pizza_mack__s_pizza_by_hatter23-d544ehyEver 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.

Image credit: Here. CC-licensed.


  1. This viewpoint totally ignores indie-authors who add pre-orders to their upcoming titles even though their books will never see the inside of a bookstore. Their fans love pre-ordering their books and being the the first to get the books “in their hands.”

    The article almost sounds like readers are coerced or bamboozled into clicking that pre-order button. As a fan who’s pre-ordered books in the past, I can assure you, it was the excitement about getting the book as soon as it was available that got me, not some nefarious capitalistic plot. That said, there’s a lot about publishing that is nefarious, so it’s not completely out of left field to think this way, but in a system where very little benefits authors, I think this might be one tactic that still does.

  2. You listed a number of examples of things we don’t pre-order but you didn’t mention the things we do. We make dinner reservations at a restaurant or buy a ticket to a sports event or a performance. We buy airplane tickets. We make hotel reservations. We pay college tuition before the start of the semester. We make doctor and dentist appointments.

    I never realized till I read your article just how slimy our lives are. 🙂


  3. I know of a few (fiction) authors that I really like, and if they are working on a book and and I notice it put up for pre-order, I’ll order it so I don’t have to remember to buy it when it becomes available. I like that feature and and don’t do it because of it’s effect on first-day sales. I believe that’s the primary reason it exists – it’s a convenience feature for customers, not a gimmick for sellers to exploit.

  4. I think your friend’s explanation makes perfect business sense. If anything, the only person who is put under pressure to perform is the author himself who now has to deliver what he promised.

    All businesses do this to some extent. So long as you are not misleading the consumer with respect to the product and timing, I don’t see what the issue is. At the moment, every time I watch a video on MSN, I see a trailer for a film which isn’t going to be released here for another week or so. Quite frankly, I am sick and tired of the trailer but the point is I know the product will shortly be available and I can choose to watch it when it actually comes out.

    I am struggling to see why you appear to have a moral dilemma with respect to this practice. No-one is forcing the reader to pre-order and all it is doing, exactly as your friend has stated, is creating a buzz of interest which may – or may not – prompt people to purchase.

  5. I have no issues pre-ordering books, DVD’s, and even music—especially through Amazon. It means I’m guaranteed the lowest price (no matter how it might fluctuate prior to release), and it will be in my hands on the day of release. When I lived in a town that had a book store, I would pre-order books and get the same deal as Amazon: lowest price offered to them, and release day reading. All in all, it’s a win-win.

  6. To add to the conversation here, I noticed that on Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed [from the UK where the bestselling SFF novelist lives] where he addresses this TeleRead piece, he himself tweeted: “I pre-order books I want that haven’t come out yet, and am always happy when the bookshop, online or bricks, gets them to me.”

  7. I like preordering books I’m really interested in. Being a voracious reader I have a lot of authors/series that I enjoy, so there are a lot of books I’m looking forward to. Preordering means i don’t have to keep track of when a book I want to read is coming out. It’s just setting in my kindle waiting for me when it does. Also before I went to ebooks, preordering meant the book was delivered to my door on the day of release instead of waiting for it to be delivered days later if I ordered online.

  8. I preorder a lot of books. I currently have 32 hardcovers on preorder. Preordering lets me lock in a price and it assures me that the book I am interested in I will receive on release. I have a small list of authors whose books I preorder but the vast majority of books I preorder are nonfiction from authors I have no familiarity with. I order them because I am interested in the topic. Very few of the books I buy are reviewed; many thousands of books are published each year and very few are reviewed by known and respected reviewers. Consequently, I buy based on subject matter. And if the book arrives and it is one that should never have been bought, it is returnable (although I return books very, very rarely).

    Preordering is not a scam but a convenience. If I wanted to complain about scams in book publishing, preordering would not even be on the list — but retailer exclusives would be near the top.

  9. Brian Clegg in the UK tells me in a comment:

    ”This is a really interesting piece, but I think the problem with it is that you need to look at the phenomenon from the customer side, not just the store’s. There are only really two reasons people pre-order. One is for a friend/relation’s book, which is a special case and a relatively minor thing. The other is a new book by an author you know and love. My favourite author is Gene Wolfe. If I see in April he has a new book out in August, I will pre-order it. Not because the industrial complex wants me to, but because that way I don’t have to remember to buy it in August, when I might not see it. Why wouldn’t I?

    ”The comparison with buying food doesn’t make a lot of sense. If your favourite restaurant only opened once ever two years, I think you probably would pre-order (i.e. book a table) rather than just hope you remember to turn up on the day.

    ”I’m not saying that people don’t try to game the system – good luck to them – but pre-ordering isn’t a gimmick, it’s a useful service. ”

  10. Richard Hollick, a veteran of the NYC publishing industry, now retired and blogging at ”Making Book: All sorts of stuff about books and book manufacturing”, tells me in his own comment on all this:

    ”You are correct when you say that preorders enable the trade to assess demand. But there’s nothing nefarious about this really. If you have large preorders 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.”

  11. As a first time author, I’m dealing with this right now. I keep asking my friends on Facebook and a handful will order when I remind them, but the shameless self-promoting sucks. But in order for a distributor to want my books, I have to prove to them I have a worthy product. I’ve had to explain this on numerous occasions. I don’t feel it’s a gimmick at all, but if someone isn’t in the industry they will perceive it as so. Thanks for posting.

  12. NiK and others here, nowadays, when an author gets ready to publish their book, which used to be a time for high fives and congratulations and a party, the publishers and PR people ask the author: “Are you gonna tweet it? Facebook it? Are you going put it on your blog? Are you RSSing that blog? Do you have a newsletter?” Oh my God, most authors became an author to sit alone and write books. It used to be when you finished a book it would be a celebration. Now it’s when the work starts. It’s torture. TRUE or FALSE?

  13. And Nic, in additon to those questions above comment, “Are you gonna tweet it? Facebook it? Are you going put it on your blog? Are you RSSing that blog? Do you have a newsletter?” The publishers also ask you to send email blasts to all your friends and relatives and classmates and contacts and ask them please PRE-ORDER the book and the author feels compelled to go out on a limb and beg for pre-orders in order to prime the pump, so to speak, on marching orders of the powers that be, that is to say, the Publisher.

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