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The myth of publication day

As of this week, you can buy the Art of the Public Grovel here and here and here and in a number of other places, including bookstores in Canada and England and Japan. You can read an excerpt here, courtesy of Princeton University Press. It’s popped up on an occasional blog. I found it on the shelves of the Barnes & Noble on Broad Street in Richmond yesterday, and a library or two has even catalogued and shelved it.

But the book hasn’t been published yet. In fact, it won’t be published until October 4.

This is one of the many weird ways in which book publishing is still at least a decade behind the rest of the business world. Once upon a time, you couldn’t buy a book until its publication date, which was usually at least four weeks AFTER the books had rolled off the presses. The books had to be shipped from the printer to the publisher, then from the publisher to the distributor; the distributor had to catalogue the book and ship it to bookstores; then the bookstores had to put it into inventory and place it on the shelves. In the days when all of this was done manually, instead of electronically, it took a month for books to get from the printer to the bookstore shelves. So: by tradition, pub date is about four weeks after the book actually comes into existence.

Now, of course, this is mostly not true. Online retailers have the book in stock about three days after it leaves the printer (which is why many online stores have the availability date, not the publication date, listed on the book’s web page). Quite a few brick-and-mortar stores, particularly chain stores, do as well. The issue is no longer: Can I get the book? Of course you can. The issue is: If a reader hears about the book on the radio, or sees a review, and then walks into a bookstore, will she find it at the front of the store on the New Nonfiction table? It’s rare that a reader is so fascinated by a new book that she’ll jot down the title and then go and ask for it. But if she hears about it, and then happens to see it when she strolls into Barnes & Noble, the chances that she’ll buy it multiply. “Publication date” now means: That window of opportunity during which the book is at the front of the store and also featured on as many media outlets as possible.

For this book, that window is the first two weeks of October, and that’s when most of my events are scheduled. I’m speaking at the Princeton Club of New York on October 1, and then at the Princeton Public Library on October 5. I’ve got various other events on the calendar which I’ll post closer to the time; and in the middle of October I’m going to London to do some publicity for Princeton’s U.K. office. (More on that soon.) Media outlets which plan to run pieces about the book have been asked to wait until closer to the “pub date” in order to do so.

You can probably find the book at your local Barnes & Noble now, but there will be a single copy on the Current Affairs shelf, buried among a host of other titles. In early October, with any luck, there will be a stack of them much closer to the front of the store, and readers might actually pick them up and KEEP them.

In the meantime, I would never tell you to move that single copy up to the front of the store. No, indeed, that would defeat the whole purpose of Publication Day.