Tuesday

Pub Date

By Richard Curtis

Few events in the life of a book are as thoroughly invested with magic and mystery as its publication date. Although the season, month, and day of publication are, as often as not, selected merely to satisfy the expediencies of a publisher's schedule, many authors and even some publishers assign kabbalistic value to pub dates, and a great deal of myth and nonsense has come to surround the process. One hears such platitudes 
as, "January is a lousy month to bring out a book," or, "Nobody buys books in August," or "Can you believe they released my book on Friday the thirteenth?"

As tens of thousands of books are published annually, you may safely assume that a day does not go by without one being officially launched somewhere. I know of no records correlating the success or failure of books with their pub dates, but I daresay that if someone were crazy enough to trace the fates of bestsellers back to the dates on which they were published, it would be demonstrated that successful books debut on just about every date on the calendar - including Friday the thirteenth. It would also be discovered, I'm sure, that just as many books flop as triumph whose pub dates are agonized over and deliberately selected for maximum impact.

A few words about the differences between hardcover and paperback distribution might be pertinent here. Hardcover books are for the most part shipped directly from publisher to bookstore (though the advent of powerful hardcover wholesalers and jobbers is changing this, it should be noted). Hardcovers can be, and are, shipped on any date, but traditionally they are categorized by season: spring and fall. Sometimes Christmas is designated a third "season." Hardcover publishers hold spring and fall sales conferences to introduce books scheduled for the following season, and they issue spring and fall catalogues. A hardcover published in July will probably be considered a spring book; one published in February, a fall book.

The rise of the paperback industry created a very different distribution rhythm. Until relatively recently, when the great bookstore chains made direct distribution of paperbacks a significant factor in the publishing industry, paperback books were carried only by the same distributors who stock magazines in newsstands and drugstores, and this form of distribution is still the dominant mode in the paperback industry. But because distribution of magazines follows a monthly cycle, the scheduling of paperback books became a monthly affair. Catalogues issued by mass market publishers are for the most part monthly, and, unlike their hardcover counterparts, paperback editors refer to pub dates by month, not by season. And while it is impractical to conduct a sales conference every month, paperback publishers do consult with sales staff and distributors on a monthly basis far more extensively than hardcover publishers do. The lingo of paperback distribution is closer to magazines, too: hardcover books are published, but paperbacks are released (or issued).

In an earlier era when novels and general nonfiction were affordable only by a wealthier segment of society, the summer was undoubtedly a dead time for booksellers as the carriage trade fled the cities for favorite rural watering spots. A book published in July or August could very well die, and it's easy to see where the notion arose that August publication is the kiss of death. In September the affluent returned to the city, presumably hungry for good books to read and mindful of the impending Christmas holiday, when books make excellent gifts. That is why fall has always been considered the best time to launch a book, and for the most part that remains true, because a book that goes on the bestseller list in the fall has a good chance of carrying into the Christmas buying season. And if January is considered a lousy time to publish, it's because bookstore owners are preoccupied with post-holiday returns, budget deficits, and winter vacations to recover from the intense business of the previous few months.

Mass market publishing and marketing have smoothed out many of the hills and valleys of bookselling, making the business a year-round enterprise. The capital required to feed a mass market maw allows for no downtime. Every month must carry its share of the annual business, and every book, whatever its publication date, must be considered a source of maximum profit potential. "People used to say things like 'July is a good month for publishing but August is bad'," Robert A. Gottlieb, former president of Alfred A. Knopf said in a New York Times article. "All those maxims are true until books come along that disprove them, then the opposite is true." Gottlieb added that Knopf published most of its books "at the first rational moment," and I would say that many of publishers do the same.

Some books definitely do have seasonal pertinence. Sports novels or nonfiction books come to mind, for they are often dependent on the start of playing seasons or tournaments. It makes common sense to bring a baseball book out in March and a football book in August. And sometimes there are excellent strategic reasons for publishing a book in a specific month.

The scheduling of books for publication on a specific calendar date is usually aimed more at gratifying whim or superstition - publisher's or author's - than at achieving any significant commercial advantage. It is flattering for an author to have his book published on his birthday, but from that day forward the book is on its own. It seems logical to bring out a biography of Lincoln on Lincoln's Birthday, or an account of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, or a study of the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, for these dates possess a certain degree of promotional cachet. But that's as far as it goes.

Quite clearly, a book's publication date is nowhere nearly as important as some other factors on which publishers spend a great deal of time and energy during scheduling meetings. Possibly the key one is what the competition is doing. If, for instance, Simon & Schuster knows that Crown is going to be publishing a new novel in September by its blockbuster author, S&S might well think twice about scheduling its own fall leader around the same time. Information about the pub dates of major books is usually available from a variety of sources such as publishers' catalogues, Publishers Weekly, and the free exchange of information among friendly competitors (to say nothing of gossipy agents). And occasionally, when the exchange of information is not so free, friendly competitors have been known to resort to subterfuge.

If, however, two lead books scheduled for the same time are not really competitive - a literary novel, say, versus an international thriller - the publishers might not be afraid to go head to head, because two different audiences can support both books and simultaneously boost them onto the bestseller list.

Publishers may not be so gentlemanly if they get caught up in a race to be first out with a book on a hot subject such as an unfolding high-profile criminal trial. Dramatic news events will occasion rivalries that are anything but friendly, for now the competing publishers are committing a great deal of capital to getting their books into the stores first. In some cases both books do well, but on many occasions the second book across the line suffers grievous losses.

You can see, then, that unlucky pub dates can occur on any given page of the calendar, and the circumstances attending the birth of your book are far more auspicious or inauspicious than the date. Any day is Friday the thirteenth for the author whose publisher goes bankrupt on his pub date, or the one who finds himself on pub date without a sponsoring editor because the one who originally acquired his book left six months ago to take another job, or the one whose pub date was unheralded by a single ad because the whole advertising budget for that month was allocated to a blockbuster on the same list.

But such misfortunes are not reserved to the lowly. Not long ago a superstar author reportedly blew a gasket because her publisher hadn't had the prescience to realize that another publisher had scheduled a book by an equally illustrious name for the same month as hers, and she dressed her publisher down in terms usually reserved for marine recruits.

- Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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