.
It can be seen as curating your reviews, or it can be seen as treating your ARC team as a Street Team, which are again, different. Additionally, just because that reviewer didn't care for one of your books, doesn't mean they will hate all of your books.
That being said, it's absolutely okay to require that they must actually leave reviews to stay on the team. If they're getting ARCs and not leaving any reviews (good or bad), that's reasonable grounds to remove them from the team.
Now, let's talk about how to find ARC readers and build your ARC Team.
Building Your ARC Team
If you already have a decent social media presence, this part will probably be easy. Make a post on your social media platforms with a call for ARC readers. Be specific about which book it's for, the timelines for when the ARC will be sent, and how long the interest form will be open. Then, using a form like this one, collect interested reader's information. Once you close the interest form, it's time to vet the applicants.
Some authors will build their first teams from everyone and anyone who applies, and some are a bit more discerning. If you decide to be discerning, for whatever reason (most commonly limited numbers of ARCs available), I can suggest a few key points to look at when deciding who to add to your team:
Activity on social media - I don't suggest looking at follower count, but I do recommend choosing people who actively are posting. If someone hasn't posted in the past month, I would be cautious about adding them.
Relevancy of social media - if someone applies and all their social accounts are about baking and cookies, and they have NO posts about books...I would be cautious about adding them.
Review history - do they review ARCs often? If this is beyond book 1 in a series, have they read and reviewed the first book? If they've never reviewed a book before in their life, I would be cautious about adding them (I know everyone starts somewhere, but this is for people who choose to be discerning about their team)
Once you decide who you want to have on your team and who will not be making the cut, you need to email ALL OF THEM. Those who are joining the team need an email with all the details, including at least: when and how they will get an ARC, when the release date is, when reviews should be posted by, expectations if they have a negative review (should they hold off or is it fair game), if they will be receiving just this ARC or if they will be receiving all ARCs in the future, and how to contact you for questions.
Those people who applied that you won't be inviting onto your team also need an email. It's not nice or professional to just leave them hanging. A simple, "Thank you for applying, unfortunately due to limitations on the number of ARCS (or whatever reason), you were not selected for this ARC." Be nice, be professional, and if you're going to do ARCs on a by-book basis, invite them to apply again for the next book and give them your criteria you used to select members.
If you have zero social media presence, you might be better served with using ARC tour services that have their own in-house ARC teams until you build more of a following and presence. These are services like BookSirens or Booksprout (or NetGalley if you can afford them) or tour companies like NextStep PR, Book of Matches Media, Hidden Hollow Tours, RR Book Tours, Peachy Keen Author Services, or any other company that does ARC tours.
Using these companies takes the onus completely off you for handling ARCs and interacting with ARC readers. If you don't have the time or energy to run an ARC team, I highly suggest these.
ARC Team Set Ups
This section is assuming you are taking responsibility for setting up and running your own ARC team, rather than going through a service provider to handle ARCs for you. There are a few ways to run your team, but I'm going to present the three most common ones.
The first, and most common way to run an ARC team is the opt-out method. This means authors will send an ARC (either digital or physical) to your entire team for every book you publish, and typically, unless the reader specifically contacts you saying they won't be able to review a certain book, it's assumed that the entire team will review each book you publish. This method requires a bit less intense management than other options.
The second way to run your team is to have it be opt-in. This means authors have a dedicated team, but ARCs are sent out on to those who request them on a by-book basis. This means that whenever you have a new book coming out, you will send a call to your established ARC team and ask them who wants an ARC of this specific book. This enables your ARC team to pass over books they don't want to read, or don't have time to read, without having to take the initiative themselves.
Many authors, if they have a significant number of their established ARC team pass on a book, will then open up ARCs to the public to fill out the remaining team slots for that specific book only.
The third way is the most labor intensive, and it's to not have an established ARC team and do public calls for each book. This means you will have a form and a call for ARC readers for each book, you will vet the responses for each book, and then for the next book, you'll do it all over again. This approach is taken most commonly by authors who write across genres or audiences and want different readers/reviewers for each book.
Okay, so you've got your ARC team, you've got your set up, now let's talk about managing the team.
Managing Your ARC Team
Before I became an author, I was a PA to several authors and one of my main jobs was running their ARC and/or Street Teams. I've seen some good approaches, and some bad approaches. So here's my recommendations for how to manage your team. (I know, gasp, she's actually giving us her opinion instead of just all our options)
The relationship with authors and readers is a unique one, even with readers on your ARC team. There's a power dynamic at play that you have to keep in mind, along with the terms & conditions of not influencing any reviews. The best way I've found to handle ARC teams is a very hands-off approach, which looks like this:
Email the team with details and expectations of reviewing (such as when and where to leave reviews, any important dates, and requirements about waiting for negative reviews if you decide to do that)
Send out the ARC via whatever method you choose (I recommend BookFunnel).
Email the team that the ARC has gone out, and reminding them of the expectations. I also like to include all the retailer links to the book in this email so they're easy to find and get to.
On release day, send a reminder email to the team that the book is live, remind them of the expectations and include the retailer links again.
About a week or two after release day, send a thank you email to the entire team with a form or a spreadsheet for them to upload the links to their reviews and the deadline for when to have their links uploaded. DO NOT, and I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT read their reviews. Unless you are sure you can handle negative reviews, just don't read it. Check that the link is valid, and move on.
After your deadline for links, see who hasn't put their links in. I generally suggest a polite email to these people, individually, asking if everything is okay, and reminding them of the dates and requesting their links.
If they do not respond or do not review, send a polite and professional email removing them from the team because they did not leave a review. You can determine how many "strikes" you give for this. I typically did 3, meaning if they didn't review or communicate they wouldn't be able to review 3 times in a row, they were removed from the team.
That's it. Don't harass your team for reviews. If they didn't give them, ask once and then move on.
In the end, if you don't want to manage your team like this, that's fine. You do you, and this is your business. My only caveat is that however you run it, make sure you are being professional. I cannot tell you how many "authors behaving badly" comes from the handling of ARC teams.
Be professional. Be polite. Remember that you are a business now, and if it wouldn't be acceptable for a company to do it, you shouldn't do it either. You're trying to sell a product, and acting accordingly is important.
This was a very long post, so if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out!