In 2018, the American Booksellers Association invited more than 20 indie bookstores to join a pre-order task force and participate in pre-order campaigns for select titles, while a 2019 ABA survey revealed that more than 300 stores in total were engaging in pre-order campaigns. Pre-order sales now account for between three and 30 percent of overall sales, which indicates that many sales are occurring before the book even arrives in the store.
At an education session on pre-order campaigns at the 15th annual Winter Institute in Baltimore, ABA Senior Program Officer Joy Dallanegra-Sanger and IndieCommerce Senior Manager Geetha Nathan were joined by two participants of the task force, Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books in Seattle, Washington, and Dave Lucey of Page 158 Books in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The panel also included publisher representatives Meg Sherman of W.W. Norton & Company and Karen Torres of Hachette Book Group.
Sindelar explained how the task force began its work. “When we went into the test, no matter how big a book was, if we pre-sold five books that was a lot,” he said. As the year progressed, he started to see a bump in sales on Tuesdays, the traditional pub day for books, which indicated his pre-order campaigns were successful.
Sindelar chose recognizable books that had an added value, such as signed copies. Every two weeks, he would send an email blast to customers that would target two books as well as a few from the previous week. He would usually see 50 to 75 sales in a day from an email blast, he said, and what he found was that these customers would then become repeat customers. “I’m using this as a lure to get them into the ecosystem of my website. And they now know how to use it,” Sindelar said. He also discovered that online sales increased beyond the titles the store was advertising.
After joining the pilot, Lucey found his Tuesday sales spiked, too. His store would feature authors in the campaign with a loyal following, such as Maggie Stiefvater, Holly Black, and Caitlin Doughty. He decided to put the pre-order landing page everywhere: on the menu bar on the website, in every email the store sent out, on Facebook posts. “It’s beating that drum — you can pre-order from us,” he said.
It worked. He deduced that as people realize they can get the books they want from their indie bookstore, they don’t automatically go to Amazon. When Doughty announced her forthcoming book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, Page 158 got 2,000 hits because the author had featured them on her website as a place to purchase it. Lucey recommended tapping in to an author’s rabid fan base and capitalizing on any exposure the author provides. “With three pre-order campaigns, I paid for my website for the year,” he said.
Sherman agreed that enlisting the help of the author is key. In the case of Doughty, Sherman recognized that her fan base was indie-based. Using Doughty’s platform, which relies heavily on social media, Sherman put all of the stores participating in pre-orders on her website. As a result, Sherman started hearing from bookstores that didn’t have an account with Norton. New accounts were established, new relationships developed, and new sales reps were assigned. The most exciting, she said, was that the indies exceeded her expectation, performing 75 percent higher than anticipated, with a total of 1,904 pre-orders. “It made a very happy author, a very happy editor, a very happy agent all at the same time. And that was you guys making them very happy,” said Sherman.
ABA worked with Hachette on pre-order sales for Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton, a debut novel and an Indie Next List pick. Torres noted that not every book works, but this one in particular escalated in enthusiasm after buzz at a retreat. One hundred and one accounts participated in the pre-order campaign, ordering 814 books and chip clips (the novel features a crow whose favorite snack is Cheetos). After the campaign ended, sales continued to grow, with total pre-orders reaching 900 — “amazing” for a debut author.
“From a publisher’s perspective, the numbers are very, very important.” said Torres, noting that everyone has an understanding of the share of the market. “There’s no greater expectation than the continued effort to try to grow it. There’s not one publisher that doesn’t love the indies.”
While there may be technical challenges to sharing with publishers the pre-order data from myriad point-of-sales systems across indie bookstores nationally, Lucey remained steadfast in his encouragement of pre-order campaigns. “There’s a huge benefit here for all of us,” he said. “The point about the authors seeing [the success] and then not linking to Amazon the next time they post about something because they know that the indie channel is supporting them in this way is tremendous.”