The Hidden Downsides to Amazon’s Pre-Order System

Release day is a book’s most important moment — the only time that it is officially “new” and, for that reason alone, more likely to receive some kind of attention, whether in the “new releases” category of books or just in promotional campaigns. Newness is intrinsically a big deal for us humans — which is probably why the birth of a baby is a lot more newsworthy than a child turning 11, even though the latter is actually far harder (because it involves not just birth, but surviving this crazy world for 11 whole years).
To help create as much buzz as possible around the birth of a book, most of the major ebook retailers, including Amazon, give authors the option to offer their book to prospective readers using the pre-order feature. With enough pre-publication sales, a book can have stellar rankings on its official release day, and that can have a lasting benefit for its discoverability, sales, ranking, etc. Any self-published author knows that every little advantage available to a new book is critical, because — thanks to the ease of self-publishing — the market grows more flooded every day, and it becomes increasingly difficult for any book to stand out.But Amazon’s pre-order feature (at least as of 3/23/15) has two huge — and somewhat hidden — downsides, the second of which I discovered only today, the hard way. Before I share that frustrating experience, let me explain the first major downside of using Amazon’s pre-order feature: any pre-order sales actually detract from the release-day-ranking boost because they lift sales rankings on the day when the sale happens, rather than on the subsequent release day. Crediting a pre-ordered book with the sale before release day seems particularly odd, since authors don’t actually receive the revenues associated with those sales until the book is released, but for whatever reason, that is how Amazon’s rankings work. Other ebook sellers like Nook, Apple, and Kobo accumulate all pre-order sales and apply them to a new book’s ranking on the day of its release, creating a powerful sales rank booster. But that’s not the case with Amazon.
The other big disadvantage of using Amazon’s pre-order feature is its unforgiving release schedule rules. I actually understand and accept the first rule: if you delay or cancel your pre-order book, Amazon will deny you pre-order privileges for a year. That makes sense because readers have paid money for a book with the expectation that they’ll get what they paid for on the date that the other author promised.
Amazon even mitigates the risk of violating the punctuality rule by allowing authors one deferral. As the KDP rules on pre-ordering state: “You can postpone the release date for your book one time, as much as 30 days past the initial release date. Customers who pre-ordered the book will receive an email letting them know that you have delayed the release of your book. If you need to cancel the pre-order, you may unpublish your book from the Bookshelf.”
But the other rules are needlessly rigid and punitive when it comes to releasing a book earlier than the date specified originally. For example, one rule states that “If you move up the release date for your book, you will need to submit the final version of your book at least 10 days before release, and all customers who pre-ordered the book will receive the content on the earlier release date.” Confusingly, another rule states that “You will not be able to update your book 3 days before the release date.” But if “the final version of your book” was submitted at least 10 days before release, this 3-day rule implies that it’s not exactly “final” because it can be updated any time between 10 days before and 3 days before the release day. Any lawyers in the house who can make sense out of this paradox?
In any case, the 10-day rule seems arbitrary and needlessly rigid, given that if the book were being released without the pre-order feature, it could be changed any time up until about 24 hours before the book’s release day.
Here are the other, similarly inflexible rules when it comes to releasing your book earlier than originally scheduled on Amazon’s pre-order system:
1) You can move up the release date only once, with the earliest possible release date being three days from today.
2) If you decide to move up the release date, you need to submit the final version of your book at least 10 days before the release.
3) If your new release date is less than or equal to 10 days from today’s date, you must upload the final version before moving up the release date.
4) Assuming you’ve complied with the above rules, any customers who pre-ordered the book will receive the content on the new (earlier) release date.
So how did I get to be so well versed in the scintillating minutiae of Amazon’s pre-order rules and pitfalls? Well, after publishing The Syrian Virgin last November, I planned to release the sequel (Anissa’s Redemption) in early 2015 and picked the latest possible publication date that Amazon offered me (April 12) when setting up my pre-order. I wanted to leave myself some margin for error, given all the surprises that can emerge when churning out many tens of thousands of words. I figured, I’ll have the extra time if I need it, and who’s going to complain if I release the book early? Well, it turns out that releasing early isn’t so simple (as the rules above make clear).
When mulling the extent of a FAIL, there’s sometimes a kind of masochistic glee in contemplating and enumerating the various harms, losses and/or disappointments caused by said FAIL. So, in that spirit, let’s look at what they are for my release of Anissa’s Redemption:
1) I had to make cover decisions before I was necessarily ready to make them, because you can’t put a book on pre-order without a cover (I’m not sure if you can use a placeholder cover, instead of the real/final one, but even if you can, that would sort of defeat the purpose of having the pre-order period available to market the book and its cover). So I had to proceed with the cover before I really felt ready to.
2) I had over 100 blogs promote my official release day (today) with a link that didn’t actually enable customers to download my book. The link allows them only to pre-order the novel (even though I had uploaded the final book file for publication yesterday, which would normally be plenty of time for the book to become available by this morning, if no pre-order were involved). Given how many other books will be promoted between now and when my book will supposedly be released (four days from now), they might as well have promoted Swiss cheese today — the boost to my sales would probably be the same. When there’s a big splashing announcing the RELEASE of a new book, people who see it want to buy it and DOWNLOAD it, they don’t want to just pre-order it and wait (at least that’s what my pre-order sales after today’s promotional campaign indicate).
3) After speaking with KDP, I realized that the only way to make my book available today was effectively to create another book page for the same title, but this had multiple disadvantages. Not only would that new book page not even be ready for about twelve hours (after most of the promotional buzz for my new release would have ended), but it would result in a brand new link. And this brand new link obviously wouldn’t be the link that had already been promoted and would probably confuse some customers while potentially halving my review count, since reader reviews would be split between two pages for the same book.
So, in the end, I lost whatever release day boost is normally produced by the buzz and promotional activities that were scheduled for it, I hurried to meet a deadline that didn’t even need to be met in the end (since the book can now be released no sooner than four days from now), and now my book can’t be updated until it goes live in four days. All of that could have been avoided had I simply foregone the pre-order option (which, in the end, doesn’t even boost Amazon sales rankings on release date). Can someone tell me, again: why should we be using Amazon’s pre-order option?
For any authors who similarly bungled their release because of pre-order hassles, and now need to set a new release date, here are the steps to follow:
1. Go to your bookshelf:
2. Next to the book you want to update, in the “Other Book Actions” column, click “Edit Book Details”
3. On the “Your Book” page, under Step 4, “Schedule a Release Date,” click “Edit Release Date”
4. Enter the desired date and click “OK”
5. Scroll to the bottom and click “Save and Continue”
6. Click “Submit for pre-order”