Interview: Fran Toolan of NetGalley

Advance review copies seem to be one aspect of the book business that has a lot to gain from the increasing digitization of publishing. After all, ARCs are meant to be disposable (all those "not for resale" warnings), and every publicist I've ever talked to has had the experience of shipping them out by the hundreds with little actual result.

So, when I discovered a new service that wants to make electronic galleys available to reviewers, journalists, librarians, and other people, I wanted to know more. To find out, I conducted this interview with Fran Toolan of NetGalley.

(for more interviews, see Conversational Reading's Interview Page)

Fran Toolan is Chief Igniter of Firebrand Technologies, owners of NetGalley.

Scott Esposito: What exactly is NetGalley and how does it work? Specifically, how does it connect publishers with people who might want to read advance copies of books?

Fran Toolan: NetGalley is a service for people who read and recommend books. Publishers upload their galleys, plus any marketing and promotional information; then invite contacts to view their title on NetGalley. Readers can also find new titles through NetGalley’s Public Catalog, and request to review those titles from the publisher.

SE: Who is this service geared toward? Book reviewers only, or do you envision other applications?

FT: Book reviewers, definitely, but also other groups of “professional readers” such as journalists, librarians, professors, booksellers, bloggers, etc. Anyone who reads and recommend books can use NetGalley.

One of the most interesting aspects of NetGalley is the ability for publishers to include multimedia files with their galley. We support a wide range of file types—could be book trailers, illustrations, audio files, videos, simple Word docs or PDFs. This allows publishers to send a dynamic galley “package” which can be as creative and wide-reaching as they want it to be, to entice readers to engage with the title.

SE: What is the cost to publishers and reviewers who want to use the service?

FT: As a new service for Firebrand (NetGalley was acquired by Firebrand Technologies in December 2008), we are revisiting the pricing model and structure. When the service was with its previous owners, the price was set at $499 per title. Almost universally publishers felt that was too high. We’ve dropped the price to $199 per title, which allows publishers to upload their galley and associated content, invite unlimited contacts to view the title, and list in our Public Catalog.

As we work with more publishers, we may move to a subscription-based model (where publishers would pay a yearly fee depending on size, for example). This is an area where we are really listening and learning from our customers.

The service is free to all professional readers/reviewers.

SE: What kind of functionality does the service offer book reviewers? How is access to a NetGalley granted?

FT: Book reviewers and other readers can view titles they’ve been invited to view, and request titles from the Public Catalog. The publisher sets which reading options they want to offer for the galley itself. This includes the option to request a printed galley; read the galley online (in a browser window); or download a protected PDF. We expect to offer some options for reading on an e-reader fairly soon.

Publishers control access to their titles; so, for example, requesting a title from the Public Catalog doesn’t mean you will automatically have access to it. We’ve been encouraging users to complete their profiles on NetGalley to let publishers find them and approve requests.

Finally, if they choose, reviewers can share an “accepted or declined status” with publishers, and even share their completed reviews or comments.

SE: A June 1 Business Week report from BEA said that NetGalley had begun a pilot program with "500 forthcoming books from publishers Bloomsbury USA, Hachette Book Group, Sourcebooks, and St. Martin's Press." How has this gone so far? What publishers and how many titles do you work with currently?

FT: In December 2008, Firebrand Technologies took over the management and operations of NetGalley from Rosetta Solutions. We’re a company whose expertise is exclusively in book publishing, and we’re 20-year+ veterans of the space. We knew almost immediately that we’d have to do some retrenching of the application and the business assumptions in order to make NetGalley work, and we’ve been doing that. A lot was learned from the publishers in the initial pilot, but we’ve got a lot to do to deliver repeat value as each new season of books is published.

We’ve got two large hurdles in our sights right now. The first is making it easier to get content into NetGalley. You can’t have a publisher with 500 titles inputting metadata one-by-one! One of Firebrand’s core competencies is title management and distribution; you can expect to see big changes in NetGalley in this area.

The second area is in scaling NetGalley for large publishers. NetGalley hasn’t been particularly adept for large publishers like those in the June pilot. Our experience in managing projects will definitely help us here.

In the next few months, we’re inviting 15 Eloquence (Firebrand’s title information distribution service) publisher customers to use NetGalley to promote their fall titles. We’ll take their title information directly from Eloquence into NetGalley as a test of that first hurdle I mentioned above. Look for good news on how it goes!

We’re also working with some mid-sized publishers like B&H and Barbour Publishing, and some innovators like Unbridled Books and Chelsea Green. You can check out our Public Catalog to see more.

SE: What evidence do you have that NetGalley can reduce costs for a publisher? Has there been increased interest from publishers trying to trim costs during this recession?

FT: Honestly, none yet, because we’re still in an experimental stage. But, what publishers are discovering more and more every day is that the production and distribution of galleys is a very expensive and very inefficient way of seeding the market prior to the publication of a work. We often use the analogy of dandelion seeds. Publishers print galleys, send them out to people they already have a relationship with, and hopefully some good reviews will come back. There is often very little, if any, evidence that a reviewer even looked at the title. And, there is no good way to establish new review relationships.

Part of our reasoning in lowering the price with NetGalley to $199/title is to make it possible for publishers to experiment—broaden the audience and reach of the galley distribution, for example; or use NetGalley for their “big mouth” list or author outreach. Some publishers want to use NetGalley for desk copies to professors. We have some publishers who say, “I wish every librarian could have a copy of this galley.” And now they can.

Books that are very expensive to produce in print galley form (more pages, highly illustrated, etc.) show really well on NetGalley. And of course there’s no additional production or shipping costs to include supporting material like an author interview, Q&A, etc with your NetGalley.

SE: As someone who assigns book reviews, I've noted a definite preference among my reviewers for hardcopies over PDFs. What's your response to people who say they'd prefer a printed ARC?

FT; This question is one we answer almost every day. There’s still a ways to go getting people to read digital galleys exclusively, no doubt about it. And, this is one of the major areas we are focusing on.

Printed galleys can be requested via NetGalley (if the publisher chooses) and we’re working to try and enlist POD printers to help streamline this process. Another development we’re working on is to enable the protected galleys on NetGalley to be viewed securely on reading devices. Publishers seem to like the idea of using their limited print galleys where there’s a request and thus a higher likelihood of coverage.

But most importantly, I think digital galleys have an important role to fill in the search and discovery aspect of reviewing books. Most editors and reviewers don’t read the full text of every book they receive to decide if they will review it; it would be impossible. Why not use digital to read the first few chapters? Just reducing the paper waste alone would be a benefit.

Another benefit to digital galleys is off-the-book-page coverage, particularly for non-fiction books, where searching inside the book is essential. And digital is fast—if you have an opportunity for your author you need to capitalize on immediately, or if the book is delayed and you’re rushing the galleys, for example.

We’ve tried to stop thinking about it as an “either print or digital” proposition, and instead try and accommodate all the ways professional readers consume the title (or parts of the title).

SE: Lastly, although there are signs that publishers and readers are beginning to read books online and on portable devices, there's still a good deal of entrenched resistance to electronic books and book criticism (for instance, the outcry each time a newspaper kills its printed book section). How do you think opinions about this will change in the future? Have you noticed any trends regarding who's more inclined to use your service?

Let’s answer the easier part of that question first! We have noticed some trends on who’s more inclined to use our service—bloggers, for example, and librarians—who are perhaps more digitally-inclined, or perhaps have access to fewer print galleys because they are such a large audience and publishers can’t accommodate all their requests economically.

We should be clear that NetGalley is not trying to hasten the adoption of electronic books. We are trying to enhance a publisher’s ability to find the voices that will encourage the reading of a work in whatever form it takes.

The entire world of book criticism and recommendation is changing right in front of our eyes into a more flat and fragmented system. Reviews are no longer the sole purview of key review organizations. The internet has enabled the individual voice to be recognized as easily as that of a respected organization. It also allows individual voices to naturally coalesce into ‘micro-communities’ that are highly segmented in their interests.

If NetGalley can help those recommenders discover great new titles, that’s excellent news for book publishing.

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