A Bit About Jargon: Strict-On-Sale

April 4, 2011 at 12:11 am (Industry) (, , , , , )

It occurred to me a little while ago at work that booksellers and publishers tend to use a lot of jargon, even when we’re talking directly to the customers, and that we don’t always explain what we mean. It can get very confusing and, more importantly, VERY frustrating to hear someone throw around terms when you just want to know why the frack you can’t get your book?!?!?! or…you know…something along those lines.

So, to start us off, let’s look at a monumentally frustrating but important piece of bookseller jargon called the Strict-on-Sale, or SOS.

This has to do with a book’s release date. In the computer, on websites, etc there’ll be a date of release. Just for the sake of an example, let’s say April 5th. As odd as this might seem, that date doesn’t necessarily mean much. Sometimes that means the date that it’s expected to hit stores. Sometimes it’s the date it’s expected to hit warehouses. Sometimes it comes early, sometimes it comes late.

Normally, as soon as book comes in through the back door of the book store, we can put it out on the floor. This could mean it’s on the floor on April 1st or April 8th, whenever it comes in. The exception to this in a Strict-On-Sale title.

What that means is that the publisher’s release date is a binding, legal contract between bookstores and publishers that they will not sell any copies of this title before that date. It doesn’t matter when it comes in, if it’s a day before, a week before, or a month before, it cannot be sold until that date. We’re not even allowed to take them out of the boxes- not even allowed to open the boxes unless the titles are mixed across weeks, and then we have to reseal them once the earlier titles are removed.

In cases like this, before the store opens on April 5th, we’ll unseal the boxes, get them sorted into their displays, sticker them with discounts if applicable, and get them set up before we open the doors. The copies that are customer-specific orders go up to the front for the cashiers to call through the morning, and anyone else who wanders in can pick up a copy from the shelf or display. On April 5th.

If we accidentally mix up a box and put it out on, say, April 4th, and we sell a copy, there will be consequences.

Sometimes the consequences can be mild. If it’s a smaller publisher, or if the title is important enough for an SOS but not such a huge push that people are terrified of spoilers, it’s usually just a polite email from the publisher with the reminder that titles are SOS for a reason and can we please take extra care in the future. It’s embarrasing, but it’s not the end of the world.

Sometimes the consequences are a little more severe. If it happens on a more important title, or if it happens in a store with a record of it, the store can be penalized. Future titles may not show up at all, or they may show up late, so that store doesn’t have the advantage of getting the books in customers’ hands right off the bat. It can cause a store to lose business, especially if it keeps happening.

Then there are the REALLY big titles. Your Harry Potters, your Breaking Dawns, your Brisingrs, your titles that are on such strict embargo you literally have to wrap the stack of boxes in plastic until the release. You’re not even allowed to take a picture of the stack of boxes. If one of these titles gets leaked or sold, heads will roll.

Or at the very least someone is getting fired.

This goes back to the binding legal contract. As the retailer, we make a promise to the publisher that no one will have this book in their hands until the specified date. You break a promise to anyone, there are consequences, even if it was purely by accident. The SOS titles are separated out from the rest of the incoming books, they’re marked out, kept in a different area, and only very specific people are allowed to prep them for sale, to minimize the risk of a mistake being made. Mistakes can still happen- mistakes, unfortunately, can always happen- but we do our absolute best to keep them from happening.

So why a Strict-On-Sale date in the first place?

A couple of reasons, really. The normal reason, or at least the more common one, is that there’s high demand for a title and the publishers want to maximize that demand. Part of that is done by making sure everyone knows that they cannot get this book before that date. Most humans are like cats and small children: you tell them they can’t have something yet, they want it now. It actually adds to their impatience- and thus makes them more likely to rush out that first day and get the book. The other piece is that it prevents spoilers. If, in the normal course of things, no one has a book until that same day, you don’t get the unavoidable spoilers, the people who spill the twists or the end and ruin it for anyone else. People who are the unfortunate victims of spoilers have a way of not getting the book because they feel like there’s no point, or they at least wait until they can’t remember the spoiler as much. On a big enough title (like Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels) there aren’t even any ARCs sent out. (Advance Reading Copies- bound copies, as yet uncorrected, sent out to some reviewers, authors, and booksellers to help create a knowledgable audience to help push the book’s release, because nothing handsells so well as someone’s passion for it) Authors and publishers will both take the responsibility to peruse the internet to see if any spoilers are posted, and if they see them, they’ll usually send a polite request to remove the spoilers until sufficient time has passed for others to have a chance.

If you haven’t finished out the Harry Potter series, you might want to skip this paragraph, but for the rest of us: when I was walking out at one o’clock in the morning with the sixth book freshly unpacked from the box, purchased, and actually in my hands, we had some @$*#! driving around the parking lot bellowing out that Dumbledore dies on page 394. I resisted the urge to look- barely. It helped somewhat that there was another bookstore less than half a block away and we could hear some of their moronic friends in the other parking lot yelling out a different character’s name and page number. I resisted, and I stayed up and read that book as soon as I got home, and when I got to page 394, lo and behold, there was Dumbledore. I was PISSED that someone had actually tried to ruin it for me, and had marginally succeeded. What about all those other people who actually did look?

Spoilers suck, and not just on a personal level; they’re also bad for business. People who have an ending spoiled for them do not suddenly rush out to buy the book they’ve been looking forward to so much.

There are, however, other occasions that might merit an SOS. When Oprah announces her new book club title, you can bet whatever book it is has a Strict-On-Sale. Even if the book has already been released, the editions that have that pretty little sticker on the cover are sitting in boxes in the back room, taped shut, until the show is on and the title announced. Sometimes a title is politically sensitive, or tied to an announcement, or is significant to a particular date. These can all have an impact on whether or not a title has a Strict-On-Sale date.

Usually, SOS dates are on Tuesdays. Tuesdays are big release days for a lot of reasons, only some of which I know (honestly, I don’t know all the reasons, I’m not just being coy). It allows for shipments to arrive that don’t move over the weekends, it boosts mid-week sales, and…okay, those are the only two reasons I know, but those two I am absolutely sure of. * Every now and then, you’ll find a different day. If the publishers expect that booksellers will want to have a midnight release party (again, Harry Potter, Breaking Dawn, etc), they may give it a Saturday release date to let booksellers have a Friday night release party and start selling books at 12:01 Saturday morning. This also lets people who can’t get in during the week, people who work, people who are stuck in school, whatever, get the book that first day as well.

Then there’s James Patterson. He has a Monday SOS for every single title. When you have twelve hardcovers a year, all of them debuting on a bestseller list, you get to have your own SOS day too. That’s…really all there is to say about that.

So here’s where we get to the frustrating part. You’re in a bookstore, asking after a title you have been DYING for, the bookseller looks it up and tells you that the title will be available on Tuesday April 5th. You ask if there’s any chance of it coming in early and-…they hesitate.

We lie in retail. We lie ALL THE TIME. We lie when we tell that pain-in-the-ass customer to have a nice day, we lie when we break our backs trying to find a book and say it’s no trouble, and we REALLY lie when someones asks a STUPID question and all we do is smile politely. And yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question. When I have a landline phone to my ear, a scanner in one hand, a stack of books in the other, a name badge, and a full cart of books, signs, and display stands balanced against my hip, asking me if I work there is a STUPID question. Try “Can you help me?”, it’s a much better way to start the conversation.

But those are tiny lies, retail lies, the kinds of lies that help us keep our jobs and not ruffle feathers. It’s called being polite, or at least being tactful. It’s not the same as looking someone in the face and outright lying. Then we feel like schmucks.

So back to you, who has just asked me if there’s any chance of the book coming in early. I hesitate, because I know very well that the books are sitting in boxes in the back. I also know that if I lie and tell you no, your next question will be a worry that it won’t even come in on time, and I don’t want to lose your business to someone who’s willing to tell you that it could come in early. So I recover and answer “It’ll be available on Tuesday the fifth”. Which, as we both know, isn’t really an answer. You realize that the book is here, I still can’t sell it to you no matter how you might beg, and in the end, the conversation has to finish the same way it began: the book will be available on Tuesday, April 5th.


But keep in mind: if it’s a soft release date, we’ll flat tell you that it could come in earlier. If we tell you that the book will be available on a very specific date, it’s because there is a Strict-On-Sale mandate by the publisher that says we CANNOT give that book to you yet. Trust me, we’re not withholding it out of some twisted, spiteful sense of glee. We really can’t.

My store has City of Fallen Angels in boxes in back. I can see the numbers on my computer. I can go in back and pet the outside of the boxes (but I don’t, because really, that’s kind of creepy). I am waiting SO IMPATIENTLY for this book. But I can’t open the box, I can’t ogle the cover except on the posters, and I can’t sit down off the clock and start reading. I can’t buy it yet. And I can’t sell it to you yet. It’s not my rule, it is a contract with the publisher. So when I tell you that it has a strict release date, let me reserve a copy for you, we’ll both rush out first thing Tuesday morning, and everyone wins.

Is there any jargon you hear that confuses you? Anything bookstoreish that you want explained? Drop me a question in the comments and I’ll do my best- simple answers will get a comment back, but if it’s more complicated, or if it repeats, we’ll get another jargon post.

Until next time~

* And with new information: Bestseller lists are created on Wednesdays, so it’s the Tuesday to Tuesday sales that are tracked for purposes of making these lists. Thank you, Cassandra Clare!


  1. Amy said,

    Great post! :)

  2. Mari V said,

    It’s almost comforting that everywhere, in all forms of retail, there is nothing as consistent as the predictability of stupidity. I worked at HMV for almost five years, and got the same questions from customers about whether there was any way I could sell them (insert title here) earlier. The difference being, with CDs/DVDs/BRD, etc., EVERYTHING is considered SoS, and putting new releases out a week too early by accident can get you slapped with a lawsuit.

    I also got the “Do you work here?” question more times than I can actually count. -_-; The uniform is, of course, a lie. XDDD

    To be honest, I never quite understood what makes certain people so sure that they’re so special as to deserve to have COFA or the new Eminem or whatever before every other human on the planet. >.>

  3. GladElf said,

    You are hilarious…the specificity of the City of Fallen Angels comment, makes me wonder if this isn’t a slight rant.
    I learned this little lesson when my best friends and I were at the bookstore waiting for midnight so we could snag our copies of Breaking Dawn. One of the clerks was actually very honest about SOS. She told us that they’d had the books for a few days, but that they could not sell them until Aug. 2nd (I think that’s when BD came out) AND that it was driving her crazy. Guess not everyone is as okay with accepting the inevitable as I am. =D

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