Most people who attended the ALA Annual conference in late June left Anaheim with pleasant memories: seeing friends and colleagues, hearing and meeting favorite authors, gathering new ideas, and, yes, landing advanced reader copies (ARCs) of books they are looking forward to reading and using in their work. But in addition to all the positive vibes, a number of attendees also left the conference with a healthy dose of frustration. At issue: librarians and other professionals who spent the bulk of the conference attending or giving presentations, or participating in committee work, and who did not have much free time on the exhibit floor. As a result, they missed out on getting ARCs that had been quickly, sometimes rudely, snatched up already—most notably, by non-professionals.

ARCs and other giveaways have always vanished quickly at trade shows and professional conferences. Publishers who provide the giveaways and professionals who covet them have perennially been dismayed at unprofessional behavior that can occur in a free-for-all giveaway scenario. But in recent days the giving and taking of ARCs has become the topic of heated debate as some passionate librarians and bloggers have energetically voiced their opinions on the topic.

Anyone monitoring children’s/YA book news in the blogosphere and Twitterverse this past week has surely seen posts, comments and tweets about ARCs and “librarians vs. bloggers” flying. Twitter hashtags #ARCGate and #BunheadGate quickly sprang up. The post that initially kicked the conversation into high gear is from librarian and blogger Kelly Jensen. On her blog, Stacked, Jensen states that she was “fascinated and appalled” after viewing a 22-minute video uploaded by two book bloggers showing off the extensive haul of ARCs they had snagged in Anaheim. “This wasn’t promoting the books picked up. It was bragging,” Jensen wrote. The post clearly struck a nerve. It received 6500 hits in one day and, she says, “I could not keep up with the comments.”

Publishers, the exhibitors who provide all those ARCs, understandably have a different outlook on what happens at conferences. At a conference, it’s assumed that most of the ARCs will get into the “right” hands—the hands of professionals who will use them in a variety of ways that help promote the works and the authors. However, on the exhibit floor there is typically no way to screen who’s getting what. And for the most part, many publishers think that’s OK. “Obviously, our decision to bring ARCs to conferences is to spread awareness,” says a publicity representative from a major publishing house. “It’s a very competitive landscape and we want people to read our books.” The bottom line is pretty clear. “Nothing is more valuable than when someone reads a book and wants to talk about it,” the publicity rep says. “You can’t manufacture word of mouth.” (Several additional publishers contacted for this article declined to participate, or would only speak off the record.)

While they see the positive side of conference giveaways, publishers also know the system is not perfect. That’s why the practice is far from the only distribution channel for ARCs. Other standard avenues include events, signings, and mailings to “key influencers.” Industry professionals can request ARCs directly from the publisher as well.

Jensen offers some suggestions for improving the conference experience and alleviating the frustration that comes with an ARC feeding frenzy. On the list, she says, is “having specific times that non-professionals can attend.” More specifically, one day, at the end of the convention. This is something that BEA tried for the first time at its gathering last month. On the final day of BookExpo America, the show was open to the public—1000 consumers or “Power Readers” who had purchased tickets at local booksellers, publishers, or the New York Public Library were permitted to attend. It’s too early to tell how much of a success this experiment was.

Another suggestion supported by Jensen and others, including librarian-blogger Liz Burns, is for ALA to change its rate structure for attendance (see Burns’ post to her A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy bog here). Currently, the general public can purchase a $25 pass that gives them unlimited access to the ALA exhibits throughout the conference. That stands in stark contrast to the cost of conference admission and an ALA membership (which has a variety of levels/prices). The general public might not have pursued attending a professional conference in years past. But in the age of culture and entertainment news saturation, many people have become industry watchers who enthusiastically follow what happens at trade shows like BEA, ALA, and ComicCon, and would like to participate whenever possible. Conferences have become cool destinations for some diehard fans.

Other ideas floating around in the larger discussion include some sort of tickets-for-ARCs arrangement, or scanning badges of attendees who have received an ARC. “I think a lot of this could be solved with easy solutions,” says Jensen. “But it requires work, and changes in mindset.” Most importantly, she stresses, “I don’t want anyone to be left out.”

ALA has heard from its membership regarding this issue and has been following the online discussions closely. “I’ve been reading a lot of comments from bloggers, librarians, and people with a foot in both categories. Our organization is in listen mode right now,” says Mary Ghikas, ALA’s senior associate executive director of Member Programs & Services. “There are two issues to consider: the conference attendees’ perspective, and the exhibitors’ part of it,” she notes. “We want to work our way through what works for everyone.”

Ghikas notes that a similar debate emerged “big-time” after the ALA Midwinter meeting in Dallas last January. “We are asking ourselves, ‘Is it structural, or is it a handful of people maybe behaving badly?’ We’re compiling suggestions and then seeing what on that list is feasible.” One relatively easy thing to be done, according to Ghikas, is to offer a professional presentation about ARCs and their intended uses at ALA’s next meeting. She confirms that she has corresponded with Burns about such a potential program.

Though Jensen says she has been overwhelmed by the volume and the sometimes negative or misinformed tone of the responses to her blog post, she’s pleased that in the midst of this latest firestorm there seems to be some change afoot. “We talk about this after every conference,” she says. “But I’m hoping that finally something can be done.”