In the world of publishing, the ARC is not King. The ARC is sort of like the King's herald, the one who goes beating at the doors of every noble in the land to announce that way-hey, there's a ball coming up, and every marriageable girl in the Kingdom is invited. When the ARC arrives, all the local lords assess it, maybe take a peek at it behind closed doors, and decide just how much they're willing to spend on new dresses for those pretty little maids in waiting. The ARC sets the stage, and gets the discussions started.
The ARC isn't your only marketing tool, of course. There are hundreds of ways that people learn about books, from author websites to word of mouth to advertisements in industry magazines. But it's the ARC that kicks things off, much like Noah and his ark kicked off an international boat-building industry. You know. Later. After we got over that whole "fear death by water" thing that was going on at the time.
I'll be honest: There are issues with ARCs. Some people sell them, which is bad and wrong and totally uncool, and also makes me die a little bit inside. Some people don't actually get around to reading them, turning them, instead, into somewhat expensive, really weird paperweights. They're fragile, so they fall apart under any sort of rough or extended use—and for people like me, who tend to read their favorite parts eight times, take books in the bathtub, and generally...let's not say "abuse," but, instead, "experience" their reading material, this can result in my finishing the ARC in its new incarnation as a handful of unconnected pages. They aren't perfect.
That said...the ARC is a way to build buzz early. The ARC is a way to get the book out there into the world, gaining support, courting blurbs and positive reviews, and basically saying "Hi, how are you, I'd really like it if we could get to know each other better." Have I had ARCs show up on eBay? Yeah. I have. I've gritted my teeth when people came up to me to proudly tell me about the ARC that they just bought off of the Internet, and tried not to say anything when they went on to tell me that they wouldn't be buying the mass market edition because "This one is more special."
But I've had more people come up to me and tell me, in all sincerity, "I heard about your book when a friend loaned me the ARC." Or: "I saw a review posted of an ARC of your book, and that's when I decided I wanted to read it."
What brought all this on? John Scalzi has some comments on the concept of the "eARC"—an ARC issued only as an electronic file, and I found them really fascinating, from both a practical and a philosophical point of view. The discussion in the comments is also fascinating, with people calling out both the good and bad aspects of the physical and virtual ARCs. One of the ones that really spoke to me was the concept of scarcity. See, ARCs are intrinsically scarce. Only so many are printed; there is no second print run. If there's an error in the ARC, that goes out to everyone. If an ARC gets out before you want it to, well, that's your tough luck. And I look at all the fuss and bother about runaway ARCs, and wonder...
How long is really going to take for somebody to break the encryption on the eARC? And really, how long is it going to take before some people start saying "Well, if you're posting the text of something that was always intended to be free (because ARCs are not for sale, remember?), how is that piracy?" I can see the justifications from here. (No, I don't think the majority of people would ever even consider that. Sadly, as keeps coming up, piracy isn't going anywhere, and it makes my cats cry. Making my cats cry is a cruel, cruel thing.) Going eARC-only limits the chance for surprise readers, for readership on buses and in bathrooms, and for readers who don't have an ebook reader. If we go eARC-only, I won't be reading my own ARCs. Pardon me while I find this...ironic.
I hope we can find good answers. I hope we're asking the right questions. And I hope that when you're invited to the ball, you'll put on a nice dress, and you'll come.