Do on-sale dates matter? Yes...and No.
Deciphering the not-so-mysterious strategy behind a book's on-sale date.
Before we dive into today’s topic, I wanted to say thank you for being patient while I took a little break from writing the newsletter last week. Between running a business, being a mom, my MBA program, and a lot of life stuff, sometimes I need a break. My MBA class is more demanding than the others because I am so close to graduating (June 1, 2024!). When I sat down to write today’s edition of Publishing Confidential, I had written a paper and taken three exams. Whew. My final project is due in two weeks, and it is massive. I don’t want to bore you too much with the details, but each student is tasked with building an entire workforce for the U.S. office of a Singaporean software company. It’s not easy!
And now, let’s get the subscriber business out of the way. This week, paid subscribers will receive a newsletter entitled “Is There a Right Way to Publish a Book?” where I’ll delve into different publishing models.
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A few readers suggested the idea for today’s newsletter. Admittedly, I never thought of writing about on-sale dates, but I can see how they can be puzzling to some people. It’s not that complicated. Let’s do this:
I. How is a book’s on-sale date determined?
At a basic level, a book’s on-sale date is determined by the following:
The author’s delivery date versus how quickly the manuscript goes through editing, copyediting, and production.
There is a lot of guesswork about competing books
Every year, publishers are tasked with producing a certain number of titles, bringing them to the marketplace, and meeting their revenue targets. It’s not often that these three things work out perfectly. Several of you have probably noticed that several big books are released in the fall. You’ll often see books by the heavy hitters of the literary world, political books, celebrity memoirs, and other “LOOK AT ME” titles on shelves between September and December. This is because, by June of every fiscal year, publishers know their shortfalls. For example, S&S knew they wouldn’t have a Colleen Hoover type of year in 2023, so I imagine they did everything possible to ensure the Britney Spears memoir was published before the holidays. In this case, they’ll sail through the season with decent revenue. Gallery is the imprint of S&S that published Britney’s book, which sold 1.1M copies across formats in its first week. Congrats to them.
Publishers can afford to take more risks at the beginning of the year, and that is where “midlist” authors appear. I don’t buy into the midlist author moniker because it doesn’t mean publicity departments have less work to do. When faced with breaking out an author, publicists must fight many uphill battles. It is not as if fewer titles are published between January and April. Publicists are constantly battling for attention from reviewers, and reviewers consistently make difficult choices about what books to cover with limited space. Considering the “new year, new you” category, where self-improvement books are published every January, it looks daunting, and with good reason: it is. When I worked in-house, I dreaded “new year, new you” titles because it was (and is) hard to differentiate them. Sometimes, publishers will move a book in that category to “grads, moms, and dads,” which brings me to the next.
May through August can be stressful in publishing. First, you will see a slew of on-sale dates from the beginning of April leading to the week or so before Mother’s Day. This is a merchandising construct that I’m not entirely sure works anymore for books. When Borders existed (RIP) and B&N still accepted coop advertising money from publishers, books meant for Mother’s Day/Father’s Day/Grad Gift store promotion must be on sale before specific dates, or publishers would lose valuable real estate in physical book stores. One could argue that it’s still important to publish titles tied to those dates earlier rather than later. However, the store placement game is entirely different now, so publishers must carefully decide which titles fit the bill for a specific timeframe. Further, big-box stores like Target, Costco, and Walmart are significant players in the holiday book game because they use a plan-o-gram for each store that instructs employees on which merchandise goes where when there is a changeover. There are other time frames tied to specific books: Black History Month, AAPI Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, and so forth. Publishers need to be more strategic because each of those months has become incredibly crowded with books, and readers don’t only shop for them during a dedicated time.
I don’t know if this still exists, but years ago, publishers received a comprehensive list of big books and their on-sale dates from a distributor. We’d review the list and make adjustments as needed. If you were publishing a big thriller the same day as a new John Grisham book, you could move the date. I suspect there is more guesswork in figuring out when competing books are on sale, though it seems celebrity memoirs were published simultaneously this fall. I had barely finished reading about Jada Pinkett Smith when Britney’s book was published. Add in a dose of John Stamos and Julia Fox for good measure.
II. On-Sale Dates and Big Years or Anniversaries
A good publicity or marketing executive will flag a book’s on-sale date if it coincides with a significant cultural date. I’m still uncomfortable with 9/11 as an on-sale date, and I suspect many other people are, too. 2024 is not only an election year; it is also when the Summer Olympics occur in Paris. The Olympics are July 26-August 11, and NBC heavily relies on the ad revenue it receives from them. Publishers can’t rely on sales data from the previous Summer Olympics because of the global pandemic. Data before that is from the 2016 Summer Olympics, also during a contentious election cycle in the U.S. It feels like a century ago.
The U.S. is again in a contentious election cycle, and the Iowa Caucus is on January 15, 2024. The New Hampshire primary is on January 24, 2024. If you follow politics, you know that these two dates will determine a lot as we continue through the election cycle. The Republican National Convention is in Milwaukee from July 15-18, and the Democratic National Convention is in Chicago from August 19-22. Essentially, we are going from the RNC to the Olympics to the DNC. There are primaries leading up to each party’s convention. That is a lot to consider when scheduling on-sale dates for books. If trends tell us anything, it is that there will be many political books published in 2024. I’d caution publishers not to oversaturate the market with them because, just as we are seeing with Covid books, there is a collective political fatigue. There are also more social media platforms where people can read, post, or avoid politics.
A significant factor that plays into election years is the economy. I am not a Wall Street analyst, but I predict that holiday spending 2023 will be flat compared to last year. If consumer spending grows this holiday season, it is because retailers are offering deep discounts, which means they are taking a loss on their balance sheets. Consumers will be cautious heading into 2024 for a few reasons: 1) The Fed could raise interest rates again, which means credit card debt will continue growing. 2) The U.S. is in a precarious foreign policy position with several nations, especially ones that could affect gas prices. 3) Certain employment sectors continue shedding jobs. 4) Student loan payments will squeeze people’s budgets. This is not to say 2024 will be a terrible year for books; instead, it is a collection of facts that should influence publishers to choose dates sensibly when scheduling releases.
Since the SAG-AFTRA strike isn’t over, there will be scheduling holes for theatrical movie releases and movies/shows on streaming platforms. A productive exercise for publishers: find out what is delayed, and if you have releases you can market to fill the void. The third season of The White Lotus has been moved to 2025. Take advantage of that and give readers a novel with many dysfunctional wealthy people on vacation together.
III. Your Book and an Election Year
Should you fret if your book is being published during an election year? Not really. I wouldn’t advise anyone to use November 5, 2024, as an on-sale date because that is election day, and we are now somewhat accustomed to recounts so politics will eat up the entire week. If I were scheduling releases for Fall 2024, I wouldn’t use September and October for all of my big books. There is no rule that you must publish them in the fall, so spread them out. An archaic way of thinking is that the media is dead in August. Newsflash: the media is never dead, and plenty of people are working in August. Besides, you want to reach readers, and you can do that without the media for a majority of books that are published.
If your book is scheduled for publication in 2024, my suggestion is to check out this list of dates and these election cycle dates. Please talk with your agent and editor about what they foresee as marketing and publicity challenges when your book is released. There is no perfect time for a book to be published unless it is specifically tied to a trend or national/global occurrence. A less ideal time for a book to be published is on election day in the U.S.
IV. The Dreaded Seasonal Previews in Book Review Sections
Please trust me when I say this, authors: If your book isn’t included in a seasonal preview (lists several publications cultivate and publish for the fall and summer), it is not the end of the world. It is also not a predictor of your book’s success. It is nice to be included, but it doesn’t always equate to preorders. When I consider a book as “beach reading,” I am thinking about what else the consumer for that book likes outside of reading, which has nothing to do with curated lists in, say, The New York Times. Last summer, my beach read was The Guest by Emma Cline, and it was perfect because it took place in The Hamptons during the summer, and the pacing had me on the edge of my seat. When I think about fall books, I tend to skew more literary. In the winter, I double down on romance books because it is cold and dark, and I need heat (wink, wink).
If I advise someone to use an on-sale date that coincides with beach reading, I sense the book will connect with people who want a particular story. Similarly, a book that is on sale in February also must connect with consumers in a certain way (think: the doldrums of winter). While I’m at it, can we please stop using Valentine’s Day as the focal point for romance books?
I hope this was helpful. As always, questions and comments should go to firstname.lastname@example.org, and business inquiries should go to email@example.com.
I am compiling two gift guides for you! Be on the lookout as the month goes on. By now, you know I am a power shopper. I’ve put that talent to good use!
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What I’m Watching: The Morning Show is so good this season.
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