Answering email: Release Weeks & me.

Posted in Books, Business.

Two people, because of discus­sions else­where on the internet, have sent email asking me ques­tions about release weeks, and how when a reader buys a book affects me, person­ally. I thought I would take the oppor­tu­nity to answer them here. But, as usual, before I answer a ques­tion, I need to explain the context.

(This might be a little on the long side — and because I want every­thing to be clear here, if anything I’ve said is confusing in any way, please ask me to clarify).

First: Every­thing I am saying about release week refers to tradi­tion­ally published books, in large part because most of it relates to the sale of phys­ical books through tradi­tional outlets. Ebooks figure into the discus­sion, but not in the same way.

If you haven’t heard the phrase “release week”, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re prob­ably someone who goes into a book­store, browses, finds a book (or more) that looks inter­esting, and buys it. The book is either in the store, or it’s not. However.

Every book has an on-sale date. In most cases, this date is “soft”. It is the day by which every book­store that ordered the title, prior to its release, can be expected to have copies. In order for the book to be on the shelves of stores in CA and also in NY, they need to be picked, packed, loaded onto trucks, and deliv­ered. The loca­tion of the ware­houses define, in part, which stores will get copies first. Clearly the books do not arrive at the vendors on the same day.

When the books arrive, the book­store people will receive the books, which are invoiced from the time the books were picked for packing and ship­ping. They price them, and they put them on the shelves. Is there an On Sale noti­fi­ca­tion? There’s a sticker on the outside of the box. It’s often small, green or yellow. It’s not always at the top of the box. And, in most cases, it is func­tion­ally invis­ible. A large store will receive a hundred boxes, many of which do not have these stickers, but all of which require the same receiving & stick­ering.

What this means in a prac­tical sense is that the book will begin to appear on book­shelves before its theo­ret­ical release day as it arrives in the various stores. There are a (very few) occa­sions when the book­stores have signed binding legal agree­ments not to display a book before a certain date (Harry Potter’s later volumes); if you don’t sign, no books. For the most part, though, the books get put on the shelf.

People find them. People buy them.

Why, then, does release week matter to some authors?

The NYT (New York Times) Best­seller lists.

The NYT Best­seller lists are aggre­gate and weighted surveys of (totally unnamed) book­stores and venues in which books can be purchased. They are reported to be primarily brick-and-mortar outlets. In order to prevent authors from delib­er­ately gaming the system (by, say, ordering 500 copies of their own books through an NYT store), the list is kept private.

They accu­mu­late numbers for each of the fifty-two weeks of the year. Once a week, they tabu­late and release their list.

The theory behind release week is this: it’s when the greatest concen­tra­tion of sales should occur. If you are desperate to make the NYT list in any posi­tion, you want all of your initial sales to occur during the same week.

Why would an author want to be on that list so badly?

Let me make a small list.

1. Increased visi­bility

2. “New York Times Best­seller” appended to your author name forever.

3. Marketing buzz. If you make it onto the list, it means you have reader-momentum.

4. Esca­la­tors.

There are addi­tional reasons. Some authors feel that if they don’t crack that list, their career is over. Their books won’t sell to publishers, and they won’t be able to continue to write them.

However: in my very, very humble opinion, if you’re not cracking the top 10 — the print list — it’s insignif­i­cant. As a reader, I gener­ally consider “NYT Bestelling author” to be an insub­stan­tial bit of fluff. I don’t pay atten­tion to it because it doesn’t matter to me as a reader.

Obvi­ously, the way I respond as a reader influ­ences my thoughts on the matter as a writer. If some­thing says #1 NYT Best­seller, that’s impres­sive. (Not that it influ­ences whether or not I want to read the book). Short of that, I don’t pay atten­tion. My husband feels that I am somehow not the typical consumer — but really, I have a lot of books, and it’s one of the few areas in which I do feel I am the typical consumer — inas­much as any reader is.

So here’s my take. Well, no, let me say instead: Here’s Ilona Andrew’s take.

How does all of this silli­ness affect the reader? It doesn’t. You shouldn’t have anxiety when you go to a book store or when you preorder. You shouldn’t worry about when to buy the book or how it will affect the author. If you like the book, get it. A sale is a sale and we thank you for it.

So, the plan is, if you find the book early and you want it, buy it. If you see it early – score! You get the book early. Email us if you liked it. We’ll be totally happy for you.

They have a much larger audi­ence than I do, but started out from the same posi­tion; they sell well, but they do it because people liked their books and told other people about them.

It’s inter­esting to note that they hit the NYT list on the week before release week. (I say they rather than she because it’s a husband & wife writing team, not because I am bad at pronouns. Well, okay, I’m some­times bad with pronouns, but.)

Having said all of this, it’s normal for authors to worry about how a book is selling. This is actu­ally much, much easier to do as time passes, because after a couple of decades, we become more aware of writers we know and love that can’t sell to publishers because of prior low-sales records. Series that we love writing/reading aren’t viable anymore.

In my less sanguine moments, I’m looking into a gloomy future left in the wake of the death of Borders, because Borders did carry my books, and they did carry my back­list. Loss of that shelf-space across the US makes keeping books that have been in-print since their first publi­ca­tion almost impos­sible; the West novels are too long for the current PoD reprints that are occur­ring for other mass markets, and they don’t have the sales volume of, say, Patrick Roth­fuss. (A volume which I think he deserves because I think his writing is bril­liant).

But with the broader accep­tance of self-publishing and e-publishing, there are at least options.

39 Responses to Answering email: Release Weeks & me.

  1. Adenike says:

    I don’t think you are an atyp­ical consumer. I tend to buy based on interest. If it sounds good, I buy it. I buy a lot of books. I am happy for authors I like when they get on the NYT list. Primarily for the fact that it supports good sales numbers and means I will continue to get work from them. I am not overly concerned if someone doesn’t have best­seller appended. My under­standing is that some authors will sell consis­tently well over time and sell more in the long-run but that is not as well recog­nized. Is that true?

    Also.… there are some small (really a word here and there) errors in Hunter’s Death but I am still happy to have a kindle edition. I can put the other copy in a safer place where I can’t wear it down more.

  2. Genna Warner says:

    I have never really under­stood readers obses­sion with NYT Best seller lists. I can under­stand an author wanting to make said list because it is apart of the writing commu­nity. it’s an award. I am always happy for the authors who receive it, if they wanted it. But it doesn’t affect what I read and it doesn’t affect when I order a book.

    If I am remem­bering correctly, in prior posts, you state that you want us readers to pick up your books when we want to and not feel like we need to buy during the offi­cial release week. I want to thank you for that because honestly I couldn’t wait on purchasing your books. I tried it once (Cast in Ruin phys­ical book verse ebook). It wasn’t pretty and I ended up getting the book and the ebook. I just have no will power. :)

  3. I never bought books based on the NYT Best­seller list either. I mentally clas­si­fied it in the same niche as Oprah’s Book Club. People that can’t be both­ered to read enough books to figure out what they like as indi­vid­uals will pick books off a list. (reverse discrim­i­na­tion by me! ;) As Genna said, I am VERY happy if an author I love makes it on the list, and for the same reasons. I get more books! Which makes me happy. I have such a wrenching sense of loss when I’ve finished another stretch of books and have to wait for the next in a series… or have finished a series… or am worried whether an author will live long enough to COMPLETE a series (think Robert Jordan.. although I think Brandon is doing an excel­lent job completing WoT)… or if they will manage to find a PUBLISHER to complete the series (think Janny Wurts).

    I remember when I was first trying to find copies of all the books in the Sundered series, say 7 years ago? I think I paid $40 each for the last two books, used. I had no idea Riven Shield was out of print, prob­ably because I have a horrible habit of buying dupli­cates of books I already own when I can’t find them in my book­shelf… and then seeing that I have three copies of each when I reor­ga­nize alpha­bet­i­cally every three years. :P At one point I had two copies of every book in Sun Sword except the first one. Appar­ently I purchased both of my copies of Riven Shield when it was still avail­able. Now I have a full copy of the entire series to loan out, so it’s not entirely a bad thing.

    But Michelle, if there was ANYTHING that we, as readers, could do to ensure that you continue to sell books… we would. I don’t think I speak for just myself when I say we’d do just about anything within the realm of the possible. I LOVE your books. I love how your life has informed your writing style. I love that I can go read your Live­Journal, and see silly little things, like how your expe­ri­ence raising your chil­dren infil­trated things like, oh, the Tha’alani.

    For weeks after I re-read the Sun Sword I think thoughts in your words (this happens to me a lot with my favorite authors).

    Sure, all things must end. But I don’t EVER want it to end. :)

  4. I think the concern that readers might be unin­ten­tion­ally harming me by being excited enough to buy my books when they see them might have come from that — she was incred­ibly upset.

    I, working in a book­store since age of 16, am not like­wise upset, for two reasons.

    In the grand scheme of things, every book but Rowling and the last George R. R. Martin have a soft release date. So every book leaks out early into the wilds. In the older days, when Borders was alive, B&N and Borders would check up on each other and snitch to their sales reps if big books were put out early. But you needed both halves of that equa­tion.

    Regard­less, books have soft release dates, so they leak out into the wild early, and this dilutes their impact over the first couple of weeks.

    The NYT list is a rela­tive list. It’s not about absolute numbers — it’s about the numbers of books that sold that week, and your posi­tion is deter­mined by that week. So, on a slow week, you can hit the list with <30k; on a busy week you won’t; your absolute numbers would be the same in either case.

    Your book with its soft release is being compared to every other book with the same soft release, in rela­tive numbers.

    But really, the numbers required to get into the top 3 (or even top 10, which is what’s referred to as the print list) are so much higher that there’s really no gaming of the system, at all — and those are the career changing numbers. But you only get those because hundreds of thou­sands of people love your books and buy them. Only then.

    So Ilona Andrews is, IMHO, entirely correct, and I really like her overall stance: I am happy & grateful that people like my books enough to buy them.

  5. DeDe says:

    I’m very, very glad that you don’t need us to wait…because I will always be one of those people who grabs your new gift as soon as I see it. I should also admit that I will also be the one who good-naturedly sticks her tongue out as she goes, “Nyah, nyah, nyah…” But that’s just me. :-)

  6. controuble says:

    I don’t think she was as upset about the early books being purchased as she was about the hate mail she got because the people who wanted ebooks couldn’t get those early, too. The ebook down­loads seem to be a firm release date no matter what happens with the print book. The upset was because people were blaming HER for their not getting their instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and they were being nasty about it.

  7. Betty Hyland says:

    Where possible if I hear an author has a new book I order it from my local book­seller. They phone me when it comes in. I don’t know how many they order at a time and I live in Canada anyway so we prob­ably do not affect US listings.Occasionally I pick up a book that takes my fancy and I always look for authors I enjoy. I do not have Riven Shield nor was I aware of it until the recent comment exchange.
    But the written word is under attack from all direc­tions.
    My book­seller has recently converted a shelving are to a class­room to give courses of interest/ This may help. Another large book store in the area sells a lot of unre­lated items as well as offering free items the more books you buy.
    No author can ever write enough for me but I try not to nag!

  8. mary allen says:

    I was one of the people upset with Barnes and Noble because they didn’t have Ruin when I thought they should. I am also upset that Borders closed as I found more of your books there. I read alot so I use the NYT best seller list as a jumping off place for authors. I look at blogs about books and even authors you mention ie. John Scalzi — by the way Thanks, for authors to check out. I was so glad to discover you after you had written about 10 books.

  9. hjbau says:

    I am the same way. I also mentally clas­sify the New York best­seller list in the same cate­gory as the Oprah book club. Meaning that if all i know about the book is that it is on the New York best­seller i gener­ally consider that a nega­tive. I agree that it would be a nice thing for an author i know, but, for me, it is not a good thing for an unknown author. I read books based on only two things because when i see the book and read a little bit about it i find it inter­esting enough to give it a try or it is recom­mended to me by another person.

  10. Erin says:

    I was so upset about losing Borders! That is where I bought all but two of your books. I found the first one browsing at a store called Brentano’s, which closed soon after. Then I went to get House Name but it wasn’t on the shelf at Borders! Someone else had gotten to the book before the release date. But I think I got a couple before the release date at other times so it’s only fair that I missed it at least once. But I could NOT wait for them to order another so I went to Amazon and got it faster. Damn I miss that store.

  11. Estara says:

    That’s how I read her LJ entry, too. I’m a bit worried because there are always enti­tled idiots on the internet. The root of that problem is not going to go away, even if people started buying books only in release week. Didn’t she have a threat to her cats a few years ago, too? I don’t read her LJ regu­larly, I admit.

  12. Susan Shields says:

    These days, given the economy I purchase only the books by authors I have come to love. I now have almost all of your books that are in print. And thanks to Joey (my hero) I got to read The Riven Shield!! You are my kind of author — 600 to 900 pages of small print:) and every single word is superb. Live long and keep on writing!!!

    Thank you,
    sue

  13. Hillary says:

    I used to work for Barnes and Noble (about one year), and I remember that I used my power as an employee to get a copy of your hard­cover Angels novel into the store. I don’t live in the U.S. anymore, so I’m stuck buying your ebooks, but I would also love to, as I can afford them, pick up hard­cover copies (or what­ever the format is). I was so happy you made the jump to hard­cover, and I have all your House War, except Skir­mish, in hard­cover. I did have doubles of Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death (I recently gave one set away as a birthday present), but I have to say that they were both out of print when I discov­ered them, so mine are used copies. Which I know doesn’t help you at all. I was lucky to get Sundered from Borders when they were re-released, I have all but one of the Cast books in Trade size and except for missing book one of Sun Sword (which I acci­den­tally left on a bus, and sincerely hope someone else picked up, read and became another devoted fan), and I didn’t realize that I couldn’t replace it until recently!!! Anyway, you and coin­ci­den­tally Ilona Andrews and prob­ably Robin McKinley are the only authors I will auto­mat­i­cally buy – I’m also a librarian, and I tend to check a book out first and buy it only if I plan to re-read it! I’ve been a huge fan of yours ever since I found The Broken Crown in 1997 (I think).

    Anyway, I do know that if I happen to be in a book­store, and I can’t find your books, I do make a point of asking why! I was back home last week, and happened in B&N and asked, and of course she found Skir­mish in the other loca­tion. I person­ally think you’re better than Roth­fuss!, but I do rec you online when I see someone who liked Roth­fuss, because I feel that the level of compli­ca­tion (maybe that’s a bad descriptor) and story telling are similar. (I guess I’m trying to say that I think he writes like you, rather than the other way around…) I truly love it that I find reviews of your books on the Dear Author blog, which, I’m pretty sure, has a large read­er­ship. From what I have seen, your read­er­ship has prob­ably grown enor­mously since you began the Elantra books, and that has led to the new readers finding your back-list, which I am truly happy about!

    But I do appre­ciate you echoing Ilona Andrew’s take on when we readers should buy!

  14. @countrouble: Yes, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to mini­mize her upset. She is always anxious if people buy her books before the release date; this time is infi­nitely worse because of the email about the ebooks.

    I admit that I’ve had people write me angry email about ebook release dates, but it is polite “I am angry at you for with­olding your book” and “I am angry with you for choosing an evil tradi­tional publisher” and not the NSFW email she received.

  15. @Estara: When I’m on-line and not starting chapter one iter­a­tive times, I do read her LJ because I find her enor­mously enter­taining, thoughtful or whim­sical, and her advice about publishing & writing (in 50 posts) is really, really good. She is multi-talented, she writes like a fiend, she revises like a demon queen.

    But when I’m late on a book, I often shut down every­thing because if I’m strug­gling with focus or intent, I can be distracted by anything but LOLcats.

    So I had missed the post until people emailed me to ask if their buying my books on the wrong date was harming me. And I did want to answer that ques­tion.

  16. David Y says:

    I just had a look and I see that Ms Sagara is a NYT best­selling author while Ms West isn’t. Those lists just aren’t fair!

    Can I ask: which one(s) was on the NYT list?

    We’ve been getting the NYT some­what regu­larly lately (and we tend to buy it when in the States). I’ll often comment that “We have two of the books on the best­seller list. If we have many more than that, I worry about our taste slip­ping. (We includes my wife.)

  17. Joey says:

    Chil­dren of The Blood — people thought it was about sparkly vampires.

    Kidding! I believe it was Cast #5 that did it.

  18. Joey says:

    @ The Author. I suspected folks might’ve been reading the about Seanan stuff, prompting them to ask about your stance. Thanks for the post and follow-up response.

    I do think you should pull out and wear your “NYT Best Selling Author” leg warmers at least once a year in the United States.

  19. Estara says:

    @MSW: I got that reason for your post *nod* — I worry for Seanan because she feels bad about enti­tled idiots e-mailing her, is what I wanted to add. I believe that they would find some­thing new to be nasty in e-mail about even if every previous demand they had would be fulfilled — because there are people who are like that.

    Having an online life leaves an author — or any other person with a perma­nent online persona and home — open to this stuff. I sure hope it’s some­thing she can get used to and ignore (unless of course the threats mate­ri­alise in her real life).

  20. Christie says:

    I worked at Borders for 3 years before it closed. One of my super­vi­sors got me into your books and I love them and sold them during the time I worked there and tried to request them being on the shelf. It was always frus­trating when recom­mending the series to customers when they didn’t have the first book on the shelves for weeks! I knew this stuff but didn’t realize it was common for books to be released before the release date. We were very on top of that at my store and I was under the impres­sion we would get in a lot of trouble if a book was put out before the release date. The only time I saw it was ok was when t didn’t have a strict release date and just said a month. This is good infor­ma­tion and I learned more. I read what­ever sounds good and don’t care if it is a NY Best Seller or not but I can totally see how it can help authors. :) I hope you don’t have any prob­lems getting your books on shelves, they are great so they should be on every shelf!

  21. JenniLyne says:

    The Ilona Andrews books are some of my favorite and I 100% agree with her stances on both pirating and release weeks. Really, the Ilona Andrews blog is the only other author blog I follow.

    That being said, I do want to reit­erate what others have said. We want you to be successful because we want to continue producing new books for us to read. If there are small things we can do increase the chances of your books being received well by the publisher, we want to help.

  22. @Anita: it will be a few months, at least. I usually try to put up a first chapter at around a month before the book ships — because, among other things, the book is finished. I consider a book ulti­mately finished when the editor has read/asked for revi­sion­s/clar­i­fi­ca­tion­s/­line-edited and the book has been copy-edited.

    And I’m still not 100% sure what the pub date for Peril is, but the minute I get an answer from my editor, I’ll post the date here :)

  23. alan says:

    Michelle -

    Are any of the west books in audio format anywhere? I tried looking for them, since they are a favorite but haven’t found them.

  24. Deege says:

    Hello- I have been faith­fully searching my sony ebooks store, and Books on Board, but have yet to find Riven Shield avail­able, though it should have been avail­able in feb. I know there is nothing you can do; but I wanted to alert you anyway.

    Also, I am unlikely to buy Peril until Part II comes out so I can read it in one long 500+ page binge. Why make myself crazy with waiting (picture Curley of the 3 Stooges barking and turning in circles!- yeah, crazy like that!) ?. So to me,the REAL ques­tion is has Peril Part II (PP2) been sent to the editor?

  25. ElizabethN says:
  26. Hilda says:

    Yesterday, I managed to pre-order Cast in Peril in Amazon, but they don’t have a delivery date. I did it by typing the title once I was in the Sagara list.

  27. ralphw2548 says:

    On the MichelleWest Yahoo group, I posted that I had an email from Mr. Joshua Starr from DAW Books. He stated that the Sun Sword books were in the Penguin ePub­lishing Dept. He felt it would be a few months ( which I read as early summer of 2012) before the first would be avail­able. Michelle posted earlier that she begged DAW to release the Riven Shield first from the series. It is the series book that is out of print and just about unavail­able. I have no info on when the others might be released. Hope this alle­vi­ates some of your frus­tra­tions.

  28. shauntel says:

    I am anxiously awaiting the next cast book!! Love, Love the books Yeah!!
    One of the things I have noticed in my local Barnes & Noble book stores is that even if the book has a street date they may not actu­ally recieve and put out the book until a week or so after unless you have ordered that book in advance. If the author is a big name they will put it out, but the other authers it’s a hit or miss.
    The reason I have noticed this is that I am an avid reader (more like rabid), I have multiple authors I read (over 20). You are my in my top 5, I have hundreds of books that i read again and again. I’m bringing this up is because of the earlier e-mails, it’s frus­trating for someone who is earnestly waiting for a partic­ular author and then can’t read the book on the promised day.
    An example: shelly laurenston’s new book, this has happened with increasing frequency with multiple authors.
    I have had to start ordering more books from Amazon​.com, because I don’t know if the book will be in ontime!! I love when I find your books early, I can’t hold off buying in both print and ebook forms.

  29. ralphw2548 says:

    I noticed the same thing with my local B&N. That’s why I always go to the store and pre-order any book I really want. It let’s the store know that there is interest in a partic­ular author in general, and that book in specific. I also make a point of going back monthly and re-checking with the store about the release date. And like you, in Michelle’s case, I pre-order the eBook through Amazon, as I own a Kindle. I want to ensure that I get the book as soon as it is possible.

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