The Problem with On-Sale Dates

Josie Leavitt - March 13, 2013

In the book business we live by several dates: publication date, the date a book is coming out, and the on-sale date, the date we can actually sell the book. The problem arises when the publication date and the on-sale date don’t match. Or, more often is the case that we receive a carton of books from a publisher and are told, via the bright orange sticker on the box, what books we can put out the shelf and what books need to wait for their special day. The issue for smaller stores is for the most part we get these books at least two weeks ahead of when we can actually put them on the shelves. So, now they’re just taking up space and not earning their keep.
I can understand why it’s important that we all adhere to the strict on-sale date for big books. These are the books where selling them early would give a store a distinct advantage in the marketplace, like selling the last Harry Potter book three days earlier than everyone else. These titles are embargoed and have strict on-sale dates. This terminology implies the other on-sale dates are suggestions. This is not the case. We take these dates seriously and I think the publishers take them even more seriously.
Here’s what seems to be happening. Everyone thinks their books need that special Tuesday release. But why? Is it really necessary for a middle grade novel, a picture book about some ducks, or a realistic YA mid-list hardcover to languish on the back counter for a week rather than be on the shelf? Why do so many books now have on-sale dates? Why can’t we just put them out when we get them?
I know this might not be a burning question for most people, but for the people who receive and shelve books every day, it is.

10 thoughts on “The Problem with On-Sale Dates

  1. Trish Brown

    I’m with you 100%! More & more publishers are just slapping that “on-sale” restriction on ALL of their books instead of picking the big ones. We usually check Ingram’s “Street Smart” notation to decide how serious to be about the on-sale date, but it still leaves us with stacks/boxes of books to store for no good reason!

  2. Erin Murphy

    I agree completely. This is an Amazon-driven thing, in my opinion, as their system requires an actual on-sale date. I was hit by this coming from a different angle a few years ago when a client’s feelings were hurt when I didn’t acknowledge her “book birthday.” I didn’t even know books had birthDAYS back then; we had publishing MONTHS, and it had somehow changed without me realizing it.

  3. Andy Weiner

    The point of on sale dates in many instances is to in fact protect independent booksellers. Distribution of books to customers large and small, Amazon to Flying Pig, is not consistent. By assigning an on sale date publishers assure independent bookstores that they can begin selling a book on the same date as a larger customer, regardless of when that larger customer may have received their inventory–which is often quite a bit earlier than smaller customers. So rather than complaining about on sale dates being assigned on all titles you should thank publishers for keeping the playing field level.

    1. Melissa Hernandez

      Well said and 100% correct! I’m a very small bookshop and being able to start selling the book the same date as Amazon and everyone else is a big help. If strict on sale dates are removed, then everyone will order from Amazon or go to B&N or other big stores before I get a chance to get the book in my shop.

  4. Willard Williams

    I actually appreciate the lay down dates, and especially those publishers who ship almost all their new publications in a box clearly marked with a release date. True some do come early, but generally it’s only a few days. Having spent 40 years unpacking books, most of those years prior to the ubiquitous on sale dates, I like the fact that now we all put the books out on the same day, and no one has an advantage due to the vagaries of shipments. I do not have to hear, as I used to, that another store down the road (whether bookstore or supermarket or now online) already has the book and “why are you so slow? Next time I’ll check there first.” It isn’t just the mega bestseller, it’s every book. My heartfelt thanks to the publishers with the weekly on sale dates – please keep it up!

  5. Christie

    Please excuse the question as it may seem naive, but I’m not a bookseller. How would a publisher know that you’ve released a title for sale earlier than their ‘on-sale’ date? Is there some kind of software that details the sale by publisher that would indicate the date a book is sold? I can understand some publishing embargos so no one seller has an unfair advantage (the Harry Potter books for example) but prohibiting any general title does seem ridiculous.

  6. sharon budnarchuk

    I suspect that publishers want to capture all of the initial sell through of the title in that first week to ensure all sales are included so that the title may make a special list or the sales will garner attention from media and bloggers. Everyone is now connected to those numbers and they have become a tool for what the markting department might do next

  7. Raelene

    If the publisher thinks the book might have even the slightest of chances of hitting a bestseller list–any list, any rank–then the publisher needs all the sales to happen at the same time. The lists are based on sales for each week, not cumulative. So if some stores put the book on sale a day or two before the official “on sale” date, those sales could fall in the previous week as counted by the bestseller lists. That would spread total sales over two weeks, rather than in one, and the book would not show enough sales in a single week to hit a list.
    Lay-down dates (on sale dates) and embargo dates have been around since long, long before Amazon.

  8. Diana

    Having to put the recently checked in level reader books about Splat the Cat and Pete the Cat back in the box was just ridiculous. Books of high sales value are one thing. But the children reading Pete and Splat have no concept of sales dates, nor should they.
    Ask yourselves this question while putting a strict on sale date on a book, “Is the audience of this book going to be clamoring at the store at 9 am for there copy?” If the answer is “no” save us some hassle.


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