Which month should I go on sale?

Over on the blogsite of Jason Pinter, there’s a nice entry on March 30 called “Timing is Everything,” about the importance of choosing just the right month to publish a book.  Jason’s both a thriller novelist as well as an editor, so he knows the business from both sides.  And here’s what he says:

“A few years ago, I was talking with another editor about the next novel from a major bestselling writer. The book was scheduled to come out in several months, and galleys would be arriving soon. The author routinely sold about 400,000 copies in hardcover, and another million in paperback. Yet despite ten bestselling novels and over 40,000,000 copies in print worldwide, the author had never hit #1 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list. It wasn’t that his sales didn’t justify it–many authors have hit #1 despite selling far fewer copies–it was that his books always came out in the fall, when the competition was at its fiercest, and more books were competing for almighty consumer dollar.”

Jason’s absolutely right about timing.  If your book comes out the same week that five heavy-hitters have releases, even though your book may sell a lot of copies, you just aren’t going to hit as high on the list.  Fall, in general, is a really tough time, because that’s traditionally when publishers publish their major releases.

Since the release of my first thriller, HARVEST, in 1996, each of my books has been published in the late summer/early fall, when the competition tends to be brutal.  The highest I’ve ever gotten on the NYT list was #3, for THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  I’ve noticed that where you land on the Times list doesn’t necessarily reflect your raw sales.  THE SINNER, for instance, hit #4 on the list while BODY DOUBLE, which sold more copies, didn’t even hit the top 10.  It’s all a matter of which other titles are in the stores that particular week. 

For awhile, publishers who wanted to establish an author as a NYT-bestseller would release them in the slow months — i.e., January through March.  There’d be less competition, and more of a chance to place on the bestseller list.  Unfortunately, it also meant that overall, you sell fewer copies because of lighter traffic through the stores.  You were trading actual sales for the prestige of being a bestseller that month.

With my new book, THE BONE GARDEN, my publisher considered releasing me at a completely different time of the year, and they suggested March.  They wanted to move me into a time slot where I might be able to hit even higher than #3, and I was all for it…

… until they took a closer look at my numbers and realized that, by trying to place higher on the list, I might be sacrificing total sales.  The Christmas season, it turned out, was a period in which I sold quite a few additional books, even though it was months after my book’s release.  If I came out in March, I’d lose that second bump in sales.  So what did I want?  A higher place on the list, or more books sold?

It’s great, of course, to hit high on the list.  It’s a real ego boost to have that label “#1 bestseller” behind your name.  But when you get right down to what the publisher (and the booksellers) really want, it gets down to raw sales.  Do you want to sell 200,000 copies and hit #5 or sell 100,000 and hit #1?

Since you don’t get paid for hitting the list, but you do get paid for selling that extra 100,000 copies, the choice starts to look pretty obvious.

In case you’re wondering what I chose, THE BONE GARDEN is scheduled to go on sale this September.


And now another photo of one of my books, this time in Sydney, Australia, in front of a native bottlebrush tree.  With many thanks to Sharmaine A. for the photo!


16 replies
  1. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    I should think that with the addition of internet sales such as Amazon.com that it wouldn’t matter as much anymore WHEN a book came out as long as there was enough repectable advertising to support the book.

    Many fans (I would assume) prefer going through the internet (and perhaps Wal-Mart)because of the discounts available. Although if there IS a heavy hitting author (I read a wide variety of them)with a hot book out I do tend to lean towards going to Borders opening day (Tuesday) and buy it.
    (Such as Stephen King’s upcoming BLAZE -June 12)

    I find it strange that January thru March are considered ‘slow’ since I would think with crummy weather accross the country people would tend to read more since it IS after, all a mostly indoor activity.

  2. Craig
    Craig says:

    What I’ve noticed is that all of the volumes of the Harry Potter canon that I can recall were released either in June or July. Even though they are as much of a “sure thing” as any title can be the publisher is taking nothing for granted. Tuttle makes a very good point about the first quarter and maybe more publishers should consider releasing titles then. On the other hand, if I had to depend on Amazon to find out about new titles I would be in a bad way. There are simply too many titles being released year round. I prefer my local independent bookstore which tries to give all new titles a fair chance–they’re in no hurry to return anything to the publisher. They’ll even hold books for me to look at with no obligation on my part. The problem with advertising is where? There are far too many cable channels though I did see The Mephisto Club promoted during Keith Olbermann’s Countdown show. What I do is I try to go to my bookstore weekly and get the latest titles and see if I’m compatible with the author. If not, I put it back. If I am, I’ll check the first volume from the library if the author is new to me. If I really enjoy it like I did with Will Thomas’ first book, Some Danger Involved, I’ll go back to the bookstore and pick it up and then ask my booksellers to hold a copy of the author’s next book for me. That author is now on the “A list”.
    By the way, Tess, my favorite bookstore is responsible for supplying titles for more than one discussion group and one of the clubs has “The Surgeon” as it’s topic for discussion this month.

  3. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    I actually prefer buying in the book store. It’s one of my favorite reasons for getting out of the house (well, apartment now, house in a couple of weeks), I can see and touch the book, and I have it for my very own as soon as I pay for it. I do shop online, though, especially when I can’t find what I want in the book store; yeah, I could order it from them, but I might save a few pennies ordering it online, and either way, I’d have to wait. While I love Amazon’s “Look Inside the Book” feature, it’s still not the same as holding the book in my hands and flipping through it as much as I want, and to where I want (some publishers only let you view the covers, table of contents, and a few specific pages, plus, when you can search through the books, you can only see a few consecutive pages–understandable protection for the author and publisher, but still not as good as in person for the reader).

    I didn’t know the time of year a book is released is important. What constitutes a book as a “Bestseller” if not sales???

  4. Craig
    Craig says:

    SassyDevil, you bring up an interesting point here. It seems to me that if more publishers concentrated on the slow periods, the sales would be better for a particular title and it would be easier to get on the Bestseller list

  5. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    SassyDevil, it IS sales, but it’s sales relative to all the other titles being released (or selling strongly) at that particular time. That’s why 100,000 copies might be more than enough in Feb. but not even get an author close in September.

    I find this discussion fascinating. When my novel sold last fall, I wanted nothing more than to see it in the bookstores as soon as possible.

    But my editor explained that as a debut novelist I had a much better chance at getting readers’ attention in a slower season. So the book’s set, now, for a January 29th release. 16 months is a lo-o-ong wait, but I am quite happy about it!

  6. dustinhood
    dustinhood says:

    Oh, that’s such a long way away! That’s like 5 months from now, [sad face]. That’s OK though, I guess I’ll have to stall with all of the releases in May.

  7. David Montgomery
    David Montgomery says:

    “I should think that with the addition of internet sales such as Amazon.com that it wouldn’t matter as much anymore WHEN a book came out as long as there was enough respectable advertising to support the book.”

    Internet sales for books, particularly for bestsellers, are very small as a percentage of total sales. If Tess sells even 10% of her total through Amazon, I’d be surprised. So I don’t think the internet would have significantly affected this situation.

    One possible reason for less consumer demand for books in the first quarter of the year might be as an aftereffect of the Christmas season. People give and receive a lot of books as gifts during the holiday season. I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t satisfy a lot of the demand for books for the next few months, thus leading to diminished sales in the early months of the year.

  8. dsurrett
    dsurrett says:

    My wife and I tend to go to Books-a-Million or Barnes and Noble the day that books by our favorite authors are released so we can hold the books in our grubby little hands as quickly as possible. We’ll be marking time until September!
    I’m guessing timing determines not only the month of a release but also the week within the month. Michael Connelly’s next book was scheduled for release May 29 but changed to May 22. I’m assuming this change was made so it would be available for the long Memorial Day weekend.

  9. Tess
    Tess says:

    you’re right about internet sales making up a very small proportion of a bestseller’s sales. The last time I tallied up the numbers, I believe that my internet sales were about 3% of my total.

    Also, in January, a lot of people are all spent out from Christmas and don’t really want to open their wallet for discretionary items like books.

  10. Rob Gregory Browne
    Rob Gregory Browne says:

    First, Tess, I absolutely LOVE the title THE BONE GARDEN. Truly wonderful.

    Second, thanks for the post. It has given me something new to think about. Or maybe I SHOULDN’T thank you. My brain’s already crowded enough as it is…

    My first book came out in February, but now it looks like my publisher will be releasing the second book during the summer next year to make room for the mass market version of the first.

    So, after reading your post, the first question that comes to mind is, how will this affect sales?

  11. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    Thank you for the information, all. It’s really useful for me. I didn’t know Internet sales counted for such a low number of sales. I like having the option, though.

  12. Tess
    Tess says:

    from my experience as a Harlequin paperback author, I’ve noticed that summertime tends to have strong sales, in paperback anyway. The nice thing about using Harlequin sales as a data collection source is that you’re using a fairly uniform product within any particular line. Every month a new set of books in the line is released, and the cover designs tend to be similar, as well as the types of stories. You’re also selling to a consistent readership. The print runs are the same across the line. The line I wrote for, Harlequin Intrigue, was a 50/50 mix of romance and suspense.

    My eight books with the publisher came out at a variety of times. I had experience with every season, I believe. The one book of mine that came out in August had a much higher sell-through than my other titles. When I spoke to an editor at Harlequin, she confirmed that August (at least in that particular year) had a great sell-through for all the titles that came out that month, while other months didn’t see quite that high a sell-through.

  13. Jason Pinter
    Jason Pinter says:

    That’s exactly the kind of thing I was trying to uncover, thanks Tess. I have delusions of grandeur and hopes of hitting a list or two, but it’ll be very difficult considering July is such a crowded month for fiction.

    But I agree 100% with what you’re saying. I’d rather my book sells more copies than hits a list, since the most important thing at this point in my career is building a readership.

    Terrific insight as always!

  14. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    I like the business end of the novel world but I’m just freakin’ excited about you letting us know when your new book is coming out haha. I love the title “The Bone Garden” as well, it’s really chilling…adieu!

  15. dustinhood
    dustinhood says:

    Off Subject: When your new book, THE BONE GARDEN, does come out, make sure that you come somewhere near Northeastern Arkansas!!!

    Dustin Hood, 15

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