Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!
Over at Fantasy Book News & Reviews, Jeff swears off reviewing books before its release date. It's a good guideline to live by but it's by no means a universal rule. Jeff is also working on the belief that book reviews are in the service of the publisher/author--and that's honestly not the case with every reviewer. But if we're just talking about promoting a book and the corresponding book review, when to release a book review depends on the publisher's marketing plan.
Pre-release hype is good but I'll qualify that by mentioning only if it can be sustained. Theoretically, you want to build-up excitement for the book and reviews can help with that (it's not the only method but for the sake of limiting the scope of this essay, I'll just focus on the book reviews aspect). A lot of the blockbuster movies accomplishes this through trailers and the occasional new media marketing ploy. An example of how early book reviews is leveraged by the publisher is when they use a line or two as a cover blurb for the book (or failing that, a blurb for their website, which was the scenario for my review of J.M. McDermott's Last Dragon [as far as marketing is concerned though, you might want to read about McDermott's experience with having a dedicated sales force working on his novel]).
I added the qualifier "if it can be sustained" because a poorly executed marketing plan can lead to a lot of wasted effort. Jeff tackles some of those points but I'll talk about an issue closer to home. One of my local publishers is Philippine Genre Stories. One of the biggest mistakes is the timing of its online promotions (to their credit, they also have some great successes--they have more local readers on their blog compared to mine for example). The first mistake they make with each issue is posting the cover of the magazine months ahead of when it actually gets released. Case in point is the horror issue (which I'm included) which went live at the blog last October 15, 2008. If the issue came out in October or November, the timing would have been right. The second time they failed to capitalize on the publicity was when the book was reviewed in a leading TV station's site, last December 10, 2008. Again, if the book had come out in November or even December, the timing would have been great. But since the issue still hasn't been released (I suspect it'll be out in time for this year's Halloween), whatever interest stirred up by the review has dissipated.
That's just one perspective on the matter though. A publication with an efficient marketing team could have sustained reader interest until the issue's release. This usually works well with either an established series or a really popular author. Looked at J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books. Mid-way through the series (which was when people started paying a lot of attention to her), it was a year or two between the release of each book. Yet fans were looking for news and snippets every single week which would culminate in large gatherings during the book's release. In fantasy, this is also the case with the multi-volume epics such as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. The scenario of epic fantasies is interesting because it's an example of how negative publicity is still publicity: all those fanboys complaining that the books aren't out yet are contributing to the hype surrounding the books.
Another example of a prolonged publicity campaign is Starcraft 2. It was announced as early as 2007 (and I doubt if the game will be released earlier than 2010) and every other week or so, Blizzard manages to sustain interest in the game by providing trailers, gameplay videos, Q&A's, and general information. If there's an effective way to build hype, it's Blizzard. Of course most book publishers won't pursue this avenue. It's already difficult planning a promotional campaign 6 months long, much less one that lasts for years. Typically a book is promoted a few months before its release, and yes, book reviews do help in getting the word out. If a book is coming out in December (which is supposedly a bad time for books to get released), publishing a book review as early as January is only optimal if you have other book reviews or publicity events through the rest of the year.
Here's the tricky thing with book reviews though, and why it's difficult for publicists to depend on them. The more successful book reviewers (i.e. the ones who receive tons and tons of books and have a similar wide audience) aren't obliged to review a book, much less print a review in the optimal time frame that publicists want--although it doesn't do any harm to ask. And between choosing between a review to go up before the book is released vs. months after it's out in the wild, a publicist will tend to focus on the former (which isn't to say that post-release book reviews don't help boost the sales of the book; it's just that if you're working in a publishing company, by that time, there are other books to promote, perhaps the author's next book).
Let's also not forget the presence of technology. Pre-orders are almost non-existent in the Philippines but that's not the case with the rest of the world. A lot of the books, especially those released by major publishers, can be pre-ordered in various sites, whether it's Amazon or Barnes & Noble or -insert your favorite bookstore here-. Even if the book isn't out on the day you publish your review, there's an outlet for interested readers to purchase a copy. So even if you disregard the previous section of this essay, this is a good rule of thumb to ask: is the book available for pre-order when I post my review?
What's also not evident to book reviewers is the publicist's marketing plan (and I'm not saying book reviewers should be aware of such details). Not every book reviewer receives the books at the same time, nor is everyone equally prioritized. There's a plan (although granted, some publishers/publicists/authors have inefficient plans) but it's not relayed to you personally. Some authors make their plans transparent: when Jeff VanderMeer released ARCs of his latest book, Finch (which you can, *cough*, pre-order), he had two instructions (which was qualified by the reviewer not being obliged to follow them): blog about it in May, and then review it in October of November (which is when the book gets released). For other authors who send me ARCs, I actually reply and ask them when is the optimal time to publish a review. Answers vary, depending on whether they want to establish pre-launch hype or post-launch coverage (and sometimes other factors come into play such as me interviewing them for my blog or as part of their "everyone-post-reviews-on-the-book's-release-date"). There are other publishers, such as PS Publishing, which releases books a few months before they go out but posts links to reviews on their website--a good way of leveraging the book reviews (they also have pre-order buttons on their store so it all doesn't go to waste).
Publishing book reviews before their release date isn't a bad thing, although yes, there are circumstances when they're sub-optimal. For the "benevolent" book reviewer, the solution isn't a universal "I'll only print reviews when they're out" but rather "how does this book review fit with the schedule of the publicist's plan?" And honestly, sometimes, in order to keep your schedule (professional publications have this thing called deadlines), you need to review a book now rather than later.