The Case of the Confusing Pub Date

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 4th, 2018

For major holidays, publishers release books on a reasonable timeline; Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Independence Day books arrive roughly when we expect them to start being in demand. Sure, we get some Halloween books in July and Christmas books in August, which is much earlier than I like to face the holidays, but on the whole, books ship on a schedule that makes sense. But for less specific seasonal offerings, release dates often stump booksellers.

Every year, we encounter books published mysteriously out of season: camping stories that come out in September, for instance, missing an entire summer’s worth of heightened sales. Or books perfect for summer beach reading rolling out in February, or late August, just too early or late for their optimal readership. It’s not that the books go unread, but their prime selling season seems to be lost, unnecessarily so.

I feel conflicted writing about this topic. As a reader, I know that good books obviously transcend any particular season. As a child, I loved pulling out winter books in July, when the Arizona heat in my backyard was high and I wanted a bit of sweet, cold comfort. I’m also resistant to holidays for holidays’ sake in general. But as a bookseller, I experience the waves of book interest from my customers, and I know that a certain kind of book that might have sold three dozen copies in June and July might sell just five copies in September and October.

When we encounter these books, I always wonder how those release date decisions get made. I suspect that publishers’ production calendars — nighmarish webs of scheduling details that they are — must dictate some less optimal slots, especially for midlist titles. And perhaps some books that come out at the “wrong” time were originally scheduled for months that better suited them but delays on the author, illustrator, or production end pushed them into different seasons.

I’d love to hear from you editorial and production folks about whether or not you feel that some of the books on your lists end up releasing at the wrong time, and why that happens. Remember that comments can be made anonymously. I’d love to crack the Case of the Confusing Pub Date.

4 thoughts on “The Case of the Confusing Pub Date

  1. David Rozansky

    Speaking as an indie small-press publisher:

    The primary culprit is, as tou guessed, a missed deadline or delay.

    Occasionally, it’s a purposeful decision. The book may be best as a spring release, but to get momentum going in the marketing of the author, we may prime the pump with a book release in November, so we can have four or six months of marketing efforts in place for when we roll out the brand’s second, and possibly third book. It can be a case of “Working Amazon in the winter to push readers into bookstores in spring.” Or it’s a matter of how dependent we are on the author’s event and travel schedule for the book tour.

    My experience is that a series unfolds best when the first book is available all through the dry months of summer, the next for holiday or the follow-up gift-card/Kindle-fill week, then one each month from January to May. That first book is our primer on the series to give away to reviewers, build momentum at sci-fi cons, and build buzz among the author’s small but core readership.

    Since that kind of plan goes south with a single missed deadline, it’s usually best to have all 5-7 of the first titles in the brand or series ready to publish before the first release date, so booksellers can ask if it’s part of a larger marketing campaign, or if it’s a scheduling glitch.

    I would never want a bookseller to suffer a book that missed it’s optimal sales period. I kill a book release the moment a deadline is missed (at 5:00 the manuscript is on my desk or at 5:01 the pink slip is on yours). At the most, we’ll start over to schedule the release date for the next year at the appropriate time but that’s rare. I never want a bookseller thinking about one of our titles the same thoughts expressed here. A book that misses it’s window of opportunity is a loss for both publisher and bookseller.

    —David Rozansky
    Publisher
    Flying Pen Press

  2. hb

    In my experience, this happens because of a missed deadline and sometimes because of a printing conflict/error. A turn-over in editorial staff can cause big delays in schedules or attempting an unrealistic, too-eager deadline. An inexperienced team that hasn’t yet familiarized itself with traditional publishing cycles could easily end up with ill-timed books planned with the best intentions.

  3. Paul McCain

    Speaking as a publisher, I understand the concern and would like to offer a comment from our “side” of the equation.

    Honestly, it comes down to the “best laid laid plans of mice and men often go awry” …

    And it is often simply that as much as we would love to have an author delivery his/her mss on time and as much as try to plan for contigencies, things happen and short of holding an author hostage and forcing them to meet the deadlines….they don’t and so then we have to scramble to readjust. Can we bring another project forward quickly enough to fill the gaps? How far in advance to we announce a forthcoming title? Do we set a date and then have to break it? Do we fudge around with the “coming soon”?

    Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here but it should not be assumed that publishers would not LOVE to have a manuscript hit every “due date” on the schedule, but it just doesn’t work and then we have to decide, do we hold it in reserve? Do we release it whenever? etc.

    My .02

    Paul McCain
    Publisher
    Concordia Publishing House

  4. Jennifer Schultz

    Speaking as a collection services development librarian–the main frustration I have is with “back to school/first day of school” books coming out in August. Our students start before Labor Day, as do many other children (especially in the South). By the time we would get the books, get them processed and ready for the shelves, etc, there’s barely any prime time for interest (if any).

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