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!