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 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.
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.