Original article February 24, 2022; last updated May 13, 2022.
When planning your book launch, one consideration is whether to make your book available for pre-order, which simply means that readers can order your book prior to its publication date.
In this article, we’ll discuss why you might want to do pre-orders (or not), and we’ll cover the basics of setting up pre-orders on the two major self-publishing platforms, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and IngramSpark (IS).
Making your book available for pre-order is an option but certainly not a requirement. As you think about whether to do pre-orders and, if so, how to approach them, ask yourself a few key questions.
What is your goal for doing pre-orders?
I see two possible primary goals: marketing and preparation.
Marketing. First, pre-orders can enhance your book-launch marketing by giving you sales links to include in marketing materials (which is, you know, kinda cool), and they can help build buzz.
Pre-orders can also help your book gain visibility through a high sales ranking and/or achieving “bestseller” status on retailer sites. Many retailers count pre-orders as sales all at once on the publication date, thus increasing your chances of a good showing at launch.
However, it’s important to note that Amazon counts pre-orders as sales on the day they are made. Amazon ranks are determined by a rolling system (daily), so if you don’t have strong sales throughout the pre-order period, you may not gain much marketing benefit.
Preparation. The more practical reason for setting up pre-orders might be simply to make sure that your book appears on all the various online retail sites prior to the publication date. When you self-publish, KDP and IS send the book’s data to the retailers (Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, and so on), but that data can take anywhere from one day to several days to show up. Having a book available for pre-order may relieve some launch-day stress.
What is your marketing platform?
How many followers do you have? What kind of reach do you have? Would you expect strong, weak, or unpredictable pre-orders?
Amazon in particular rewards strong pre-order sales with more visibility. Poor pre-order numbers may actually harm your book’s performance in the Amazon algorithm (but it is pretty opaque so hard to say for sure).
If you have a small platform, you might do pre-sales for preparation purposes, but it might not be beneficial for marketing purposes.
How long a pre-order period do you need?
Traditional publishers use pre-orders for marketing (obviously) but also to get a feel for the size of print run they need. They often have pre-orders available for six to nine months, even up to a year before the publication date.
Indie authors using print-on-demand don’t need to know numbers for print runs, so they tend to have shorter pre-order periods of one to six months. If your goal is to get a large number of sales (for visibility, sales rankings, etc.), the pre-order period needs to be long enough for you to get the word out but not so long that you run out of marketing steam.
If you simply want to ensure your book is available on the planned launch date, a short period—say, a week or two—should suffice.
Pre-orders on KDP: Kindle Ebook Only
KDP offers pre-orders for Kindle ebooks only. It does not offer pre-orders on print books. Some of the most important things to know…
The pre-order setup process is similar to the regular ebook publication process. However, instead of choosing “publish immediately,” you choose “make available for pre-order” and set a publication date in the future. People can purchase the Kindle ebook anytime, but they don’t get the download until the actual publication date.
You can change your price during the pre-order period. If it goes up, all prior purchases still get the lower price. If it goes down, everyone gets the lower price (even those who purchased your book at the higher price).
File upload deadline
You must upload the final ebook files at least 72 hours before the go-live date. Between that 72‑hour deadline and the release date, you cannot make any changes to the book files or to the product page (all the other metadata). As is usual, your uploaded files go through a technical review, and if there are any problems, you will need to submit new files, so it is highly recommended that you submit everything prior to the 72‑hour deadline.
KDP does not like delays. You get one opportunity to delay a pre-release for 30 days. That’s it. One time ever for all your books, not for each book.
For more details, read KDP’s help page (it’s actually pretty good).
Pre-orders on IngramSpark: Ebook and Print
IngramSpark offers pre-orders for both ebooks and print books, with print being the more important due to its lack of availability on KDP. (For more about using both KDP and IS, read this article.)
As with KDP, you set up your book as usual, including uploading the cover and interior files (even if they are not final).
In the setup, you are asked for both an on-sale date and publication date. The publication date is the day your book is available to readers. The on-sale date is when retailers can begin selling your book. So you might guess that the on-sale date should be earlier than the publication date to make pre-orders available, right? NOPE! According to IngramSpark, these two dates should be set exactly the same—in this case for your future publication date. (Why do they have two dates then? Who the hell knows.)
The step that actually makes your book available for pre-order is having your publication date set in the future AND enabling distribution. As I describe in this article, IngramSpark has a two-step approval process, in which you first approve your book for printing, and then approve it for distribution. When you enable distribution, the book data gets sent to the retailers to populate their systems. So by sending the data out with a publication date in the future, the retailers’ systems know to set up the book for pre-orders rather than for immediate sales.
Ten days ahead of the on-sale date, IngramSpark will start printing any paperback or hardback pre-orders so that they get shipped to arrive on time. Presumably, ebooks are delivered on the publication date, as they are with KDP. NOTE: If you have international sales or a heavy volume of early sales, IS may print earlier than the ten days. The earlier you upload final files, the better.
You can change the price during the pre-order period. However, IS pushes out new data only once a week, so price changes can take time to show up on all platforms. It is unclear how each retail platform will treat a price change, but I would assume most use the same principles described above for KDP/Amazon.
File upload deadline
Final files need to be uploaded well in advance of the publication date. IS recommends at least two weeks, but based on recent experience (both review and printing have been incredibly slow), I would suggest a minimum of four weeks.
IS does not have the same limitations on delaying pre-order dates that KDP has. However, one article I read noted that just because IS doesn’t penalize you doesn’t mean retailers will be happy about a delay.
An alternative to pre-orders
Most of the clients I work with don’t do pre-orders. They are often first-time authors with modest platforms, and the marketing benefits are less compelling. So we simply launch the book when ready.
Or we do a soft launch—that is, we release the book quietly, then they do a big marketing splash a couple weeks later. The fear of a book not showing on the retail sites for launch activities is alleviated, and between publication and marketing splash, there is time for reviews to accumulate. This social proof of positive reviews can then encourage more sales during the marketing push.
There’s no one right way to go, so assess your situation for the strategy that works for you. Don’t feel bad if you don’t do pre-orders. And if you do decide to try them, make sure that you are up to date on the rules for all the platforms you plan to use—whether KDP, IngramSpark, and/or something else—and that you are ready to commit to that publication date!
There are a lot of technical details involved in independent publishing, and I’m always finding something to learn. If you need help getting through the process, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see if I can help.