This isn’t a post I ever thought I’d write but I suppose I didn’t really think I’d end up watching the entire filmography of Hugh Grant. Anyway, a preview of Husband Material recently went up on NetGalley, available for anybody with a NetGalley account to download (it’s still available, by the way) and there were quite a few readers who expressed consternation/anxiety to me about whether they’d be able to access it. There was a sense of NG being for … well … other people, I think? And I’ve had similar conversations with people just in the general course of my life as a human who reads books (as well as writing them) so I thought I’d just do a brief post about NetGalley, how I use it, some of its potential pitfalls, and ways of thinking about it that might make it seem a bit less intimidating.
So, let’s start with the basics.
What is NetGalley?
NetGalley is an electronic distribution system which publishers or authors can use to distribute Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of books and audiobooks before they’re published/released. ARCs will usually be a pre-proofed version of the book that is perfectly readable but not yet a hundred percent ready-to-be-released polished—something you’re expected to bear in mind when you’re reading i.e. don’t take a star off your rating, or complain about the book being poorly edited, because there’s a typo on page 163.
The general economy of ARCs is that you’re exchanging access to a rough cut of the finished book in exchange for a review. And I think this is where the first level of NG Imposter Syndrome kicks in because you don’t have to be a reporter for the New York Times to count as a ‘reviewer’. As long as you write reviews somewhere, if it’s a Goodreads account, if you have a blog, or an Instagram, or a YouTube account, or, y’know, a TikTok like a young person, or even your Twitter. If you are the sort of person who talks about books on the internet then you’re a reviewer, and if you want access to ARCs, you can probably get access to ARCs.
With couple of provisos.
The first proviso being that NG is partially geo-locked. There’s separate sites for the following five territories: the US, the UK, France, Germany and Japan. Which means that while you can access any of them while outside of those territories (I confess I use netgalley.com and netgalley.co.uk simultaneously and will often get books from UK NG that US NG turns me down for and, hilariously enough, vice versa) you will likely have fewer books available to read or request, or have fewer requests granted, within your non-home territory.
As a British reader I will tell you right now, this is frustrating and often discouraging. But it’s actually a publisher thing, not a NG thing. Basically, when a publisher contracts the rights to a book (that is the unglamorous way of describing what happens when an author sells a book) they either contract the worldwide distribution rights or they contract the distribution rights to certain territories. And that varies publisher to publisher, book to book, author to author. But what it comes down to is: unless the publisher owns the world rights to a book, they should only be giving general access to the book to people within the territory for which they the own the rights. Otherwise, they’re impinging on what may potentially be the distribution rights of another publisher. All of which is very boring and annoying, but that’s how it works.
The second proviso is that very popular books in popular genres by big name authors are going to be in greater demand than, uh, other books available on the site. Even if you aren’t denied access to a book because of your location, try not to get too consumed by the Gatsby’s green light of hyper sought-after titles. You should always try—you might get lucky—but titles like these are where publishers are likely to start looking for reasons to turn you down. Not, I hasten to add, in a malicious want-you-to-suffer way but if you’ve got potentially thousands of requests for a book to click through priority is likely to be given to a) people in the home region and b) people with more established reviewing platforms or larger followings.
Which brings me to my next point.
It’s not personal, it’s NetGalley
Nobody likes rejection, and I think human beings have a particularly developed tendency to read rejection into abstract situations, or patterns of rejection into random systems. And even though asking for a book on NG is clicking a button and being told you can’t have the book is a form email that says “sorry, you can’t have the book” it can fuck with your head a little.
I mean, sometimes I get approved for, like, academic textbooks in fields for which I have no expertise whatsoever or high-profile pieces of literary fiction which, again, is not a genre I have any sort of reputation in. And the next moment I’ll be turned down for the same queer romcom that the editor literally asked me to blurb two weeks ago. I went through a stage of getting nothing but rejection from Publisher Redacted and, because I’m a tenacious prick, I decided to ask a publicist who worked for Publisher Redacted what was going on during the course of a conversation about something else entirely. I assure you I wasn’t all “I’m Alexis Hall, benches, what is wrong with you”; I think I just asked what I could do improve my chances here and it turned out that the requests were getting rejected solely because of my region. They hadn’t even noticed it was me requesting.
Which is not say that publishers should be paying that much attention or that due weight was not being accorded to my great name as a barely known writer of some books some people might have read. It’s more that I could have had a million Instagram followers, or being the most insightful reviewer who ever reviewed, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference because the house policy is to insta-reject requests from outside the home region.
So where I’m going with this is: don’t be afraid to request things and don’t be discouraged if you don’t get them. You’ll never know why you didn’t. But it’s definitely not a reflection on you as a reviewer or an implied criticism of your level of clout or influence. And it’s definitely, definitely got nothing to do with you as a person.
The Mechanics of Requesting
Books on NG will appear before you in one of four states: archived, read now, request, wishlist.
- Archived: means the book is, um, archived—which means it’s either close to release or has already been released and nobody can request it anymore.
- Read now: means you’re either auto-approved by the publisher (lucky you) or the book just happens to be available to anyone who wants it. Some publishers do this temporarily to generate buzz for certain titles—like a “read this book for this weekend only!” type thing, which means lots of people will (hopefully) be talking about the book at once which will draw other eyes to the book in question. Alternatively, the book could be a debut in which case, unless the author is super well-connected, there may not yet an established fanbase to draw upon and so the publisher is attempting to get people interested. Or else an intern made a mistake when uploading the book in which case you should grab it right the heck now if it’s something you wanted access to.
- Request: is the standard thing you’ll see as you’re using the site. If you see this, it means you can click the button, and the publisher will either decide to release the book to you or they won’t. See above, though, regarding this being an impersonal process.
- Wishlist: this is a complicated one because it can sometimes be the default state for all books in a publisher’s catalogue if they’ve geo-locked everything and you’re in the wrong territory. The best way to check is simply to click on the publisher’s name and see if everything they’re got listed is ‘wishlist’ with no ‘request’ option for anything. Assuming this isn’t the case, publishers will sometimes move books to wishlist when they’ve already given out a lot of ARCs or the release date of the book is approaching. When a book is wishlisted, it means the publisher can choose to grant a certain number of wishes, which means the book will made available at random to exactly that number of people who have wished for the book. I’ve never had a wish come true, but I might just be terminally unlucky. If nothing else, it’s a good way to signal interest in and support for particular titles to a publisher – so if you can’t request, there’s no harm in wishing.
How To Get Started
As NG themselves are keen to assure you (I am in no way affiliated with NG, other than being a member of the site) making an account is quick and easy: you’ll need basic information like a name and an email address.
You can also choose—and I personally appreciate this—how you want to display your name on your reviews on the site. You can either be first name, last name (and then your member type) or an auto-generated alias. Personally I go by ‘Reviewer 854169’ because I think it has as nice ring to it, and it means I know that if a publisher wants to feature a review I’ve written on the site, it’ll be because of the review itself, not who wrote the review.
Finally you have to pick a role, which for most of us will be simply “reviewer” (unless you’re one of the others, like a bookseller or an educator, of course) followed by the type of reviewer you are, which again, will either be “blogger” if you have a blog or “consumer reviewer” if you primarily review on GR and Amazon.
And that’s all you need to do set yourself up with a shiny new NG account with a review feedback score of, um, ZERO PERCENT. NG itself has a really solid help section on getting started that I shall not pointlessly replicate here but one of the best ways to start working on that review feedback percentage score is the ‘read now’ section on the site.
There’s usually a fair number of books, from all genres, in this section and you can access them freely, regardless of your blogging platform, feedback score or anything else. Honestly, you could probably have a pretty interesting NG experience if you only ever interacted with ‘read now’ titles but they’re a really good way establish your foothold on the platform for when you want to start requesting specific books.
Interlude: that’s really all there is to it
That really is all there is to it. And as long as you have realistic expectations about the books you expect to be able to access, you don’t need to be anyone “special” or already embedded in the publishing industry to request ARCs.
Geolocks and serendipity aside, there are, however, a few broad strategies you can undertake for increasing your ARC-receiving chances:
- Have a properly filled out profile alongside links to your social media accounts
- Keep your NG feedback percentage high (the site recommends 80% but I read like a demon and I haven’t managed to get further than the mid-70s)
- You don’t have to write an essay per book or pass a GCSE in whatever you’ve just read, but even if your review is only a paragraph or two you can still make it a meaningful comment on your experience with the book.
- Goodreads alone is absolutely fine, but sometimes a secondary reviewing platform can be helpful (though you should only start a blog or a bookstagram or whatever if it would be actually be fun for you: it’s not worth it solely to get ARCs)
- If you don’t have or want to set up a secondary reviewing platform, consider putting your review on Amazon on release day: again, this isn’t mandatory, and it shouldn’t feel mandatory, but it’s a way of supporting the author if that’s something you want to do. It’s also another way to—and forgive this awful corporate language—add value to your reviews in the eyes of the publisher. Which, in turn, means they’re more likely to approve you for things.
That’s pretty much all need to know about using NetGalley (although they do have an extensive help section on the site itself, and I’m actually quite charmed by their Bookish blog) but this would not be a blog post by me if I left it at a mere fifteen hundred words so now I’m going to dig into some of the NetGalley pitfalls and talk a bit about how I use the site personally.
Turning your hobby into a job & keeping up with the NetGalley Joneses
This is honestly probably NG’s biggest peril, because it’s very easy for that shiny pile of books you were super excited about reading to suddenly feel like an obligation. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for this.
The first is that receiving books direct from a publisher can genuinely feel different to getting them for yourself: yes, there’s an aspect, of “hurrah, I have been blessed with a gift from on high, lucky me” but also an aspect of knowing that you’ve become, in however small a way, part of a system that has expectations of you. It’s almost like … you know when you were kid and the biscuits you’d sneak from the biscuit tin were always the best tasting biscuits? And when you were given permission from your parents to have a biscuit before bed, it was still a nice biscuit, and you were glad to have the biscuit, but it wasn’t quite as magical as the biscuit you took for yourself?
There’s a profound and inescapable pleasure in reading a book for you and you alone–whether or not you choose to review it after. And you shouldn’t let NetGalley, for its all excitements and opportunities, take that away from you. On top of which, dwelling in what I’ve sometimes called ‘future bookland’ can be oddly lonely: I mean you’ve read this amazing book and you’re desperate to talk about it but … but … hardly anyone else has read it. For myself, I deal with this by consuming a varied diet of ARCs and books from my tottering tbr: it might not look like this from my GR shelves but that’s because that I don’t review every book I read for myself, whereas obviously I’m required to review every ARC I receive.
Well, I say required: there’s an incredibly useful feature on NG that allows you to return a title without supplying an official review. The expectation is, of course, that you’ll be reviewing and if you choose the “will not submit feedback” option it won’t count towards your review feedback percent (I may overly obsessed with my review feedback percent – I know plenty of reviewers who receive a steady supply arcs and their percentage is low. But I’ve always been a swot, so if you tell me to achieve 80%, I will torture myself until I do) but the option is there in case there’s some reason you feel you can’t review usefully or, indeed, at all—like there’s a technical problem with the file you were sent for example. I use this option if the publisher has been unnecessarily aggressive about reviewing (like insisting that any review could be used in publicity materials without the review author’s consent), there’s something triggering in the book itself that I can’t deal with, or my review would slant heavily negative in a way I don’t feel it would be fair to the book if it was published before the book was released. This is not to say, I hasten to add, that negative reviews should be suppressed or people shouldn’t write negative reviews in the first place—but since I’m an author with a platform of my own, I don’t want to unduly influence the way a book is received pre-publication, especially if there’s only a limited number of reviews. After publication when it’s open season on who can access and write about the book, I feel it matters less, because then my voice has less weight to it in the chorus of other voices.
The other thing it’s worth wrapping your head round, or more precisely ejecting from your head, is any sense of obligation that sometimes accompanies receiving an ARC. Or rather there’s exactly one obligation: which is that you provide a review (ideally an honest and meaningful review, but the base requirement is simply a review). The thing is, though, you don’t have to feel grateful or lucky or indebted for more than that single review. I’m not saying this to criticise publishers but ultimately they are businesses: the name of the game is always going to be money, so if they gave you a free book, it’s because they feel giving you a free book now will earn them more money in the long run—either because of your individual influence or because the cumulative influence of giving a free book to a bunch of people will essentially work like crowd-sourcing for public enthusiasm. All this is independent of what you personally thought of the book: if it turns out you didn’t like it, that’s about the book, not about the ARC process.
I’ve definitely seen some ARC receivers exhibit a certain self-consciousness around their reviews. Like, I’ll skim the reviews on the NG and see 5 star ratings followed by “I didn’t actually enjoy this”—which is a situation, I think, that arises because the reviewer is concerned that the publisher will withhold future ARCs if they don’t deliver something the publisher could interpret as positive. I obviously don’t work in marketing but my suspicion is—and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong—that it doesn’t work like this. I mean, if you trash every single book a publisher puts out they might get wary, and if you deliberately decide to hate-read every new release from an author you don’t like you might eventually stop getting ARCs for that specific person. But, in general, what you owe—and the amount of obligation you should feel you owe—begins with a book and ends with a review. That’s it. There isn’t even a timescale for the review although it’s probably a bit impolite to keep a book on your NG shelf for 87 years, and you will need to have downloaded the title before it’s archived or you won’t be able to access it.
The other thing that can drain the pleasure out of NG faster than … um … a drainy thing is well, it’s this:
My advice in using NG is to simply pretend this section doesn’t exist. Don’t look at it. Don’t worry about it. Don’t even think about it. For whatever reason, there can be a prestige culture around ARCs and about getting access to high demand titles: you absolutely don’t have to play this game and, unless you’re a very specific sort of person (who I am not condemning, by the way, you do you, always), it will probably make you miserable.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t request books that you want to read, regardless of whether they’re in demand or not, but you shouldn’t request books out of FOMO or to feel relevant or keep up with the NetGalley Joneses. One of my meaner Bookstagram hobbies is to find one of those high-profile influencers who lives in a perfect house with white shelves and exquisite buttery light and watch them ceremonially display the book they’re oh-so-excited about that the publisher were oh-so-kind to send them personally in a hand-carved rosewood box or whatever. And then wait. And wait. And wait for the post they do when they’ve read this book that they were oh-so-excited to receive. I have yet to see this happen, and I have been playing this game for a while.
I should make clear, however, that I’m telling this story not to criticise, but to point out that there are people who like reading books and there are people who like receiving ARCS. It’s absolutely fine to be either but, for your own well-being, you shouldn’t confuse one with the other, or think you need to be the one that you’re not.
Where I’m going with this, is that it’s perfectly possible to find a way to use NG that works specifically and distinctly for you—and that you don’t need to feel beholden to either publishers or to other people. Having just steered us from the Scylla of “keeping up with the NG Joneses” I don’t want to accidentally get sucked back into the “turning your hobby into a job” Charybdis but there is honestly scope for your ARC choices to make a real difference, when it comes to books that (for reasons you can probably intuit) are less likely to get reviewer attention than others.
It’s hard to do a direct comparison because books get loaded onto NG at different times and released at different times but just looking at the Berkley catalogue and focusing solely on contemporary set romcoms with illustrated covers (non-debuts):
- Black author writing queer (book releasing Feb): 86 reviews
- White author writing queer (book releasing Feb): 246 reviews
- White author writing m/f (book releasing March): 259 reviews
- White author writing m/f (book releasing April): 103 reviews
- Black author writing queer (book releasing April): 15 reviews
- White author writing m/f (book releasing May): 372 reviews
- White author writing m/f (book releasing August): 191 reviews
- Black author writing m/f (book releasing August): 8 reviews
And that’s with the backing of a major publishing house. Of course, it’s important for non-professional reviewers to request books on the basis of their personal tastes and preferences—no point grabbing an enemies-to-lovers from a marginalised author if you hate enemies-to-lovers—and reviewing needs to be about your enjoyment not about social justice. But there’s no reason it can’t be about both. Something that comes up quite a lot in the conversations I have with readers about using NG comes down to “I just don’t see what me and my tiny blog and my GR account with 50 friends can do.” So, firstly, I don’t think reviewing needs to about what you can “do” per se. But if you feel your reviewing must or should “do” something then I offer the stats above as an indicator of the things your reviews could potentially “do”. The most significant which is helping to build a community of readers—of ordinary readers, not special magic influencers—in which books by marginalised authors are talked about as a matter of course as much as books by non-marginalised authors.
So in summary my top tips for using NG successfully:
- Use NG as part of a varied reading diet, including the books you’ve bought / taken out of the library for yourself
- Avoid the ‘most requested’ list like you would the dickhead on the bus who isn’t a wearing a mask
- Unsubscribe from the NG suggestions email: it’s simply too tempting and you’ll get cool in your eyes and end requesting a bunch of books you might not actually have chosen to read and reading will ultimately feel like a chore
- Don’t request a gazillion books at once because if you have a massive NG shelf it’ll feel intimidating and … once again … like a chore
- Don’t take rejections personally
- But also don’t self-reject: if you want something, ask for the thing. The worst you can get is a form email saying no
- Browse ‘read now’ as way to increase your NG feedback percentage score and also to find titles you might otherwise have overlooked
- Read what you want, not what you feel you should, or what everybody else seems to be reading
- Even if you think you’re a nobody without a major social media following, word of mouth is still one of the most powerful (and unpredictable) mechanisms for selling books. I can only speak for myself but when I skim down GR reviews trying to decide if I want to buy a book, I will give much more attention to the honest thoughts of Reviewer 867363 than I will five stars from a Big Name Author.