Raiders of the Lost ARCs

Many of my librarian friends recently returned from the ALA conference and gave me an earful. “I went by the Hyperion booth,” they told me, “and there were no ARCs for Battle of the Labyrinth! What’s up with that?”

An ARC, as any librarian or bookseller can tell you, is an advance reader copy. They are uncorrected proofs for books, printed months before the actual book is released, and typically distributed at conferences or by sales reps to book buyers, so these influential people can decide whether or not to purchase the book.

There are indeed no advance reader copies of Battle of the Labyrinth. None were printed. Why, you ask?

As a writer, I have a love/hate relationship with ARCs.

Now on the plus side, I completely get why ARCs are necessary and important. Book buyers need a chance to decide what they are going to order, and they need to make this decision months in advance. Without ARCs, it is very difficult to know whether a book is any good. This is especially true for new books and first-time authors. You can’t tell how good the product is unless you get a sample. ARCs can build buzz and word-of-mouth excitement. They are a critical marketing tool. When the Lightning Thief came out, it was my first children’s book, and it would have been crazy not to do an advance reader copy. We needed to do everything we could to get the word out. Likewise, there will be an ARC for The Maze of Bones, the first 39 Clues book, because it’s the beginning of a new series and it’s fair to let book buyers take a look in advance and decide if they think it will be a hit with their patrons.

But for Percy Jackson, as the series kept building, I found myself getting more and more annoyed about ARCs. I tried not to say anything, but as stacks of Titan’s Curse ARCs were distributed last spring, I would do school events and try to build up excitement and anticipation for the upcoming book’s release. Often I would hear: “Oh, we’ve already read it. Our librarian brought it back from ____ (xyz conference) three months ago and there’s a waiting list fifty kids long.” I really gritted my teeth every time I heard this, and I heard it a lot.

Now to be clear, it’s not that I think I was losing sales. It’s not a money thing at all. A lot of people who read the book in ARC format went right out and bought the book when it was published. The numbers made that clear. And I certainly don’t blame librarians for wanting to share the book with their kids, because getting kids excited about reading is every librarian’s goal.

What bothers me is giving away the story before it is time. Last spring at a publisher dinner, I was talking with Mo Willems, who said something that’s stuck with me ever since. He said when he does a school event, he always stays out of sight until the kids are seated and he is introduced – whether he has to stand behind a sheet curtain or out in the hallway or whatever – so he can make a big entrance. Presenting is theater, he said, whether it’s in a kindergarten classroom or a packed auditorium. If he was standing around as the kids came in, all the magic would go out of the show.

He’s so right. And books are theater, too. I love having a story full of secrets that will not be revealed until the book is published. I love keeping people in suspense. I am so looking forward to May 6, when Battle of the Labyrinth comes out, because that is my ‘big entrance.’ An ARC would take all the magic out of that. There would be nothing special about the book’s release if the plot was already known by thousands of kids and librarians months in advance. To me, it’s like preparing for a big play and having half the audience milling around backstage hours before the show starts. It’s like planning a party for your friends on Friday and having everyone show up to your house on Tuesday. I love seeing you guys – but not yet! It’s not time!

Besides, at this point, people know the series. We don’t need to do ARCs. If you liked the first three books, you have a fairly good idea what to expect with Battle of the Labyrinth. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll like it. We get more attention and build more excitement keeping people in suspense than we would by printing ARCs.

So no, there are no ARCs for Battle of the Labyrinth. You can blame me. Everyone will have to find out the answers about Percy’s next adventure at the same time! And I couldn’t be happier. That’s me standing behind the sheet curtain in the corner, waiting to jump out on May 6 and yell ta-da!

Rick Riordan