The furor among independent booksellers following Amazon’s erroneous early shipment to customers of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments has not abated, fueled in part by ongoing confusion and frustration about laydown and publication dates (which are not the same thing, I’m learning). Most booksellers are trained to acknowledge the phenomenon of Tuesday releases… that rather random but magical day in our industry when new books are introduced. While there may be a myriad of attributed reasons for the choice of Tuesdays — from convenience to retailers for receiving, stocking and shelving… to a piece of shopworn historical lore that big box retailers prefer one day per week for all new media releases, and Tuesday is that day… to some complicated formula of how to best maximize bestseller data collection and maintain status in the top 10 for big titles that I can’t, for the life of me get to parse…. at any rate, as new booksellers we’re trained that “New books come out on Tuesdays, and that’s the day they hit the floor.”
Well, except for a few instances….
For example, if your store is lucky enough to score a launch event for an author, and the event will work better on the weekend before the book’s published release date, well then, that date can be moved back to accommodate a party. That bit of calendar manipulation makes sense, and as a fellow bookseller, I don’t mind at all if you put out your books early, let the author sign them at the event, and hopefully make a lot of money for all your efforts. I’m not as thrilled, however, if you put your books out a full week ahead of time, in order to generate excitement for the event…. while my copies are gathering dust in the stock room. But then again, should I care?
Here’s another example: if a book is available in a bookfair format, such as Raina Telgemeier’s Guts has been for the last week or two, should brick and mortar booksellers just ignore the release date of tomorrow? Scholastic certainly didn’t embargo this title, or request any kind of affidavit from bookstores prior to ordering the books, but it does still have a published “on sale” date of September 17th on Edelweiss, and a Street Smart notation on Ingram of the same date. If that’s not really relevant, why use it, or why not make the date prior to the distribution of book fair flyers? Somewhere, someone thought that the 17th was important, and so we did, too.
Words are important, and I do recognize the differences in terms we’re all shouting (mostly to each other, which might be part of the problem). “Onsale date” and “Laydown date” are terms that carry specific weight. As I understand it, those labels mean that no matter when a title is received, that is the date that the publisher intends for it to be available to the public. As booksellers who value our personal relationships with authors, those are the dates that we acknowledge and celebrate as “book birthdays” and “launches.” Those are the dates of store-tweeted images of covers, social media pictures of displays, congratulatory emails and the subject of handwritten lists painstakingly drawn on chalkboards and whiteboards in our stores. Those events sometimes carry legal paperwork that we are required to sign, promising not to EVEN OPEN THE BOXES of important titles ahead of time, so as to not spoil the media event of the release.
Slightly less formidable, the terms “release date” and “publication date” float around our stock rooms. Lots of books are shipped before release date, and frankly, no one would notice if they hit the Leveled Reader spinner or replaced the hardcover in the general fiction section in the days before. As booksellers, though, we tend to be sticklers for honoring every single book, every single publication event, and every single author. And so, we get grumpy when the local supermarket puts out a display of some installment of a series — long in paperback — in the days before release date. It feels unfair that we’re held to all these RULES, even if we impose some of them upon ourselves. Even more confusing is the fact that different publishing houses have different policies in place, and while it’s lovely to think that we’re discussing the promotion of each and every frontlist title with our reps… we’re just too busy trying to figure out the grids and co-op and writing enough shelf talkers and where someone left the plunger, which needs to be found quickly.
The enforcement of all of these rules, or lack of it, makes the situation even murkier. I don’t want to spend my Sunday nights lurking in big box stores looking for “mistakes,” or cruising my neighborhood trash cans and peeking inside “smile” boxes for packing slips just to create a “GOTCHA” moment. At the same time, I don’t want my colleagues who have stores in remote parts of the country, where shipping can take longer, to be further penalized by the rest of us just putting books on sale on a whim, calendar be damned. If publishers are going to use a publication date of any kind, then it is to all of our benefit to celebrate a new book together. In a world clamoring for what’s new, and in which Tuesday becomes old news as soon as everyone has read The Skimm…. well, let’s all shout about a new title together, shall we, and own the news that day. Let’s honor the date that each new title comes into the world at large, and let’s all agree that as booksellers, we are signing an invisible affidavit with the author every single time.
So, publishers, we need a couple of things. We need books delivered, on time, to all of us who sell them. That delivery date needs to be as equal as possible, with hurricanes, fires, and Stanley Cup victory parades excluded. We need dates that they should be sold, and we need real teeth to that agreement, or let’s not bother. The ultimate control of when a book can be sold is when it arrives… so if an error is made, subsequent books should not be shipped early enough for the mistake to be repeated. Then, if you really, really don’t care when the book is shelved, shift to seasonal releases or make the posted onside date “optional.” We’ll figure it out — right after we find the plunger.