Those of us who care about bibliographic data - and I do - have been a little amused to read the summary reviews that the NYT has done in the past two weeks about State of Denial (Bob Woodward) and Carly Fiorina's biopic released on Monday. That is...next Monday. The Times has been able to purchase both of these titles in advance of their official release date. Why is this a bibliographic data issue: well, because publishers and retailers have spent considerable time defining pub date, lay down date, street date, and other dates so that no one in the supply chain is disadvantaged. In the past several years the ONIX data format has consumed significant time and effort by publishers, retailers, bibliographic agencies ses (Nielsen, Bowker) and wholesalers and this has been all to the good. Data is now more uniform and consistent and the entire effort has concentrated publishers attention on the value of good data. Nevertheless issues clearly remain in how this data is used and how processes can break down.
There is no good reason why a store should be selling these books before the publisher has told them they can. Marketing and promotional spending, author appearances, buy-in commitments and other activities are all predicated on the official on-sale date. Stores that hold these titles off the floor are disadvantaged if they are available at other stores. The industry has toyed with the idea of an specific release day of the week to focus attention on all books released during a week (Music companies do this on Tuesdays). This tactic would be pointless if retailers ignored the timetable.
The physical nature of book distribution requires that books be shipped well in advance of release date which is where the process tends to break down. Spare a thought for the bookstore which recieves shipments everyday and they can't afford the time and effort to segregate the titles which they have to hold. Most stores will have little storage space in the first place and a limited amount of time to check in boxes of books. The tendency then will be to open everything and get it out on the floor as soon as possible. That doesn't make this right but it is a reality. Limited staff time and knowledge at the recieving point results in the carefully laid plans of the sales and marketing department to fail.
If publishers care about this issue - and they must do otherwise why have embargoes in the first place - they should address this issue with an understanding of the bookseller's situation. And publishers should treat all books equally if they want to be serious about on-sale dates. It would be pointess and confusing to selectively monitor this process only for the 'important' titles.