Advice from your future publicist, bound book dates vs. publication dates

The questions come in many forms:

“Why is my book available on before pub date?”
“Can we write about this book in June even though the pub date is July?”
“Why does have October 21 listed as the pub date when the catalog says November?”

But at the heart of the matter is the strange and archaic practice of setting publication dates for books. Answering it requires a history lesson — a trip in the way back machine to a time before (was there ever such a time?), before you could ship anything anywhere in a day or two, and before press releases could be distributed with the click of a button. Yes, join me as we travel back in time to consider the origins of the publication date/bound book date controversy. This is the story that has been passed down via generations of publishers and publicists and I am pleased to share it with you all.

So what is the bound book date?

Bound book date is the day books are expected to materialize in our warehouse. This is literally the day the truck pulls up and unloads boxes of books. The warehouse crew then log this inventory and store it away in the proper place.

And when are books actually shipped out of the warehouse?

We have a separate date called a release date to indicate when books will be shipped out of the warehouse. Books are usually shipped out to bookstores and distributors who placed advance orders within a week of the bound book date. This is also when books are shipped from the U.S. warehouse to the European warehouse (there are exceptions when we print in Europe or split a shipment from an overseas printer, but the purpose of this article is to explain how the majority of books work, so we won’t dive into the details on those alternative paths).

How does this compare to the on-sale date?

We provide retailers with an on-sale date which is essentially the release date plus 3 weeks. This covers shipping times from our warehouse and gives stores some time to unpack and process the delivery.

And how is that different than a publication date?

The publication date is an artificial date set weeks later by the publicists overseeing media outreach for the book. The pub date usually trails the bound book date by 5-6 weeks and the on-sale date by 2-3 weeks. The publication date is a global publication date, so we consider when books will be available in our European warehouse before we set it. The publication date is the date we work toward for review coverage and media interviews.

But why would you need such a large gap between bound book date and publication date?

This cushion is necessary to accommodate the packing, shipping, unpacking, shelving process of getting a book onto a physical bookstore shelf. By setting the pub date 4-5 weeks after the bound book date, publishers can be reasonably assured that media reviews timed to pub date will appear when the books are actually available for purchase in stores all over the States and abroad. This gap also gives the media enough time to receive their review copies, and then read, write and publish their reviews. In a perfect world, everything — sales and media — would coincide on publication date.

Does this still make sense in 20XX?

Things have changed dramatically over the last few decades — shipping times are faster, the advent of internet bookstores means books are often available for purchase within a week or two of bound book date, and “media” has expanded to include bloggers and online versions of newspapers and magazines that work on shorter deadlines. But for the most part we continue to use this traditional bound book date/publication date system. While it may seem archaic and confusing to have so many dates to track, it also allows for delays in production, shipping from printers, or any of the other dozens of ways a book can be delayed in arriving at the warehouse. For the most part, this is a system the more traditional media are comfortable with, though we have begun accommodating earlier review and interview requests that occur in the window between bound book date and publication date.

So what do you think? Do artificial publication dates belong in the 21st-century publishing world? What system would work better? Leave a comment below.

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  1. Times have changed. Traditional publication dates didn’t matter with this book. Amazon had the ebook version a month prior to bound books for sale and pre-orders were taken weeks prior to actual shipping availability. Press releases went out, the media was happy; everyone wins. It all depends on how you want to make a splash… get it to the people asap, or wait to announce anything until books are printed and ready to go. Authors have the choice!