The American Bookseller Association’s Pre-Order Task Force shared promising early results at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association’s 2018 Fall Discovery Show on Thursday.

In August, the ABA’s task force began experimenting with initiatives to encourage online and in-store customers to pre-order books at 22 indie bookstores around the country. The push has generated more than 1,620 new pre-orders for seven books that were released between September and November of 2018. Those books were: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, Fire Blood by George R. R. Martin, Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Meltdown by Jeff Kinney.

Out of all these titles, Killing Commendatore (Penguin Random House, October) found the most pre-order success with 532 pre-orders to date (380 online and 152 in-store). The book had an added incentive for participating indies: the publisher provided a limited quantity of special tote bags for pre-order customers. In terms of in-store pre-orders, Kingdom of the Blind (Minotaur Books, November) was the top title, earning 256 in-store pre-orders over the trial period.

“We are encouraged by these results, but this is only the very beginning,” said the association’s CEO Oren Teicher. By ABA’s estimation, pre-order sales account for 3% to 30% of a book’s lifetime sales. “So much business has been left sitting on the table, conceded almost exclusively to Amazon. This is a long-term effort to re-educate our customers – who much prefer to buy from us anyway – that you can also pre-order books from us. You don’t have to just pre-order books from the competition,” said Teicher.

The initiative was conceived when independent bookstores missed opportunities to capitalize on pre-order frenzy for three major 2018 releases: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, and Becoming by Michelle Obama.

ABA president and Third Place Books managing partner Robert Sindelar said that more than one publisher had told the association that indie booksellers essentially comprised “zero percent” of pre-order sales. “People thought that we are so bad at this part of this business that we didn’t need to be included in on the initial wave,” said Sindelar. “I can put my fist in the air and be rightfully angry about that, but there’s a reason they think that about us. What are we going to do about that?”

As an immediate fix, the organization launched the “ABA Book Alert” last summer, an email address (bookalert@bookweb.org) that publishers can use to notify indie booksellers about a book that will generate pre-order buzz. According to Dan Cullen, the ABA’s senior strategy officer, that hotline has already generated “40 to 50 individual threads” about upcoming books.

In addition, BookScan will now count indie bookseller pre-orders as part of its snapshot of a book’s performance: “As of January 1st, all of the pre-orders that indie bookstores report to BookScan are going to be effectively put in a holding pen, and then reported out during the first week’s sales of that title’s publication,” Cullen said.

Sindelar applied the task force lessons at Washington’s Third Place Books, reminding customers through email newsletters and social media that his bookstore could pre-order the seven featured titles. When Bob Woodward’s Fear became a pre-order sensation in September, the specific outreach had re-educated his customers about pre-orders in general. “We collected 60 pre-sales in a week. We’ve never had that many pre-orders for any book,” said Sindelar. “That messaging just got into our customers’ brains.”

Green Apple Books in San Francisco was another of the 22 bookstores participating in the task force trial. The bookstore featured the seven books on a standalone webpage and quickly sold out of the Murakami pre-order tote-bags during the trial period. “This is just another incremental step,” said Green Apple Books co-owner Pete Mulvihill. “There’s no magic bullet that can solve all our problems. This is one little thing that we can do a little bit better.”