Wondering whether or not to execute a pre-order book campaign to your schedule? A good place to start: It’s not often that a tweet will have staying power after it disappears from your feed, but this 2021 viral tweet by YA author Jenny Elder Moke still resonates with me: “I know this is very against popular discussion, but the idea of pre-orders being so important to a book’s success is just exhausting. People just…don’t shop that way. Books are a tactile thing, and they’re often a browsing experience. People want to peruse at a bookstore.”
How Do People Buy Books?
As the president of Books Forward, a literary publicity firm, I find the question of “how do people buy books?” is always on my mind because the answers fuel our book marketing efforts. And here was an intriguing offshoot of that essential book-buying question: “Do pre-order book campaigns ‘work?’”
Pre-order book campaigns are promotions designed to sell books before the official release date. On publication day, all those pre-sold books are dispatched for delivery, and the pre-sales are tallied up with sales that occur during release week.
Pre-orders are significant for a couple reasons: First, because pre-sales are counted during, and not before, release week, they can increase the chance of landing on a bestseller list. Second, if an author is traditionally published, the publisher ostensibly wants to start making money back as soon as possible and anticipate how a title will perform.
But are pre-order book campaigns (and expectations around their success) helping or harming authors?
Pre-Order Book Campaigns: Helping or Hurting You?
Moke continued on Twitter: “The fact that a book needs to be a buzzy bestseller *before it even comes out* is a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Because if pubs expect a book with a lot of pre-orders to succeed, then they necessarily assume the opposite for books that don’t have them.”
She added, “ALL books deserve to find their way to readers, and not all books need to be bestsellers to be successful. The way this industry has narrowed in on one extremely subjective metric for success is so ignorant and disrespectful to actual readers.”
Moke noted that distribution has made a bigger difference than pre-orders in selling her own books, crediting “excellent placement in places like Wal-Mart and Target, and large enough orders in B&N [Barnes & Noble] that the book could be face out.”
I wholeheartedly agree that books do not need to be bestsellers – particularly immediate bestsellers – to be successful. In fact, our publicity firm is dedicated to helping authors understand that good promotion is a marathon, not a sprint. And while it’s beneficial to plan promotion leading up to a launch, there is also plenty of opportunity to keep momentum going after.
Conventional publishing wisdom has maintained that books only have a short window around publication to be considered successful – but, as we’ve seen, a viral video on TikTok can catapult even obscure titles into the spotlight. “Convention” doesn’t always keep pace with “innovation,” and the publishing industry is no exception.
So could it be that the industry’s use of pre-orders as a major metric of success does not accurately reflect how readers actually buy books – and are authors being unfairly sidelined as “unsuccessful” by their publishers as a result?
I spoke with one of our authors, New York Times bestseller Joan He, about whether or not she felt pre-order campaigns were “worth it.” She had actually responded to Moke’s original tweet, saying: “Not going to argue that it isn’t exhausting (because it is!) or that it should be this way but also sometimes preorders are the only way you can get a pub to increase a print run and distribute it better so that there IS that tactile experience.”
She continued, “After my first experience, I will never take my book being in a store for granted. And a large part of DOTC [Descendant of the Crane] being in stores was due to preorders. But yup, wish it weren’t this way.”
“Those are still my thoughts,” He said. “I think a pre-order campaign probably isn’t worth the swag costs/time/effort, assuming you’re able to expend those, of course, if you can’t figure out how to make yours stand out or if it’s just not something you want to do.”
For her part, He said she enjoys the process of putting together her pre-order campaigns. Her strategy is to make sure every pre-order incentive is high quality and tailored to the book. She enjoys adding personal touches because she wants “to make it feel like a gift to readers.”
When asked if she feels like pre-order campaigns are “worth it,” she said she feels her pre-order campaigns helped readers discover her first novel, Descendant of the Crane, and helped her second novel, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, become a New York Times bestseller.
Pre-Order Book Campaigns & Reach
He also explained that her pre-order campaign reached readers internationally, and while those sales don’t help with U.S. lists, “readers are still readers when it comes to word of mouth.” And a sale is still a sale – even when it comes overseas.
Perhaps the answer regarding pre-orders lies somewhere between Moke’s and He’s experiences: A savvy, well-crafted pre-order campaign can help a book sell and can positively influence your publishing experience. And: It is skewed to look at pre-orders as a primary metric of publishing success. As Moke said, not all books need to be bestsellers to be successful. All books deserve to find their way to readers.
Marissa DeCuir is the president and partner of Books Forward publicity and Books Fluent publishing. A former journalist, she’s always looking for the best hooks to utilize in author publicity and book marketing and believes in taking a personal and strategic can-do approach to help authors reach their goals.