Having a South African spouse, I’ve found that our greatest misunderstandings come not from the obvious differences in culture, but from the things you expect are the same… and aren’t. British English and American English are just divergent enough to get a poor unsuspecting soul in a lot of trouble, when they thought they were being perfectly straightforward and honest.
So, too, “preorders” in the language spoken by indie and the language spoken by trad pub.
At first glance, you look at the word, and say “Orders for the book before it’s released!” Everyone nods sagely, and then assumes that we’re all on the same page as to their importance and timing across all publishing platforms and retailers. But it’s not, not at all.
For trad pub, preorders are massively important. You see, trad pub wants to make their money immediately on a book, so their focus is on the first flush of sales. Because their measure of success (NYT Bestseller List, USA Today Bestseller List, etc.) goes by books sold in a week, the name of the game is to get as many books to ship in an initial week as possible. Back before credit cards were as common in the USA as shoes, customers would order books not yet printed, and then come in on launch day and pay cash for the book in hand. Thus, preorder sales were always attached to the launch week sales, boosting the book higher on the bestseller lists, and providing the immediate return up front.
Because it’s very difficult to coordinate humans to all go buy something at the same time, authors, publishers, and bookstores alike started leaning on their fans to preorder books. For authors, it gave them months to do their marketing, energize the fanbase, and get the word out, while providing greater visibility in the bookstores and the chance that they’d do well enough their book wouldn’t be stripped and returned after two to six weeks. For publishers, the more they could move people to preorder, the more they could predict the size of the needed print run, and also get all their money in one chunk that looked good to the corporate overlords before dropping all support for the book a few weeks later. For bookstores, preorders are already paid for, so it’s certain cash in hand without any need to display the inventory or potential need to return. If there are enough preorders, it can turn the whole thing into an event to attract more buyers (and coffee, snacks, and incidental sales)! In trad pub, where the readers don’t count, everybody wins with preorders.
Thus, for trad pub, the longer the preorder, the better – and the size of the preorder is extremely important.
And then came Amazon & Indie.
Several years ago, indie publishers put up quite a hue and cry about not having preorders available to them on Amazon, unlike their trad pub competitors. Amazon listened, and made preorders available, with a few caveats to ensure that indie pub would indeed have the product ready on ship date, and not leave Amazon holding the bag while angry customers yelled at them.
With glee, indie pub rushed out to put things on preorder…. and promptly found it wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. It’s a useful tool, but it isn’t nearly as important to them as it’s made out to be.
The critical differences:
1. Amazon counts a preorder toward the item’s sales rank the day the order is placed.
This makes logical sense in the non-publishing world, as the “sale” happens the day a contract to sell is agreed upon, not the ship date, not the date money changes hands, nor the date the customer receives the item. This is pretty standard whether ordering a run of shoes manufactured in China, selling wheat futures in Chicago, or a racehorse in Kentucky.
The trad publishing world, though, is wrapped around counting sales on release day. As a result, when they set preorders starting at a year out, the public spreads their buying out over a year, and there are rarely enough sales on a single day to push the book onto the charts, or gain visibility.
In indie publishing, we know visibility and discoverability are a function of sales velocity and trajectory – not only how many you’ve sold, but for how long you’ve sold that many. Therefore, we must balance the size of our reachable fan base against the length of our preorder.
2. Trad pub peorder emphasis leans heavily on networking with your current fans for preorders, while indie pub relies on their reachable fans to springboard sales into visibility for not-yet-fans and other readers.
Trad pub is known to base their print run for midlist on the size of the preorder; they look at what orders the fans make, and estimate that’s the size of the market. They don’t expect many sales after the initial few weeks available, and expect the bookstores to strip covers and return the books within six weeks of release. (in fact, there was a news article a while back about an author getting cancelled mid-series based on poor preorders: they didn’t even wait for the book to come out.)
Indie, on the other hand, wants to put its intellectual property out on the market and keep it out there, year after year, gathering more readers and sales. Launches are important because they’re the best opportunity to gain visibility. Lots of readers browse the Hot New Releases list, looking for something to read – so we don’t have to make a high spot in the overall bestseller list, if we can get on the HNR list.
On the one hand, if your cover and blurb are compelling enough, and your price within the impulse purchase range, you can pick up extra sales by HNR browsers willing to speculate that you’ll be good. On the other hand, when you have few to no reviews, browsers tend to weight the sample much more heavily. Since you don’t have a look inside sample when pre-ordering, only when live, sales to non-fans often won’t really pick up until after the release date.
Yes, I can see you up there, demanding that I convert this into numbers and figure for you. And I’m going to frustrate you by saying “That depends.” On what? On the size of your fan base, what you already have out, and how much outside-of-Amazon marketing you’re doing.
For one case, take Hank Shaw. Hank is the blogger behind the fairly high-traffic Hunter Angler Gardner Cook. He has been blogging for years on his journey to make all of his meat and most of his food come from the land around him, whether through his garden, hunting, fishing, or foraging. Including recipes, yummy, yummy recipes.
Hank has two books out: Hunt, Gather, Cook and Duck, Duck, Goose. He’s got a third on pre-oder, names Buck, Buck, Moose. He’s releasing recipes and bits cut out of the final version, stories behind the making of, etc. on his blog. That’s where most of his marketing is. Secondly, he’s doing a book tour – but as a chef, this is not just at bookstores. This is also a series of venison-themed dinners and talks at upscale restaurants. See: http://honest-food.net/2016/03/17/buck-buck-moose-book-tour-schedule/
In Hank’s case, a long preorder is a good thing, as the irregular visitors come to his blog in waves with each hunting and foraging season, following search engine returns for recipes, and he’ll drum up his publicity in the tour itself, with the help of local newpapers at each stop if he can. The word of mouth from the tour will help penetrate his target markets who don’t tend to browse hot new releases in cookbooks – namely, hunters and their partners who want a new way to cook their hard-gotten meat, and the locavore / sustainability crowd (there’s more overlap than you’d think).
For a different case, Take J.L. Curtis, also known as OldNFO. OldNFO started writing, essentially, modern-day westerns (same grit, dust, ranching, code of honor, love of family and fighting crime, but modern day Texas, somewhereStan, and other points east and west) while working a job that dragged him from one end of the earth to the other. (Most of The Gray Man: Vignettes was written in airline seats). He had no time to market, nor did his job per-zactly encourage authorial self-promotion.
OldNFO’s promotion is mostly on Amazon and somewhat on his much lower traffic blog, so he’s not going to be well served by a long preorder. Instead, for him, three days is probably optimal, and a week would be stretching it.
For those of you who are more in OldNFO’s side of the fence, then, why pre-order at all?
1: Release Promotion
Many of you are familiar with the hair-tearing dance of getting your ebook live, and your createspace live, and then trying to get the two linked, while your fans are asking why you don’t have one or the other. Preorders let you get both products up and linked before the release date, so when you’re ready to announce the new story, the page is up, proofread, linked, and looking professional.
2: Early Reviews
Fun fact: if you have the dead tree edition available before the ebook, people can buy and leave “verified purchase” reviews on the print edition, so your ebook launch starts with reviews available.
Another fun fact: Preordering delivers your story straight to the fans who want it most right away, so they can start the read & review cycle the second it’s available.
3: Managing the visibility spike
Say you have multiple pools of people that you’d like to notify about your new story. Well, if your fans are the first folks – and they preorder the books – you may start getting reviews as early as the same day it’s out. (These fans, they’re out there. We love them. They cause a few white hairs when they tear through a book that took 6 months to write, and leave a review in 6 hours saying “Where’s the next?!?!?” but… we love them. )
Say another one of these pools is a forum, or a facebook group, of people who share your interest in $StoryTopic. You don’t necessarily want to announce to them that you’ve released the story on launch day. Just like a stacked promo raises visibility, so does a stacked launch announcement. And if you wait until there’s a review or two, then the vaguely interested who click the link will have something to help sway them that it’s a good deal and an entertaining story.
In fact, a little pre-order lets you split your fans and stack them, which results in a lower sales per day, but in greater sales trajectory and more staying power on the charts. This is because the preorder lets the “I’ll buy anything by her!” fans place their orders first, then the “I like some of her stuff” fans follow once the look-inside & send sample to kindle-app tells them they’ll like it, too. If you follow that with outside announcements, you can get three or four waves of launch sales, boosting you up the sales ranks and holding you there longer.
(Trad pub, meanwhile, is still stuck on getting the most sales possible on Day 1. Talking about drawing out the launch announcement is a foreign language to them.)
Amazon’s also-boughts are on of the great undersung tools of discoverability. Even if you don’t land on the Hot New Releases or Kindle Bestseller in Subgenre lists, making enough sales to show up on other book’s “People who bought this also bought” is enough to get many a browser to go “Oh, that looks promising” and check it out.
It takes both sales and time for also-boughts to populate, so if you have the preorder go up 3 days early, then by launch day, the also-boughts from the preorder customers will have populated, and you’ll start to appear in the also-boughts of other books.
5: Time in Lists
The hot new releases is a time dependent list: thirty days after release (roughly), your book is no longer “new” and will age out. However, your story is also eligible for the list the entire time it’s on preorder. If you could sell enough to stay on the list with a six-month preorder, then you’d be on the list for seven months (6-months preorder + 1 months after release).
For most of us, that’s not a practical time limit, but even an extra five days on the HNR list is an extra five days of visibility, and that’s worth a few sales.
Why not Preroder:
If you can’t make a deadline, don’t try to make the preorder deadline. The beauty of indie is that it’s very flexible. If you’re a week late on release (non-preorder version), as long as you haven’t promised your fans a specific date, you’re good. On the other hand, if you can’t make a deadline you set with Amazon, well, they’re very against vendors skipping out on promised goods and leaving them to face angry fans. Read the TOS for the penalties.
2. But I finished it!
This one bites one artist I know hard: As soon as he has a manuscript ready, the artist in him wants to fling it immediately out into the world, pressing it into the hands of eager readers. He’s even been known to release the ebook before he’s formatted the print version, despite all the advice he sought from me. If you’re going to approach the business of indie pub as an artform and charity to readers, then… don’t expect to reap good business returns.
In summary, Preorder is a useful tool. However, for indies, it isn’t nearly as critical as for trad pub, and your goal isn’t to maximize your sales on Day 1. Contemplate the size of your fan base, and the structure of your launch, and how many places you’ll announce it. That’ll let you know how long a preorder you should set.
One last note: This is Amazon-focused because that’s where I’m focused. Over at Apple, and Nook, pre-orders are structured like the publishing industry, and therefore count sales rank on the day of release. So if you’re wide, and you have substantial sales outside of Amazon, adjust your strategy accordingly.