Saturday, February 13, 2016

Is pre-ordering books on Amazon a publishing gimmick?

UPDATE: TELEREAD magazine has publsihed an update of the update here on its global website:

​Is pre-ordering books on Amazon a publishing 'gimmick'?

UPDATED by staff writer, with agency

NEW YORK CITY -- Ever wonder why authors and publishers and their PR units want you to pre-order books months in advance before a book is even published and hits the market? It's a savy marketing strategy that might be better called a ploy or a gimmick. Not nefarious and not a scam, but controversial among some consumers who are not always consulted when big corporations plan their "systems." Let me tell you a story and you can add your comments and opinions at the end.

I recently got an email message from a good friend in California who writes bestselling business books for major publishers, and his/her/their books are about how the corportate world and capitalism is turning us all into walking zombies, both in real life and online.

​​''A local newspaper has a nice interview about
upcoming book, and
​so this email ​is
a good excuse for me to say the time has come:
please support
by pre-ordering through your
​ favorite bookseller or Amazon,'' their email read.

​So I wondered why he/her/they, of all people, was asking me to partake in a corporate ploy that they must know is a ploy, because if anyone would know that this is a ploy, this writer would know.

So I wrote back and said: "What is pre-ordering all about? Why can't we all just wait for the book to be released and then order? Why this emphasis on pre-ordering? 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 Tuscon, do we? So why this pre-ordering emphasis in the book industry? Can you explain to me in plain English?"

A long letter came back, in internet time, and he/she/they said:

​"Good question," they said. "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 gimmick, but this is life in the tech age and you asked me why. Basically, to pre-o
​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
book on a front shelf
​ in bookstores nationwide."

​They added: "S
o, 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 oped-in-progress to the writer in California I referenced at the beginning on this piece, he/she/they took the time to give me some very good amd honest (and eye-opening) feedback.
About my wondering out loud if the pre-ordering system was a
​sed on unsuspecing ​
consumers or not, they told me:
"No, I don't think it's a
​'gimmick' or a 'ploy.'
​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 pre determined they think will sell. By your logic, Kickstarter is a
​gimmick or a ​
ploy, too. No. You completely mis-understand."

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 slimey, I guess, but no more slimy than pushing my idea in a newspaper or online article or interview or anywhere else. Getting my book into someone's hands gets my ideas into their head.'' 

"Now, how do I get my book into the store? I need to prove that there is a market for the book -- a demand. Without me being able to prove there is a demand, the store won't buy it. It will not be on the shelves." 

"So what should I do? 

"Turns out, the easiest way to prove there is a demand is to get people to pre-order the book. This way, they are showing that this is a book they are willing to buy. 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.
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
books. But I still need to get my books into stores.
A reader in Manhattan, who read this article 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 pre-order 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] I see no problem pre-ordering recherche [unknown, obscure, unagented] authors to give them a chance."

So, 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.



Brian Clegg said...

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.


Brian, good points. I am beginning to see all this more clearly and from multiple viewpoints. Thanks for insightful comment.


I noticed that on his Twitter feed, Neil Gaiman the UK writer replied to this oped: "I pre-ordering books I want that haven't come out yet, and am always happy when the bookshop, online or bricks, gets them to me. "