How To Be A Good Literary Citizen

Welcome to No Complaints, a (sometimes) twice-weekly newsletter by Browser editor-in-chief Caroline Crampton. Correspondence is always welcome: reply to this email or contact If you would prefer not to hear from me but stay on the list for other Browser emails, update your email preferences in your account menu.

In this edition: literary credit ratings and the book-buying tastes of the masses.

Why should you pre-order a book? If you keep up with your favourite authors via their social media presence, newsletter or website, you will have seen their pleas that you demonstrate your support by ordering their next book before it is published. In the last five years, the pre-order campaign has become an absolute staple of a book’s lifecycle. Authors know how important it is. But to the reader, it is not always clear why this matters at all. Buying a book is just buying a book. Or is it?

I feel strange about the publishing industry. Conflicted, even. It does many wonderful things, including producing books that I love and admire and respect. I participate in it: I’ve written two non-fiction books, the first of which was published in 2019, the second due out in April 2024. I’m currently putting together a proposal for a third. But the world of traditional publishing certainly has its flaws. Among them is the fact that it is committed to what I call “ta-da! culture”, in which the process via which something is created is kept hidden until the results are unveiled with a sudden flourish. And the emphasis placed on pre-orders, without ensuring a wider understanding of why they matter, is an obvious example of this.

At the most basic level, this is about inventory and stock control. Pre-orders demonstrate demand for a book. They show publishers, distributors and retailers that customers are sufficiently interested in owning a title that they will go to the trouble of pledging their money and ordering it ahead of the publication date. The more customers who do this, the more information the whole publishing ecosystem has about the level of that demand. And that information drives everything from stock levels to marketing budgets to print runs.

This matters because the business of publishing is, at its root, predicated on something subjective and hard to predict: the literary tastes of the masses. Predictions can be made and, because the people and companies making them have been in this game a long time, they will likely be correct.

But not always. The fact that there is such a thing as a “surprise bestseller” tells us that. Liking a book is such an individual, personal thing, that the experts can never be absolutely certain what will and won’t sell. There is always the possibility that an unexpected book will resonate with more people than they thought.

Knowing how many books to print and stock is tough, therefore. Neither publishers nor retailers want to waste money and have thousands of unsaleable copies left over, but they also don’t want a book to go out of stock right when the demand for it is at its highest.

A good example of this latter phenomenon occurred with the release of Alison Roman’s second cookbook Nothing Fancy in October 2019. Even though her first had been a big success, even though her recipes regularly went viral and she had a column in the New York Times, the prediction seemed to be too low and the book went out of stock at Amazon almost immediately after publication. I remember seeing Roman frustratedly post about this on Instagram all the time in the first few weeks that her book was available, trying keep the interest afloat by directing eager readers to shops that still had stock.

At its simplest, then, a pre-order is a data point that can be used to improve a prediction and make the bookselling smoother for all involved. But there’s also a less easily quantifiable effect that pre-orders can create: momentum.

If the pre-orders for a book begin to exceed expected levels as it nears publication, this will have a ripple effect through the entire ecosystem. The publisher will take note, and might begin to take actions like booking the author on a longer, more expensive tour, or upping the marketing spend for online advertising. Retailers, especially chains that purchase centrally, will order more stock and display it more prominently. These additional orders will tip off the distributor that demand is rising, so that they will push the book anew to their stockists. A book that is generating this “buzz” in the ecosystem will likely be reviewed more, both on platforms like Goodreads and in mainstream publications, which will in turn register its existence with more potential readers.

It all creates a feedback loop. The more people who order the book, the more people will order the book. And the sooner this process begins, with pre-orders, the longer the momentum has to build to a level that makes a significant impact on sales.

Bestseller lists are a major piece of this too. For all authors other than A-list celebrities, their best chance of making a bestseller list is in the first week of publication, because for that first week both pre-orders and the first seven days of sales are counted. Once a book hits a bestseller list, its visibility increases hugely, kicking off another round of that stock purchasing, book ordering cycle.

The momentum that a strong pre-order showing can create for a book matters particularly now, when publishers are seeking to control costs at all levels. There’s a reason droves of celebrities are now writing not just the traditional cash-in autobiography but children’s books, murder mysteries and literary fiction too. A celebrity is a built-in marketing machine, bringing a pre-existing audience to their book. The return on the marketing spend will be much better than for a debut book by a complete unknown.

For the non-celebrity writer, then, anything they can do to demonstrate that their book is, despite their lack of fame, worth investing in can make the difference. Encouraging pre-orders is the best way we have of showing that there are readers out there for us and proving to publishers inclined to be conservative that we are worth prioritising.

This effect has begun to extend beyond pre-orders, too. I’ll illustrate this with an anecdote from the pre-publication campaign for my first book, The Way to the Sea. Three weeks before it came out, I was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 4 show Saturday Live, which at the time had about a million weekly listeners. The interview was good, focusing on personal details that I hadn’t shared in public before. It resonated with listeners, some of whom then searched for the book. They looked at the Amazon page, read the information there, and chose whether to pre-order the book.

But in this case, the pre-orders mattered less than the searching and the reading. Based on the spike of traffic and the dwell time on the page, Amazon substantially increased their order for stock of the book — almost doubling it, I believe. This then caused ripples through the rest of the ecosystem, as other chains and shops followed suit. I didn’t get anywhere near a bestseller list, nor did I expect to, but purely because a lot of people had looked at my Amazon page in a short period of time, the book got on the radar for more booksellers, was picked up for review by more newspapers, and appeared in more shop window displays.

I think financial credit is the best comparison for this kind of unseen, often automated data tracking that can make or break a book’s trajectory. An author has a credit rating, accrued from all the data gathered over their time of having books sold. Publishers, distributors and retailers can look this up and will make important, career-defining decisions based on it. It’s no exaggeration to say that this data can affect whether your favourite author gets to write more books for you to read: publishers and agents use ISBN tracking tools like Nielsen BookScan to understand previous sales performance before making future offers. Writers will go to extremes like changing pen-names or relaunching series to try and outrun a bad literary credit rating.

The one thing that people who care about books can do to affect this rating is to pre-order books. That's the way a literary citizen can wield their vote. Pre-order them for yourself and pre-order them as gifts for friends. Especially if you plan to purchase the book anyway, pre-order it now and give the writer's momentum a boost at no extra cost to yourself. In terms of the overall impact on the ecosystem, it doesn’t matter where: it’s your choice whether you do it in person at your local independent bookshop or on Amazon or somewhere else. Asking a library to order a book for borrowing can help too, as library systems are major buyers of books. This system is far from perfect, but it’s the one we have. Tell that ecosystem which books you want and which writers you want to hear more from by registering your interest early and often.

And please do pre-order my new book, should you feel so inclined. There's also some bonus material to be had if you register your pre-order here. Publishers Weekly just called the book “a riveting, genre-bending memoir”, and, as you now know, pre-orders are the only way I have to build the momentum that will allow me to write the next one.

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