Some Amazon Stuff

As I was eating my breakfast, I wandered over to File770–as I do every breakfast–to discover the tweets I tweeted about this item over there had been collected into this item over there.

The two main points I was trying to make in a short space are as follows:

  1. University presses try to get their metadata to places like Amazon as early as possible, even before things like pub dates have been firmly nailed down. We put placeholder pub dates in the metadata and update it later. (Not that books aren’t published on the first or fifteenth of a month, but a good indication that you’re looking at a placeholder pub date is if it’s on the first or fifteenth of a month. At work, all our pub dates start set as the fifteenth of the month we’re hoping to hit.) For many reasons, some of which are baffling and some of which are just that Amazon huge and we are small, the pub date updates don’t always make it into their system or they get into the system but don’t update correctly. This is not just Amazon, but every place that gets metadata. Finding that, say, Barnes & Noble lists a pub date for something as 10/15/16 but then the publisher lists a pub date of 2/13/17 only tells you that, at some point, probably way back before the book was even in copyediting, a marketing person optimistically believed books would come out in October.That marketing person was wrong and the place you’re looking hasn’t updated the metadata recently. That’s all it means.
  2. Trade publishers may be able to accurately predict what Amazon is going to do in any given case, but I haven’t met a university press that can. We get our books from the printer and then set a final pub date four to six weeks in the future from the day we get books in. This is to give the books time to get to various fulfillment centers and then into stores. We want the pub date to be the date consumers know, for sure, they can get the book. Many retail outlets will get a book in stock and then not put it for sale until the pub date. Some retailers get the book and put it out for sale, pub date be damned. What will Amazon do? No one knows. Sometimes they’ll put the books for sale as soon as they get stock. Sometimes they hold it for the pub date. I regularly have both happen and my metadata is set up the same, so it’s not something the Press has any control over. In the past, we’ve tried to use the “on sale date” field to control when Amazon puts the book for sale, but we’ve found that Amazon doesn’t update that field, so, if way back at the dawn of a book’s life, you said, “Pub date: 10/15/16” and “On sale date: 10/15/16” because you wanted Amazon to not sell the book until the pub date, you may find that, no matter what you do, Amazon considers that book’s pub date to be “10/15/16” because they don’t update that field. (Now, it’s possible that Amazon has fixed this glitch, but we were burned very, very badly on this in the past–a book that hadn’t even gone to the printer showing up on Amazon as already published even though we’d been regularly updating the metadata to reflect the slippage and rightfully angry customers wanting to know why Amazon said the book was out and they hadn’t gotten their copies–that we don’t use that field at all anymore. Like I said, it may have been fixed, but I’m not going to risk it to find out.)

So, there are many reasons a pub date at Amazon might be wrong. Normally, this doesn’t matter, but, as in the case of Diana Glyer, where it’s affecting her Hugo eligibility, obviously, it matters quite a bit, since it appears that at least some of her books entered the marketplace before the end of last year, even though her pub date wasn’t until early this year.

The best thing to do would be to go by the pub date the publisher sets. Otherwise, university press authors are always going to be in a weird, unfair position, because university presses don’t work like trade publishers and they don’t have the same ability to make Amazon (or other retailers) work the way that people seem to think publishers can make Amazon (and other retailers) work. We can’t control when retailers sell books the way trade publishers can.

An author should not be at a disadvantage when it comes to an award because she published with a university press. Nor should people treat Amazon like an infallible authority. They’re very, very good, but, ultimately, not perfect. Books, especially university press books, enter the marketplace early. But the pub date the university press sets is the date everyone can get it. That’s the date that should count.