In recent years, pre-order sales have become a major part of the publishing business, in some cases accounting for as much as 30% of total sales for specific titles. And it is a part of the business almost entirely dominated by Amazon. Conversations about pre-orders have been going on for a while between the American Booksellers Association and its publishing partners, but the subject became even more urgent earlier this year, with the announcements of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury, Michelle Obama's Becoming and A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, which was created by John Oliver's HBO show Last Week Tonight. In these cases, indies lost out on significant pre-order possibilities.
In response, the ABA has adjusted its IndieCommerce platform to allow individual stores to set their own pre-order parameters for forthcoming titles; created a new e-mail address to more rapidly receive metadata of suddenly announced titles; and formed a 22-store task force to experiment with driving pre-order sales of seven titles released between September and November.
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All but one of the task force titles--An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Meltdown by Jeff Kinney, Fire & Blood by George R.R. Martin and Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny--featured some sort of added-value pre-order bonus, from pins or tote bags to signed copies and a letter from the author. Publishers also shared digital marketing assets with the ABA. And with the majority of the titles now on store shelves, task force members have had a chance to reflect on the experience.
"The attitude at the beginning of the call was dismal," said Robert Sindelar, ABA president and managing partner of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Ravenna and Seward Park, Wash., recalling the first task force meeting in July. Some common complaints from the other 21 stores were that they had tried pre-orders with a title or two in the past and it didn't work, or that they worried it would be a lot of effort for little return.
"Two months later, the tone was very different," Sindelar continued. "People had numerous success stories. What worked at one store didn't always work at another, but everybody figured out something that worked for them."
At Third Place Books, Sindelar and his staff did most of their pre-order promotions online, and advertised the task force titles in pairs rather than all at once, believing that the repetitive messaging would be more valuable. They did, however, create a custom landing page that housed all of the task force titles. During the course of the testing period, Third Place Books also chose several other books to promote as pre-orders that weren't part of the test group--some standouts included Sally Fields's In Pieces and Turning Pages by Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor.
And while Third Place did have success with various pre-order titles, Sindelar noted that perhaps the most striking thing was the way in which promoting the test titles led to an increase in pre-orders across the board. Sindelar pointed to Bob Woodward's Fear as the best example of that--although Third Place Books wasn't promoting that title specifically, the store saw a dramatic increase in pre-orders after it was announced.
With the last of the test titles hitting shelves soon, Sindelar has been looking ahead at upcoming titles and promoting pre-orders on a consistent, ongoing basis. At this point, he said, books generally "need some name recognition" to work well as pre-orders, along with some added value in the form of signed copies or merchandise. But once a store has its customers' attention, once that message has penetrated enough, any upcoming book can be promoted as a pre-order.
"This doesn't work if you only do it for one book a year," said Sindelar. "The power in it is reminding your customers over and over again."
Unlike many indie bookstores, Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., has been pursuing pre-order sales for a number of years. According to bookseller and marketing manager Josh Cook, the efforts to drive pre-orders came after a chat some three or four years ago with one of the store's publisher reps, who mentioned that indies were "getting killed" in that regard. Porter Square created a section on its website--"Books from the Future"--devoted to pre-orders; created a Tumblr that automatically posts one book for pre-order roughly every day; and began partnering with a variety of authors, from major names like Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer to writers with much smaller audiences, for signed pre-order campaigns.
Cook said that over the past few years of working to drive pre-orders, two of the big takeaways have been that author participation, such as tweeting a link to the bookstore's pre-order page, goes a very long way toward making a campaign successful, and that whenever Porter Square has done a specific pre-order campaign, pre-order numbers for a range of titles go up. Cook explained that even if a big, intensive pre-order campaign sells only a dozen copies or so, "you're going to see overall pre-orders go up."
During the recent test period, Porter Square didn't do much differently, though the store created more in-store displays and promotions than it normally would for pre-order titles. That strategy, Cook said, worked particularly well with the Murakami book, which came with some attractive tote bags as a pre-order bonus.
On the subject of pre-order bonuses, Cook said that a signed copy is "almost always going to be valuable," and a personalized copy even more so, particularly when an author partners with a local store. As for gifts, Cook said that something that relates to an author's work and speaks to their community is a good bet. As examples he pointed to the Murakami tote and a pocket-sized moon calendar that went with pre-orders of Grace Lin's children's book A Big Mooncake for Little Star.
"Even though we all have supercomputers in our pockets, a lot of readers still don't know that independent bookstores can do pre-orders," Cook remarked. "This tells readers we can do everything that big box or bigger stores can do, and we can do it while also being community focused."
At the beginning of the testing period, Green Apple Books co-owner and ABA board member Pete Mulvihill was, by his own admission, one of those participating booksellers fairly skeptical of the idea. Prior to this summer Green Apple had done pre-orders on a very limited basis for major releases like new Haruki Murakami novels or Harry Potter books and, at the time, Mulvihill thought that the "ship had sailed" and trying to drive pre-orders would be like trying to "chase" Amazon on e-book sales.
With the testing period coming to a close, Mulvihill's outlook has changed. He explained that while pre-orders are not a complete "game-changer" on their own, they did increase his sales and they do constitute "another little thing that helps us claw back a few sales from a competitor."
The hardest thing about the whole process, he noted, was just getting started. The store had to make some adjustments to its website and online ordering process to allow for pre-orders. Green Apple created custom webpages for each of the 22 titles, along with a single page that listed them all, and sent out a weekly newsletter showcasing upcoming releases. Staff members also scheduled Twitter, Facebook and other social media posts about the pre-order titles.
Mulvihill and his staff have not done much pre-order promoting in-store, but he identified that as fairly simple thing on which to expand. It would work particularly well for something like the next Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, which is part of a series that is already prominently displayed on Green Apple's shelves. Mulvihill expects to pick out two or three books per month and do an ongoing, rolling promotion for pre-orders.
According to Mulvihill, the real standout among the test titles was Killing Commendatore, which he said was perhaps more up his customers' alleys than other titles. The store sold out of the bonus tote bag relatively quickly, and Mulvihill said it was a little tricky to keep up with that demand and update the webpage quickly enough. Still, Green Apple Books sold at least a few copies of all the test titles.
"The surprising part is just by telling people that we do this at all, the more pre-orders we had for other titles," said Mulvihill. --Alex Mutter