Book pre-orders are not a new idea, but the rise of self-publishing and ebooks have changed the way they work. Seeing new opportunities, indies have built avid readerships, improved their read-through and even found new ways to hit coveted bestseller slots by using pre-orders.
You may be panicked by the idea of a looming deadline or intimidated by the logistics of setting a book launch months in the future, but using pre-orders could give you an edge as a self-publishing author.
In today’s #AskALLi Foundational Self-Publishing podcast, Orna Ross and Dan Parsons explain why pre-orders are important and discuss a few creative ways indies can capitalise on them to reach more readers and sell more books.
This podcast is brought to you by specialist sponsor Dartfrog Books. ALLi Partner Member DartFrog Books provides indie authors with opportunities for bookstore placement and promotion to more than 27,000 book clubs. Their self-publishing, hybrid, traditional, and single-service publishing platforms are designed to engage authors of all types, at every stage of their journey. We'd like to thank Dartfrog for their support of this podcast.
And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
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Read the Transcript: Book Pre-Orders
Orna Ross: We are live. Hello everyone, and welcome to the AskALLi Foundational podcast.
I'm here, I'm Orna Ross, and I'm here with Dan Parsons. Hi, Dan.
Dan Parsons: Hello, Orna. Hello everyone.
Orna Ross: Great to be back after our summer break. This session was actually due to go out last, oh, I don't know when, July or something but we were caught short with the summer.
So, we're going to be talking to you today about pre-orders – the value of, should you do them, shouldn't you do them, what are they, why would you do them? And so on.
Before we do, I just have a couple of notes about ALLi things that are happening in the next little while.
We are coming up to our annual conference, Self-Publishing Advice Conference, SelfPubCon. That will be running this year on the 23rd and 24th of October, same format as usual in that we will be running for 24 hours; 24 sessions over 24 hours. So, we'll be live at some point of the day to you, wherever you are in the world, and the conference will remain then freely available to everybody for three days. So, if you haven't registered, do hop over there now, it's on a separate website, selfpublishingadviceconference.com.
If you just sign up and register for the three free days, then we will send you emails which will keep you appraised of everything that's happening.
We've got some fantastic speakers, we've got KDP and IngramSpark sponsoring us as platinum and gold sponsors, and lots of really good sessions around the topic, which we very seldom talk about here in ALLi, we're all about publishing usually, but this time we are going to be talking about writing craft.
So, if that is of interest to you, please do sign up for those days.
Any news your side, Dan, what have you been up to?
Dan Parsons: Well, I've currently got a new non-fiction book in the works. Slight issues with editors and all that other stuff, but the cover is in place and it's completely ready to go, I just need a final tweak and a few proofreading stages and things like that, and then it should be good to go.
Orna Ross: Great.
Dan Parsons: Yeah, it's never easy when the things don't line up with the different freelancers you work with, you know, everyone's got different schedule.
Do they ever.
Orna Ross: What's the topic of the book?
Dan Parsons: So, it's called Write a Book. The general topic is for people who have tried and failed to write a book several times. I know when I first started writing, the same with many other authors, I think I tried five times, where each manuscript got a little bit longer than the last one, and then it was finally book six, where I actually managed to finish a manuscript. And it's one of these things that once you've done it, once you've proven to yourself you can do it, and then you can do it over and over again. But sometimes people need help getting to that final stage where they just finish the first draft so that they can edit, which most authors never get to.
Orna Ross: Absolutely. The vast, vast, vast majority of people who set out to write a book, don't finish it. So, this is great. It sounds like you should be part of SelfPubCon. I may have to come back to you about that seeing as how you're writing about writing.
Okay. So, today we're talking about pre-orders, and you're a big fan of pre-orders, I think? Would that be fair to say?
Dan Parsons: Increasingly, yeah. I think things have changed on the indie front. Obviously, traditional publishing has always had a thing with pre-orders, but I think as options are opening up for us as indies, it's becoming a slightly different story to two or three years ago, where, pre-orders often weren't valued as much, and they also weren't as viable.
Orna Ross: Exactly, and like every tool, I think, for indie authors, they're just getting better and better.
What is a pre-order?
So, for those who haven't a clue, this is our foundational podcast, and there may well be people sitting out there saying, what on earth is a pre-order?
So, what is a pre-order?
Dan Parsons: Okay. So, a pre-order is essentially an advert that goes out. It's not an advert that you pay for, you just put your up your book up on retailers, as if it's already there for sale, and readers can pay in advance for that book. So, that's as simple as it gets. People can pay in advance, you collect the money, or the retailer collects the money in advance, and then when the book comes out on launch day, you already have a stack of sales, ready.
Orna Ross: And from the reader's perspective it appears on their device, or they get an email saying, go here to download it, or whatever.
Why are pre-orders a good tool for indie authors?
I remember when we didn't have pre-orders at all as indies. I don't remember when it wasn't something that was available to us on any platform at all, and there was great excitement when Amazon first introduced pre-orders, and the other platforms started to do likewise. So, talk to us a little bit about why do we get excited, what's so great about pre-orders?
Dan Parsons: Well, the thing with pre-orders is that you've got a lot more marketing options. So, for someone who likes to work in advance and, if you know your schedule, you can use a more traditional publishing model where you can line up different formats and you can get people excited months in advance, and you can work out marketing in advance, rather than what has traditionally happened with indie authors, where you just have to drop a book and then announce it on social media or in your email list.
So, there's a much more methodical approach to pre-orders, which means that you can have much more robust business practices around it, and it's a lot easier to get a team involved if you know that everything is going to go to a schedule.
So, there are lots of things that you can do with pre-orders that you can't actually do with spontaneous launches, because even if you tell your readers that your book will be out on a certain date, if there isn't somewhere you can capture their sales in advance, then those readers won't always remember the date. Because as much as we all like to think that our books are the biggest things in people's lives, to readers we're just the old email and they've got much bigger things going on in their lives, and the fact that your book is coming out on the 23rd of whatever, it doesn't really matter to them. But if they can pre-order it when they see that you're promoting it, they can then get it and it's already there ready for them and it'll be fulfilled.
Orna Ross: We were interested, when we started to talk about this show back in July, and also, we did a blog post about pre-orders on the Self-Publishing Advice blog and did an informal survey as to whether our members use pre-orders are not, and we were quite surprised actually.
51% of members always use pre-orders. 23% sometimes. 22% haven't done them yet, but intend to, and only 4% of members said they don't use them and don't ever intend to use them.
The trend that we definitely see is that new authors don't tend to use them, and the longer you've been in business., the more likely you are to use pre-orders.
So, you've made a really good business case, get the reader when they first see the book, when they're first interested, get them to actually make that purchase at that point in time. But there is a bit of resistance within that, wouldn't that be fair to say, that people don't necessarily like buying a book before it's actually out?
Dan Parsons: Well, that's the thing that we could argue against for pre-orders. As someone who has run a lot of ads, and I know lots of authors have, you collect data, and you can typically see there's a huge difference in conversions with adverts if they're trying to promote a book on pre-order compared to a book that they can have now. Because readers like the instant gratification of clicking, buying and they can instantly read it on their Kindle, or they'll get it delivered next day.
If the book is out in six months, then yes, it allows you to convert some readers over a long period of time where those sales build up, but you won't get everyone because some people like to impulse buy and immediately read.
I thought it was interesting what you said though, about the difference between newer authors and more experienced authors, and I think the reason why a lot of new authors don't do pre-orders is possibly impatience, because lots of us make the same mistakes where we release books before they ready, and it's the same with marketing. It's not just the fact that a lot of new authors don't know about marketing, it's even if they know it's the right thing to do to delay their book by three months for a pre-order, they just want to get it out there and show all their friends and family. It's something that gives you that instant gratification, but it isn't necessarily the best business move.
How do pre-orders work across the different platforms?
Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, if you can think about the pre-order as a way to delay, we are always saying to people who are just starting off, when you think your book is ready, you're wrong, it's not quite ready. You really need to have more time, especially on the first book, because as you say, there's this incredible momentum that builds up. At least if you can put it on pre-order and then use that as a kind of, breathing space, if you like, we encourage people to do that, and also to see the power of it.
By the way folks, those of you who are listening live, do pop your questions into the chat if you have any questions about pre-orders, or anything to offer us. Because one of the things that we're seeing to circumvent that thing where readers don't necessarily want to do pre-orders, we've seen some creative sorts of ways in which some of our members have got around that.
So, for example, they will do a prize, and maybe give away the first five or six chapters, or even first three chapters, depending on the size of the book and the size of your chapters, but give away a goodly chunk at the beginning so that the reader knows what to expect, and they get a bit of instant gratification, but you know, your book's not quite ready to go out there yet, or you're parsing it out across a series or whatever, it can be a good way to do it.
So, say you do a bit of a competition, one reader wins a prize, all the readers get something in advance, not just pay money and nothing, and people who are doing this type of thing are finding that they're getting a lot more signups for their pre-orders.
And of course, having all your pre-orders land on the first day is a good thing. It's a better thing on some platforms than others, right?
Dan Parsons: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think there are certain platforms, the wider platforms, where all of the sales stack up and then in some cases they actually get counted twice. What I mean by wide platforms, by the way, is any platform other than Amazon, the ones where if someone's not exclusive, they go wide. But yeah, so on certain platforms you get a sale that comes once and your book will bounce into the charts based on how many sales you've had that day, but then over the longer period of time, say you've got a three-month pre-order, when it comes to day one of the actual launch of the book, you'll get a sales rank that is equivalent to all of those sales catching up on the same day as well.
So, theoretically you can get twice as many sales rank points, if you wanted to call them that, and that's massively powerful on the first day of the book coming out, especially if you've had strong sales that have been consistent all the way through, it can really push it into the stratosphere if you've got a strong following and you've been doing a lot of promotional along the way.
What are some of the different ways that indie authors can use pre-orders?
Orna Ross: Yeah, you can also use your own website for pre-orders. So, strictly speaking, it's not exactly the same. You can do a prior transaction and do it in exactly the same sort of way. You can also do a mild thing where you ask people, you push it hard that people would sign up to be told on the day when the book is released, which is not quite the same thing, but you might get more sign-ups, but maybe not so many sales.
So, it's something that you might play around with a little bit and see which one generates a better result for you. We have people who argue quite strongly for one against the author. What else?
Series writers use pre-orders a lot, don't they? You'll see somebody who's next book is coming up, they'll put the link to the pre-order, say the pre-order for book three, at the end of book two so that as soon as the reader finishes book two you catch them when they're in that warm moment and try to get the sale at that point.
Dan Parsons: Yeah. So, there are a few different ways that you can look at pre-orders, because I know of some indie authors who will use them, like you said, with improving their read through for a series. If you drop a book and then you don't have the link in the back of the book to the next book instantly, then you've potentially lost that reader, even if they enjoyed your book.
If you don't have the next book out yet, then putting a pre-order up is a great alternative, because then they can go on and pre-order the next book, and that will keep them in your sales funnel, to use quite a corporate term. So, that will keep those hooked, and then when they get the book delivered on launch day, you can then do the same thing with the next book.
So, there are quite a lot of authors who are just trying to improve their read through, in the same way that if they could sell all on day one as like a box set, you know, some of these rapid release authors, it's almost as instantaneous as that, where they've got five books in a row, they're all linked, they may have only written book one, which to me is insane, but you know, some people can write fast enough to be able to maintain and fulfil all of those orders over six months or something.
The other way that some people use pre-orders in an indie author model is if they wanted to hit bestseller lists. So, people talk about getting their letters, you know, a New York Times bestseller or a USA Today bestseller, and one of the best ways to do that is with pre-orders, because you won't necessarily be able to get enough sales in one week to hit the USA today bestseller list, because I think the last time I counted it was something like 7,000+ book sales in a week.
If you're doing that, then you don't need to be listening to this podcast necessarily, but some people they'll, possibly in a team as well, where they'll use a long pre-order window and they'll make sure they hit all of the things they need to hit in terms of markers to get that bestseller tag on one of those big lists, and that will include getting enough pre-orders on Apple and Kobo, as well as on Amazon, because you need to have a range of those different platforms working at the same time.
And like I said, because all of those pre-orders count on day one, saying that you need 7,000 sales in one week, you don't; you need them over, say a nine-month period, and then they count on launch day.
So, it's a technicality, and whether or not you agree with using that as a system is up to the individual authors, but there are lots of authors who achieve the dream of having their book appear on a huge bestseller list, and on the New York Times website and things, by using this strategy.
So, yeah pre-orders are very, very useful to indies.
What are the dangers of pre-orders for indie authors?
Orna Ross: But there can be some downsides, and you need to be careful with them, and you need to be organized. We've had a lot of members over the years who have put up pre-orders and then failed to meet them, and I think this is perhaps one of the reasons why early authors, people who are just setting out on their publishing work, don't use pre-orders because they're petrified that they will say the book will be ready in September and then come around and find it isn't, and if you don't actually get the book up there Amazon will penalize you, Amazon in particular will penalize you, you will be disallowed from doing pre-orders for a year, and generally it doesn't feel good, let's put it that way.
It also can be a very spectacular, sort of, public fail, if you've been talking about, I'm going to hit this pre-order date and telling everybody about it, and then people have actually ordered the book and paid for it, and you can't deliver. What other dangers are there with pre-orders?
Dan Parsons: Yeah, so obviously, like you said, there's the missed deadline, that's a big one. I think depending on the platform now, certain platforms are a little bit more lenient since the pandemic and they've changed their terms. So, you'll have to check per platform, because they've all got different terms on this, and they do change from time to time.
But yeah, the missed deadline is a big thing in terms of actual consequences from retailers. The public failure isn't necessarily something that would bother everyone, because if you're quite confident to hold your hands up and say, I apologize, I've missed a deadline, and your readers are happy just to give you an extra week or two, because they know a lot of authors do actually, like I said the rapid release model, you can't continuously maintain that, so some readers will five you and others won't, and that will probably be reflected in the reviews.
But yeah, there are other things that are potential dangers. The big one is ‘the wrong file' scenario. So, when you create a pre-order, what many platforms will ask you to do is put a file in as a placeholder. Now, recently there are certain platforms, I think Apple does this, where they do assetless pre-orders, you don't need to put a file up until you're ready. So, the book can go out on pre-order, it can start collecting sales, and then when you're ready, you can put a manuscript up on there that they can then push out to readers when the time is right.
The issue arises when you put up a file as a placeholder, which some systems require, and then the platform confuses which file is actually going to go out, or sometimes there's human error on the part of the author where you will accidentally put the wrong version of your book up, or the wrong book entirely, and readers will get something on their Kindle or their Kobo device and it's a completely different book and it's not what they ordered.
What I do know is that that you've done this, though.
Orna Ross: I did it. It's easy to do.
Dan Parsons: It is easy to do. But, yeah, what I have heard is that some authors have intentionally used this system if they know that they're going to do one of the previous things, like we talked about missing the deadline, and if they know they can't stop, you know, that's an immovable train that's going to happen anyway, they can't stop that retailer from sending out that file to readers, so they've quickly put a placeholder file in saying, I apologize, I've missed the deadline, you've got this book, please contact the retailer and ask for the real one, because by the time you read this, I will have the right book ready, you know, if it's a day or two.
And so, there are ways around this, and you sort of have to laugh at the authors who have tried something in a panic at the last minute and gone, at least they'll know that this isn't the real book. So, there are dangers, but ultimately, it's something that you can get over.
If you fall into the trap of missing a deadline or you send out the wrong file, as you said, Orna, you've done it yourself and you're still here and still releasing books. So, it's not the end of your career if you do run into a problem.
Orna Ross: No, definitely not. The thing is, I think, about pre-orders is that, on your first book, what very often happens is you're just about keeping ahead of yourself. So, you're writing the book, you get it written, you get a draft finished, edited, designed, and you put it out, and you don't think about marketing, you don't think about promotion.
Thinking about pre-orders is a really good way to think in a more business-like fashion about your book publication. So, using pre-orders means you have to set a date. Setting a date means you have to work back from there, and please on a few months because it never, ever, ever, ever goes as fast as you think it's going to go, especially at the beginning. But they really come highly recommended, I would say, from people who have got on top of their publishing.
So, you might as well start from the beginning and think about pre-orders as the setting of a real, proper deadline from which you can work back and begin to then get, not just your writing in place, but also begin to get your marketing in place, so that when that book does come out, and hopefully you've got your pre-orders and you've got good sales that day, not only have you got that set up, but you've also got some more promotion and marketing coming in after the pre-order, which is going to capitalize on the fact that you've given yourself this boost, and will give your book the best start.
That way, you avoid the fate of so many first books from indie authors, which just come out and die a death, and you do all of that work on the production front, and on the writing front, and getting everything out there, but it just doesn't happen because books don't sell unless you put some juice behind them, and pre-order can be a great way to organize that energy that you're putting behind the book from a marketing perspective.
Dan Parsons: On that marketing front, I think we've sort of touched on some different themes here as well, and one good thing that I think you could possibly do if you want to throw some marketing money at a new book, to get it up there but also try to work with the pre-order which we said obviously it's difficult to convert, is you can actually use a pre-order to set up things like newsletter swaps, because you've already got the page in place. So, it makes it much easier to organize these things with authors before the book comes out, that's completely free and it's not going to cost you anything for anybody to put something in their newsletter for you.
Or you could even set up traditional media/PR type launches where you could get in touch with local or national journalists and influencers, and things like this, and all of this cumulatively will build up buzz for your book, and everyone can see it's there and can pre-order it, and then you can actually throw pay-per-click ads at it on launch day. So, you can still use that advertising when it's going to convert really well, but you can set up these other things in advance, because if you don't have a book page and you're not able to show people that the book is live, the book is going to be sold, and that the cover is there so they can see it, a lot of people who you would collaborate with on a PR standpoint, won't do it, because they like to see that you're serious and they want to make sure that everything's professionally set up beforehand. So, that would really help you.
Orna Ross: Yeah, and pre-order tactics that you can use and bring in, it's all about using it creatively, I think. It's not enough to say, okay, up goes my book on pre-order on that's it. It's really much more about how the pre-order is going to focus your mind, and what else you're going to bring in around it.
So, you mentioned the traditional media-type campaign. Also, social media influencer marketing-type campaigns, exactly the same in terms of being taken seriously. When somebody can see a date, a cover, a plan, then they're far more inclined to actually do you a favour, respond to your pitch, whatever it might be.
How can pre-orders help with a simultaneous format launch?
You had mentioned pre-orders in terms of doing a good simultaneous format launch. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Dan Parsons: Yeah. So, this is a little bit tricky with certain retailers, particularly with audio because there's often a really long delay with audiobooks, but, if you can do a simultaneous launch or a close to simultaneous launch, then what you'll find is that the formats often cross-promote, and a lot of readers that you wouldn't normally be able to capture, because they've got a format preference, they will just look at the page and be able to get it when you've got a lot of media buzz around it, because they'll be able to pick up their preferred format.
What a lot of authors do, and I've done exactly the same as this is, I've known that audiobooks are very expensive, so I've produced an e-book, and then a paperback when I've got time, it's usually within the first week, and then months down the line when I can afford it, I've gone right, now I'll release an audiobook.
When the wise thing to do would be to pay for the audiobook months and months in advance, just delay the other two formats, and then you can release them all at the same time, because you've even got other options then to use, you know, you can use some of the audio narration in your adverts, or you could possibly get your narrator, if you've got a famous narrator, you can get them to help you promote the book; which some people do that and use their narrator as an influencer in their own right.
If you can consolidate all of these marketing plans together, then they do cross-promote and it gets the book overall higher in the charts and gives it a much bigger impact than you would do if you were staggering those launches. So, the pre-order, especially because you can set a date and then if companies know that they're trying to hit that date for your pre-order, they're more likely to line up, whereas you can't always guess when you just drop, particularly the audiobook, and say, right now this will be up, and then two months later it's still stuck in the pipeline and hasn't been released.
Orna Ross: Especially at the moment, when queues just seem to be getting longer and longer.
So, in summary, Dawn Bates, who has some great comments in the chat, she says, it's all about accountability and time mastery. And I think that's a really good summation of what we're talking about.
So, the value of the pre-order is in the value you add around the pre-order. I think that would be a fair thing to say.
So, just before we wrap up, we have a few resources that you can tap into.
There is an Ultimate Guide to Pre-Orders, for indie authors in particular, on the Self-Publishing Advice website, and we will put all of these links into the show notes.
You had recommended, Dan, a book by Nicholas Eric, I think.
Dan Parsons: It was quite a long blog post, actually. It's one of those ones that I typically like to read through when I'm looking at these master plans for how to hit big bestseller lists and things, and that was based on pre-orders, and like I said, stacking all of these cumulative marketing tactics over time to make sure you hit that list.
Orna Ross: Yeah. So, that was a guide to how to hit the USA Today bestseller list and how Nicholas did this, and how pre-orders were central to that whole strategy.
So, as I said, we'll have the links to those resources on the podcast. The podcast will be released on Friday, as always, on the Self-Publishing Advice blog, which is selfpublishingadvice.org.
But if you have any questions, you can just send them through to us in the usual way. But we are all out of time now this evening on pre-orders.
So, thank you so much for being with us and we will and see you next time. Happy writing and happy publishing.