With a release date of December 24, Scholastic hoped Dav Pilkey’s latest Dog Man book, Brawl of the Wild (Graphix), would bring big sales for retailers at the close of the holiday season. It has, but the company’s laydown policies have also come under fire from independent booksellers after copies of the book were spotted on sale a day before the release date at a BJ’s Wholesale Club in Framingham, Mass.
Debbie Sullivan, proprietor of The Book Oasis in nearby Stoneham, Mass., posted a photo of the book on display on December 23 on social media. The image sparked an outcry from booksellers on social media, who said it confirmed their widely held suspicion that large retailers violate strict-on-sale dates because publishers do not hold them to the same standards for breaking the terms of their sales contracts.
“Suddenly we had proof that this [company] is cheating the system,” Sullivan said. Yet she was dissatisfied with the response from Scholastic when she reported the violation. “They said, ‘We’ll look into that,’ ” Sullivan said, but she never heard back.
Scholastic representatives expressed disappointment in the perception that they were not proactive. “We have quite a bit of experience [with laydowns] going back to Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Dog Man, and so on,” said Alan Smagler, v-p of trade sales at Scholastic. When a book with a strict-on-sale date is released, Smagler said, “We are all with our phones in our hands, and as soon as we hear... we react very, very quickly. We can get to the offending store within minutes when we are notified of a breach, and make sure that the book is removed from the shelf immediately. There’s no wiggle room on that.”
Smagler said that the violation was limited to the individual store, and that the location was immediately instructed to remove the books. Scholastic did not comment on whether additional actions were taken against BJ’s, though Smagler emphasized that “We take these breaches very seriously, and we deal with them.”
For Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, N.C., the controversy surrounding Brawl of the Wild is evidence of a widespread belief among fellow indies that she shares. “The indies are the only ones who are playing by the rules and the only ones getting punished.” Without evidence showing that publishers are acting on reports of violations by chains, Hawkins said there is the appearance that publishers have “given up, because it’s too much to keep up with.”
The challenges of enforcement stem from what booksellers say are an industry-wide problem caused by the overuse of embargoes, laydowns, and strict-on-sale dates. “As more and more titles get embargoed, now so many titles have the strict street date, it’s impossible to keep up,” Hawkins said.
“A lot of them, even if they’re important titles, they’re more midlist,” she added. “It seems like it causes more confusion and frustration than anything positive.”
Smagler agreed that the effect on booksellers is likely overwhelming. Scholastic, however, publishes fewer than 10 titles with a strict-on-sale date each year, fewer than a decade ago. Smagler said the company uses the strict-on-sale dates sparingly, and for two reasons.
“The first is so that the consumer, the fan, gets a fair chance to experience the wonderful content on their own, not having had other people, friends, getting the book before them, which may or may not [lead to] spoilers. The other reason is for all of our retailers to participate in the wonderful immediate sales at the same time. In the absence of a strict on-sale date... one store could sell a book before another store. That’s not fair.”
The choice to release Brawl of the Wild the day before Christmas came after extensive consultation with retailers who supported the decision, according to Smagler. “We were working with a very tight timeline from the author and our own operational issues. Once we realized that we did have the opportunity, that we could put the book out right before Christmas, we went around to many of our customers and did a broad survey and [they] were in favor of doing it.”
The publisher sent 12,000 easel backs and 60,000 tattoo sheets to independent booksellers in advance in order to notify them and their customers of the forthcoming release. “It was very challenging internally here, but it was a desire in our particular case to satisfy our customers,” Smagler said.
For Sullivan, however, the ordering and release date were a source of frustration and anxiety. Sullivan placed her order for books in early December and received confirmation that her books would arrive on time, only to be told that they would not arrive because she had missed the order deadline. Sullivan said she was never contacted about the deadline when the book was announced.
She canceled her order and placed it with a wholesaler instead, but remained concerned about delivery until the books arrived at her store a week early. “This year, the 24th being Christmas Eve, fell on a Monday,” Sullivan said. “Depending on your location and depending on how FedEx and UPS work in your neighborhood, you might not get the books.”
Smagler said the company was aware of the need to follow through without mistakes. “We knew internally what a challenge it would be if a bunch of customers received the book on December 26,” Smagler says. Ultimately, he said Scholastic considers the rollout to have been successful, with little indication of late deliveries. “I can say, fairly comfortably, this was one of our best laydowns ever in terms of making sure that everyone had it.”
For Hawkins, however, successful shipping doesn’t address the broader policy, which she says is no longer effective. “The theory was that strict on-sale dates were going to make things more fair for us,” Hawkins said, “but I feel like it’s backfired. I’d like the publishers to take a little time with their teams, and say, ‘What is our logic with street dates? How can we do this better? If what they want is calling attention to titles, they can maybe find a different way.”
Three weeks after the BJ’s violation, Sullivan says that Scholastic’s silence regarding her inquiries leads her to believe that the company has not faced any consequences for violating the embargo. “Without actually having somebody there to see it happen, I’m dubious,” she said. “A rep should have been sent to the store to take the books away, so they feel the financial repercussions.”
“As independents, we have to fight pretty hard for every book sale,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard enough when you’re fighting knowing nothing is going to happen to [BJ’s]. They’re not going to lose their affidavit, and life will go on, unless somebody keeps checking on them.” But, she said that she and other booksellers will continue to believe that checks aren’t happening.
“We stick by the rules,” Sullivan said. “We have to. If we lost our affidavit rights, we’d be devastated.”