Ever wonder why authors, publishers and their PR flacks want you to preorder books months in advance before they even gets published? It’s a savvy marketing strategy—a ploy, a gimmick. Not nefarious and not a scam, but still a bit tacky.
Let me tell you a story, and you can add your comments and opinions at the end.
I recently got an e-mail plea from a good friend in California who writes bestselling business books for major publishers. This person writes books about how the corporate world and capitalism are turning us all into walking zombies, both in real life and online. Might book buyers who preorder be among the zombies, so to speak? The friend’s email mentioned a newspaper interview about a forthcoming book and begged me to support it “by pre-ordering through your favorite bookseller or Amazon.”
Why was my friend, of all people, knowingly asking me to partake in a corporate ploy? I objected that we don’t pre-order pizza or NPR radio broadcasts, do we? We don’t pre-order a cream soda in Brooklyn or a taco in Tucson, do we? A plain-English explanation, please.
”Good question,” my writer friend replied in a long letter. “Most lay people don’t understand this. Let me explain in total corporate and capitalist marketing-speak. I myself am a bit embarrassed to be repeating and taking part in this scam, but this is life in the tech age and you asked me why. Basically, to pre-order any book these days before it comes out ends up cueing up a whole lot of orders in the system. This leads bookshops to ‘order in’ more copies of the book. Then, the author (and their publisher) get the book on a front shelf in bookstores nationwide.”
My friend added: “So, pre-ordering is a bit like priming the distribution pump, and convincing both the publisher and the bookstores to support it. If a book gets a lot of pre-orders, then on the day it is published there will actually be books in stores. Bookstores use pre-order figures to decide whether to carry a book.”
When I showed this post-in-progress to my friend, I was assured that preorders were not a “’gimmick’ or a ‘ploy’ against the unsuspecting: “Look, I need to prove to bookstores that there is a market for my new book. Otherwise, it won’t be in the stores when I go on print or TV or radio for upcoming interviews. This is the democratic alternative to bring the person the publisher has predetermined they think will sell. By your logic, Kickstarter is a gimmick or a ploy, too. No. You completely misunderstand.”
My writer friend in California went on: “This is not an effort to boost sales figures. That is not what this at all. It’s entirely different. Let’s start again: Bookstores will not stock my book. I want my book on the shelves. They will not buy my book and put it on their shelves. Why not? Because they don’t know who I am. I am not Stephen King. I am not famous like that.”
“Not being as famous as Stephen King or J.K Rowling is bad for me. Why? In order for me to sell books, it helps for them to be in the stores. This way, someone who goes into a store can see my book on the shelf and choose to buy it. The physical presence of the book in the store really really helps. It’s not a ploy, exactly. But the cover of the book is designed to attract the eye, and the physical existence of the book is a form of advertising. So someone walking into a store may see the book in the section on business, and think ‘Hey, this looks interesting.’ Yes, that counts as sales, and I accept responsibility for that. It’s a little slimy, I guess, but no more slimy than pushing my idea in a newspaper or online article or interview or anywhere else….
”If I have a few thousand pre-orders of the book—orders for the book before it comes out—then Barnes and Noble and other bookstores will see that this is a book people want. This will convince them there is enough of a market for the book to justify them buying a couple of copies to put on their shelves.
”If I do not do this, I am in big trouble. I will go on radio and local TV here in California (as I always do) and talk about my book. People will go into a store to find it, and it will not be there. It will take an average of three weeks for the bookstore to get the book (if they even do) after multiple requests or special orders. And even then, most people who do not find the book in the store do not order it. They simply forget.
”Same with Amazon and others. They will order as many as they think they can sell, and their algorithms for what books they ‘show’ people are based on who is interested in what.
”By getting the people who want my book to pre-order it, I show stores, reviewers and distributors that this is not just a vanity book, but one that is deserving of their attention.
”So it’s not some weird game, some marketing bonus. None of the stuff you wrote seems true to me, and none of the people I know at the publisher know about those phenomena you describe.
”That said, I’m sure there are people who buy and return books, and do all sorts of other things.
”But authors like me who are trying to fight a system that is stacked against us by getting our audiences to prove their interest ahead of time? That’s more like Bernie Sanders getting lots of ten dollar donations to fight Hillary’s big money machine.
”Now, there is something called Power Law Dynamics in effect. Fewer authors make a living as authors now than ten or twenty years ago. Just like in music, there’s only one Taylor Swift for millions of people who sell one record, today in books there are very few superstars, and fewer people making a living as authors.
”Simply, put, I cannot make a living as an author. It would be cool to be able to do it, but I don’t even expect to be able to do it. I do want my books to get into stores, though. The pre-ordering system is vital for me. For now, I have a teaching gig, so I have a steady income that way, and I can use that foundation to write my next few books as well.
“I get that pre-ordering seems like a gimmick to you, though, so I should explain why pre-ordering really matters so much, and can make the difference between the book reaching people or simply disappearing very quickly.
”If I get pre-orders, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times is more likely to review my book.
”If I do make some of my income from lecture fees on the speaking circuit worldwide, but the lecture fees get smaller as my ideas become recognized as controversial. You make money helping big business, not by speaking truth to power. I did manage to get a university position. That will fund the rest of my books. But I still need to get my books into stores. ”
A reader in Manhattan, who also read this post as it was being written, told me: “Wise article. I wouldn’t dream of pre-ordering a book before it is published and reviewed by reputable book reviewers.” But another New Yorker, a retired veteran of the publishing business, told me: “You are correct when you say that pre-orders enable the trade to assess demand. But there’s nothing nefarious about this really. If you have large pre-orders you will know to print more; if they are low, you can print less. Since any bookstore can return any book to the publisher, there’s no need for your ‘caveat emptor’ line. The whole thing is risk-free. If the book buyer decides they don’t want the book, they just have to say so, and it’ll end up either being sold to someone else or going back to the publisher.”
Just to add one more comment: “What’s the big deal? Technically, you preorder food. It hasn’t been made,” a literary man of letters in Brooklyn told me over my shoulder as I was writing this final paragraph. So he saw “no problem pre-ordering recherche [unknown, obscure, unagented] authors to give them a chance.”
Readers, what’s your take on all this pre-ordering business? A ploy, a gimmick, business as usual? Useful for authors and useful for consumers? Comments are, as always, welcome, pro and con.