Why we care about pre-orders, release dates, and stuff like that


Hey y’all, more behind-the-curtain stuff today, so if you don’t want to see how the sausage gets made, run away now. We’re going to talk about “the produce model,” advance escalators, bestseller lists, and lots of other stuff that you might have heard about but might not completely understand. Hell, I might not completely understand it all and may throw some questions out to the Magical Words brain trust before we’re all done. 

Yeah, that’s really the best thing about being part of this site for me. As much as I love all y’all, having a bank of people who know more than me to consult on stuff is the shizzle. Fo’ Rizzle. 

BTW, I’m thinking of changing my last name to Lion. What do you think? 

I think if you understand the last couple of sentences, you should write more and pay less attention to pop culture. 

Moving on. 

First, I want to let everybody know that the pre-order for Paint it Black, Book 4 of The Black Knight Chronicles, is now up! You can click here to order my latest book. 

Now why do I want you to pre-order? Why do we as authors spend so much time working our butts off on release dates, release blitzes, book tours, blog tours, release parties, and all that other jazz? 


It’s the ugly business side of things, but the first week or two of a book’s like are the most important, especially for those of us published by bigger houses. My situation is a little different, but I’ll get to that later. Most major publishing and bookselling outlets work on what we refer to as the produce model of sales and stock. This is just what it sounds like – the stocking model stolen from the produce department at a grocery store. You see, for those of you who cook, you already know this, but for folks like me who think a stove is just another place to pile books, you might not understand that fruits and vegetables spoil. So they have to be sold by a certain date. And you always want to keep your stock rotated and fresh, so it’s appealing and an awesome shopping experience, and so that people aren’t seeing the same old stale bananas every day. 

Bookstores follow a lot of the same logic. Someone somewhere determined that books have about 90 days to sell, and then they’re done. They’ve spoiled. At some point we’ll discuss the fact that bookstores don’t actually buy books, but have books consigned to them, but that’s a discussion for another day. But there are several reasons for this thought process among publishers, all of them flawed at the root, but it makes no difference – this is how the world is run today. 

It will likely be different tomorrow. The world changes a lot recently. This gives lots of people ulcers. I personally enjoy it, but I have yet to be terribly vested in any one way of doing things, so I can ride the waves a little more easily. 

So a book has a very limited time to make a splash. And if you’re a mid-list author, you have even less time. You need to debut on that NY Times or USA Today list, or your chances of getting there at all have boiled down to “better luck with the next book.” And that’s why pre-orders are so important to us – because even if a book has a six-month pre-order period, all those sales get counted as happening on release day. Which gives us a better chance of making a list, which gives us negotiating power with our next contract, and gives us the ability to put “__________ Best-Selling Author” after our name when we blurb books for our friends, which in turn helps them sell a few more books. Another thing that happens is pre-orders and early sales for one book in a series helps determine initial print runs and reprints for hardcover releases of subsequent books, if you’re fortunate enough to have a hardcover release. 

So that’s a big part of why we spend so much time promoting our pre-orders and releases – because our careers very often depend on the first couple of months of a book’s life. A bad release, or a botched pre-order can have a serious negative effect on our ability to get another contract. So go pre-order something! I have a suggestion, of course. 🙂

My situation is a bit different, because I’m with a small press, and my publisher, Bell Bridge Books, takes a long-tail view of sales. For example, they have not allowed any of their books to go out of print. At all. And they continue to promote backlist heavily. They also release far fewer titles than the big New York publishers, so they can give more of their resources to each release. But I care about a fast release because I have an escalator clause in my contract that earns me a larger advance on my next book if this one earns out quickly enough. Now obviously an advance isn’t free money, and to keep meeting the escalator clauses I have to keep hitting higher and higher pre-order and release week numbers, but the numbers are very reasonable and the increases aren’t crazy, so it’s not out of the question for me to hit this escalator and pocket a few extra bucks on the next book in the series. 

So there’s more than you wanted to know about produce, escalators and pre-orders. I warned you that it would be a lot of sausage-making. 🙂

Come see me at Dragon*Con next week!


11 comments to Why we care about pre-orders, release dates, and stuff like that

  • What he said. All that he said. (Excellent post John.)

  • Great post. Spot on. Except it USED to be that publishers gave books 90 days to sell. Then they made it six weeks. Now it’s down to four weeks. Seriously. This business has gotten nuts.

  • sagablessed

    So a new author with little or no following yet is pretty much scr^^d. Joy.
    I am still gonna try. Why? Because I have stories to tell…and hopefully sell. At least a couple.

  • I don’t think you’re screwed, Saga. In fact, it sometimes happens that new authors get more promo than established midlisters, because the powers that be have an idea what they’re expecting from us, and they have already decided what we’ll sell, so that determines the level of work they’ll put in promoting it. But as a new author, you might be viewed as having more potential than someone they’ve worked with for years. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Me too! But that describes so much of the publishing world.

    And one more point I want to raise with regards to selling books, and this is something I start off all my publishing industry classes with – don’t let anyone determine your success for you. Only you decide if you’re a success or a failure. It doesn’t matter if you sell twenty copies to friends and family, or a million copies all over the world. As long as you’ve met your goals as a storyteller, you’ve succeeded. I don’t measure my success against the other folks here on MW (much :)) and I don’t expect them to measure themselves against anyone else in the world. We all have different goals, and thus we will all have different successes. And to be honest, anyone who has typed the words “The End” on a novel-length work of fiction or non-fiction has already beaten past most of the population who spends all their time talking about writing and not very much time writing.

  • sagablessed

    First: thanks! 🙂 Encouragement was needed.

    And “Amen” to that last one. I did it once, and look forward to putting those final words on two more works if not more.

    My goal is not so much selling, as it is to see my work in print. How much I sell is not the main point. To finally feel that first author’s copy in my hands, warm from the presses and still crisp as a baby apple…total geek-out. 😀

  • Chris Branch

    Nice explanation John, thanks. but now it’s got me wondering: would any of you care to comment on whether mentioning this here and elsewhere is actually having an impact? For example, I did preorder Thieves’ Quarry – I was going to order it anyway so was glad to help out when David suggested it. So how did it do? Or is that too much like discussing your salary with strangers? If so, please forgive me and ignore this! 😉

  • Honestly, Chris, I don’t know. Paint it Black is my first release of a new book with Bell Bridge, and my first since joining MW, so I won’t know until the book drops in October whether my efforts are helping or not. But I’ll certainly let you know then.

  • sagablessed

    So here’s a question: do most books come out in blocks at certain times of the year? Or is it a steady stream, or are the release dates are simply arbitrary?
    Something I have always wanted to know.

  • Thanks for this, John, except… now I’m full! All that sausage and soon-to-spoil fruit. Bananas. Apples. Sheesh. I’m going to have to do laps around the page count!

  • Saga, Nothing is arbitrary

    Release dates by NYC pubs are always on Tuesdays. That is because the numbers and lists report on Wednesday, 8 days later. For instance, Bloot Trade came out on April 2, and the lists reported the next week.

    For the top 100 authors,the release date is carefully calculated. For instance, if a UF writer wants to get to number one on NYT, they will not have a book released on the same day as Rob or Harris or Butcher. So it’s all carefully calculated.