‘Staggering’ Through Conference Season: Can Transatlantic Book Releases Still Be So Far Apart?


Delayed Publication Dates Hurt Sales

The onslaught of the autumn conference and trade-show season in publishing has meant, at times, more travel than reporting. It’s a mad scramble from one bad wi-fi service to another, really. Sometimes the missing bandwidth has to do with mental exhaustion and other times it has to do with sputtering network adaptors.

But good stories, saved up, are still good. And from Matera (the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival Writers’ Conference) to St. Pete Beach (Novelists Inc.) and Frankfurt (Frankfurt Book Fair), there have been high points and key issues worth flagging.

While more lies ahead, from Singapore and New York to London and Chicago (tickets for May’s BookExpo America are already on sale), one key issue seems to lope alongside international conference travelers by nature, like dolphins off a ship’s starboard bow.

It’s the custom of “staggering” releases of a book in various territories and nations, particularly between the UK and the States. A major release getting huge readership, critical acclaim, and award attention in one country may not be available on the other side of the Atlantic for months or a year.

The issue was brought into sharp focus for us earlier this month by the disarmingly gracious Thad McIlroy, the Vancouver-based commentator whose consultancy is called The Future of Publishing.

McIlroy has a way of walking up to a point on stage in a gentle, ambling voice and suddenly pulling you up short with a sharp stab of accuracy. He makes a convivial, sometimes wily member of a conference presentation team and joined the 10-person First Word assembly of speakers I put together for the Novelists Inc. (#NINC15) annual event at St. Pete Beach.

He wryly called his presentation “The Truth About Staggering.”

I had written here at Thought Catalog about an instance of this last year when, in June 2014, the Irish novelist Eimear McBride won the Baileys Prize for her long-rejected debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. This was an extraordinary instance of a terribly hard-won accolade, one of the most important crowns in English-language literature, and while London was rightly feting the gifted and resilient McBride, we Americans weren’t to see a copy of this book until September.

To make that too-long story short, the US independent publisher smart enough to have captured McBride’s book had no intention of moving fast to get it out while readers were buzzing about its Baileys win. The idea was that US readers would be unimpressed by the praise of a British establishment and that the book had to go through the long, slow grind of press attention that is customary in much of the traditional publishing world. I didn’t buy that argument. I wrote:

With all respect for Coffee House Press — all respect, believe me — when I’m in London…I’m going to duck into a bookstore and buy A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing…I won’t be hanging on for print. And I won’t be hunkered down until September. Eimear McBride already had to wait too long. So did we.

Even if an American print edition wasn’t ready, there’s no reason that a digital edition couldn’t cross the sea in a flash. But this is the kind of publishing custom that makes little sense—and drives both authors and readers crazy—and yet never seems to faze traditional publishing folks who become inured to what I call “the industry shrug.”

The shrug rarely means that publishing people don’t care. It usually means that—as in so many corporate setting—they think there’s no changing something. You pick your battles in the corporate world. And until someone thinks this one can be won, it may not budge. But it’s as backward in the digital age as Thad McIlroy knows it to be.

‘People Won’t Wait Six Months To Buy A Book’

McIlroy was direct, making these points right off the bat in his brief presentation:

  • The staggering of US and UK publication dates is hurting sales

  • Staggering is typically six months

  • Because book buying is often impulse-based, people won’t wait six months to buy a book they want now

He’s right, of course. Pre-orders are one thing, but how likely are you to pre-order a book when you realize that it’s not going to release for another four or six or eight months? You’re probably going to look for something else. Like me, you may not be fond of the idea of a surprise ding on your credit card six months later when you’ve forgotten entirely about the damned book.

So authors and publishers are losing sales in staggering—potential readers and buyers are walking away and aren’t likely to be back. Half a year later, you may be way down the road from the time  you were interested in reading a given book.

McIlroy expanded the point rather artfully, too, in terms of how publishers are losing control of the buzz around a book through staggering. He told the NINC conference:

  • Publishers no longer control who talks about a book nor when they talk about it

  • Authors need to talk to their agents and publishers about changing this obsolete practice

One of our audience members at NINC said that she had worked out a way to buy British editions of books originating in the UK because even when the release dates were the same in both countries, the editions created for American readers were inferior in design and even in their cover copy and blurbs.

“‘Hey, I sold the rights to the UK.’ And now the bad news: it won’t be out for another six months.”
Thad McIlroy

Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) co-founding director Orna Ross was with us in the discussion at this point and noted that this is an example of “one small certain thing that happened because publishing grew up over time in a certain way.”

The patterns persist, she’s right, exactly. There’s no need for blame or hostility on points of this kind. Digital scale and reach are comparatively recent arrivals and the industry! the industry! has had a lot of change hit it in a relatively short amount of time.  Conversation about issues of this kind beats condemnation every time.

“And if you’re working with a traditional publisher,” McIlroy said, “they’re probably still going through this process” of staggered releases. “And that’s because they’re selling the rights to other countries—’Hey, I sold the rights to the UK. And now the bad news: it won’t be out for another six months.'”

Watching ‘Watchman’

This summer, we saw a rare example of a global release when Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was delivered in print to stores and libraries in more than 70 countries in time for a simultaneous “lay down.” This is highly unusual and was greeted with awe and rightful coverage, the Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Maloney writing:

The book has unleashed a sweeping and secretive rollout unusual for any novel, much less one written more than 50 years ago. Publishers and booksellers, in hopes of keeping millions of copies under wraps, have adopted security measures such as shrink-wrapped boxes and storage areas monitored by closed-circuit television.

Watchman was a unique instance of sky-high anticipation for a book on a world scale and warranted much more extensive efforts than even most standard blockbusters might justify.

But the sheer capacity for its simultaneous release at such international range proves that far more modest coordinated launches are feasible. Certainly between the United States and United Kingdom, the dominant publishing houses of which are the same or related corporate entities, surely it’s time to pay more attention to the fact that reclaim in one culture means loud echoes in the other, quick sales are to be capitalized on: audiences accustomed to frontier-hopping electronic media aren’t happy waiting for a good book’s ship to come in at the local docks.

A key element of the digital dynamic is distribution at scale. And even if print editions can’t normally be trucked to several countries’ bookstores at once, there’s no reason that rights sales and digital editions—certainly in the same language—can’t be timed together more frequently than they usually are. If there’s a will, there now is a way.

“And as an author, if my book is good and the releases are staggered,” Thad McIlroy told the NINC audience, “then I’m missing sales.”