Why Book Pre-Orders Matter

A peek behind the book distribution curtain, with help from some publishing industry experts.

One of my favorite “joke” questions is “how long is a piece of string?” It’s usually my snarky reply to any question that requires more information before any reply more definite than “it depends” can be made. An example I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is: “When should I start promoting pre-orders for my book?”

What’s a Pre-order?

Now that retailers make it so easy to order books well ahead of their publication date, it has become an incredibly powerful marketing tool. First, strong pre-orders may influence a publisher’s print run size. They can also bump up a book’s rankings, which in turn determine bestseller lists. Algorithms then give those bestsellers more visibility, rewarding success with more success (and sales) even before the book is out in the world.

Pre-orders get that party started, which is why they are such a hot topic. But knowing that doesn’t answer the original question: when to start promoting the pre-order option to readers. The only answer I’ve been able to dig up is: “it depends.”

What experts say

Publisher Brooke Warner suggests beginning requests for pre-orders “at most” four to five months ahead of pub date, and then “start really pushing about three months in advance. It feels a little too far away to be asking people to buy something that has an on-sale date of eight months from now.” This matches advice I’ve seen from other publishers and authors.

At the other end of the spectrum is my publicist, Sharon Bially. “I do believe it’s never too early to start letting people know the book is coming out,” Sharon writes. “It’s that simple. I would not advise hitting them over the head with it time and again this far out, but I see absolutely nothing wrong with priming your community with an occasional message about the book so they get it on their radar screen. It often takes many, many reminders for people to hit ‘purchase.’” 

Publishing expert Jane Friedman falls somewhere in between. After a reminder that there are no hard and fast rules about what timing works best, she adds, “Off the top of my head, I can’t see why offering a pre-order further in advance would be a problem, unless the product description were bare – e.g., no cover or description. That said, readers may forget they ordered your book if it’s too far in advance of pub date, and you could lose the momentum of their enthusiasm.”

Since it seems silly to hire a publicist and then not take her advice, I let my readers know as soon as Ferry to Cooperation Island was available for pre-order back in October (and offered the first chapter as a temptation). I will continue to send occasional reminders to you about the book (and pre-ordering), though obviously my goal is to excite rather than annoy.

Amazon vs. Independents

Another related topic is whether it’s “better” to pre-order via Amazon or your local independent bookstore. This also “depends.” Amazon does make it stupidly easy, but indies provide jobs to our neighbors—as well as excellent advice about what book our aunt/niece/mother-in-law might enjoy. Ferry to Cooperation Island is available at both locations, so you can vote with your wallet by ordering from Indiebound (where you can choose your local bookstore by zip code) or Amazon. Whichever you choose, thank you!

Have you pre-ordered books before? Do you think it’s way too early to hear about a book coming out next June, or do you appreciate the reminder? Or… is this yet another question like “how long is a piece of string”—where the only possible answer is “It depends”? Let me know in the comments below, or email me. I read every note you send, so thanks.

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