Monday, August 28, 2006

Comment: Street Dates & Street Ethics; Call for Guest Bloggers

I got to thinking about street dates for books over the weekend. This will likely be a short post, due to depressing weather and an overwhelming to-do list, but hopefully it will be food for thought.

The street date (or on-sale date, which I'll use interchangeably though there are subtle differences) is the official date on which a book can be sold in bookstores. The most famous of these, of course, is for Harry Potter; remember all those crates of books waiting for the midnight release? Most street dates aren't down to the minute, but as a rule the more highly anticipated the book, the more strict the on-sale date.

This Tuesday, August 29, is the street date for two such highly anticipated books: Haruki Murakami's new novel BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN (Knpf) and the paperback edition of Zadie Smith's ON BEAUTY (Penguin). My store will likely receive our shipment of these books today (Monday), but we are strictly forbidden to sell either of them until tomorrow.

Street dates were implemented a number of years ago as a result of lobbying of publishers by certain bookstores (mostly chains, I believe), with the complaint that some bookstores were receiving and selling hot books before others were able to do so, thus reducing their ability to compete. The publishers thus implemented strict on-sale dates for certain books that were likely to be in demand, so as to even the playing field for all stores to be able to sell the books to customers at the same time. (Andy, or anyone else in the know, feel free to fill in or correct me on how this all happened.)

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, some stores still sell hot books before the on sale date. Because wholesalers need to have the book well in advance of the street date in order to resell it to their bookstore accounts, publishers tend to ship these books to all of their large accounts (which includes both wholesalers and chains) fairly early. And some bookstores ordering either from wholesalers or directly from the publishers may get their books well in advance of the on-sale date. And the temptation to put a book that customers have been asking for out on the shelf a day or two early is one that can be hard to resist.

Especially since this falls into the category "if it's not reported, it's not a crime." The only way a bookstore can get in trouble for selling a book early is if someone from the publisher sees the book out on the shelves, or if someone calls the publisher to report it. It seems a little tattle-tale-ish to rat out a bookstore to a publisher, so unless it's something like HARRY POTTER, that rarely happens.

What most often does happen is that a customer will come into a bookstore asking for the new Murakami, and when told it will be on sale tomorrow, objects "But I just saw it at [x bookstore]." This is exactly the thing that street dates are meant to prevent, since it undermines the credibility of the bookstore that isn't selling the book yet, and makes it likely that the eager customer will take their business to the store that's selling the book early, rather than the one in their neighborhood that has treated them so well all these years.

In a way, you could say that the street date punishes those who follow the rules. But there doesn't seem to be any more effective way to keep things equal. Most bookstores I know at least make an effort to abide by the street date, though sometimes they may be unaware of one (not all books have a strict on-sale date, and some publishers are more serious about them than others.)

The cool thing about the street dates, in one book nerd's opinion, is the buzz and excitement of waiting for that date. Especially in the fall, when a lot of big new books come out, there are a lot of Tuesdays that it's worth coming into the store early to see what has arrived. (Tuesday is the most common on-sale date, I imagine to give bookstores time to receive the book on Monday and get it out first thing Tuesday morning.) Maybe it's worth all the politics and embarassment just for that moment, when you step into the bookstore and there it is: the book that no one has ever read before.

What do you think about street dates and on-sale dates? As bookstore customers, booksellers, or publishing folks, have your experiences been positive or negative? What do you think is the real purpose of street dates, and do they serve that purpose?

* * *

On another topic, I was so pleased by conversations engendered by guest bloggers Dave and Carl that I'm thinking of making guest bloggers a more regular thing around here. I've started hitting up folks I know, but I'd like to make my plea to all my blog readers too. Whether you're in the book industry or just a book reader, if you have a topic you'd like to write about here, please send me an email and make your pitch. I won't set a length limit, but I think about a thousand words is long enough to be in-depth but not taxing. I have to retain veto power in case I think something isn't the right fit for the blog, but I'll look open-mindedly at all comers. Think about what you might want to write about, send me a sentence or two about it, and maybe I'll be able to set up a schedule for Friday guest bloggers. Thanks for being such great readers -- hope to hear from you!

13 comments:

lady t said...

I went thru many of those"but it's Barnes & Noble/Borders/on Amazon already" conversations with customers. I did explain to folks that we would get in trouble(smaller stores seem to get a harsher slap on the wrist than the chain stores for putting books out early)and the best I could offer was to hold a copy for them to pick up on the official street date.


I did notice that some street dates were more carefully guarded than others-mainly a Harry Potter/Stephen King/John Grisham type of book rather than a second novel by someone who had a sleeper hit. There really should be some flexibility with onsale dates,so that booksellers of all stripes should be able to please their customers equally.

I did enjoy your guest bloggers and if this sounds interesting,please consider me-I'd love to ask your readers about genre bias and book tastes. The recent example of this is the new short story collection,This Is Not Chick Lit and the reply to that,This Is Chick Lit. I've written about this at my own blog(and will be reviewing TICL very soon)but I feel that these notions of what is"quality" writing expand even further.

theorist said...

I like the "excitement factor" of street dates, too. They're important for those in book marketing (like me), and for those who write or publish book reviews (also like me). Six months on, the only way to get that initial buzz back is with the paperback.

I'd like to guest blog. I'd like to blog about blurbs and book reviews. How important are they, and to whom? Do readers really care? I'd also like to ask your readers the #1 reason they chose the book they're currently reading. My own blog's content has been mostly regurgitated stuff of late (I'm moving to Europe on Monday, so things are crazy), but you can check it out at fadetheory.com.

T. said...

It's my understanding that the strict on-sale dating came about after the ABA, the trade association for booksellers, went to publishers w. complaints from independents that chain stores were getting and selling hot books before the independents were receiving the title. (Typically, chain stores get their initial supply of books from the company's own Distribution Centers; publishers ship to these DCs early to allow for the chain to then turn around and reship them off to their stores.) As you mentioned, this created the awfully embarrassing situation where the Big Box stores had a book and the customer, understandably, couldn't grasp why the same book was not in another store. (I find explaining this whole mish-mash to customers fairly exasperating... they just want the damn book.)

As it happens, the strict on-sale policy is a real dance: is my competitor selling the book early? if so, am I losing sales as a result? do I rat out my neighbor for breaking the date (not always a chain store, by the way)? do I put the book out early? or, as I've done on occasion, sell it from the back counter? To show you how confusing it can all get, I received a call from a rep recently saying I could put a book out for sale early b.c a competitor, in this instance a chain, had put this particularly hot title on sale days early. And, yes, I've been busted and called to the carpet for putting a book, Murakami's KAFKA ON THE SHORE, on sale early -- I was so excited to have the book I forgot all about stoopid on-sale dates.

Now, if only book reviewers would heed on-sale dates!

Anonymous said...

I think it is as t said, that the Tuesday on-sale date became a tradition because chain stores were putting books on sale early. Their books ship to their stores through their distribution centers, which means they don't go out to the stores in the boxes from the publishers, which are usually clearly marked with the on sale date.

I am sure it is human error and not gross negligence that caused books to leak out to the sales floor early, and the on sale date tradition has mostly but not completely solved that. I have always interpreted it as a 'guideline rule' in a 'Gentleman's (and now Ladies') business'.

'Good' stores have lists of what's going on sale when and comply with that. Less organized stores...well, we all know mistakes happen. I doubt there are many stores out there that are maliciously breaking street dates.

Tuesday on sale has been a tradition in the music industry for years. Stores were trained, and customers learned that Tuesday was new release day. Traffic in music stores is stronger on new release day. I like the idea that the book industry followed suit, and I agree that in some cases, it does enhance excitement for a book's release, to a lesser degree than music, but to a degree none the less. I think it's important to 'generate demand and enthusiasm' for books.

--- Ur.

ps --- I agree again with t...darn that Michiko for reviewing early all the time! She needs to get reprimanded for breaking street dates...

Anonymous said...

You forgot that August 29 is also the street date for Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, which I bought this morning and have already read twice through. The best essay is Mary Beth Ellis's The Waltz, but I also liked The Idiot's Guide to Your Palm by Coleen Kinder, Sex and the Sickbed by Jennifer Glaser, and the longwindely titled You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace by Kyle Minor. The book is kick assssss . . . and kicks Murakami's for certain, at least this once. If only he would write another Norwegian Wood or Wind Up Bird Chronicle!

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