There is nothing more divisive than a date in metadata — either it's (a) not there when it’s needed, (b) there but wrong, or (c) there but not respected. Whatever the problem with the data, both ends of the supply chain flail at the other with their own horror stories.
Canada, land of compromise, has a new guideline for dates, approved by the BookNet Canada Board, and it neatly solves the issue by saying play nice and be accurate. Seriously — that’s a good summation of the full guidelines.
A quick review: retailers have identified dates in metadata as not being “actionable;” meaning, they can’t use them. Studies of BiblioShare data confirm inconsistent quality and a couple of BookNet surveys have netted helpful, if conflicting, answers. It’s a classic case of everyone knows what the date means but no one can agree on the definition.
One reason Canadian retailers find dates to be not actionable is that on sale dates mean as little as publication dates for their planning purposes. Too often products are not in their hands when they expect them to be. Or, more importantly, they are not there in time to meet promises made to consumers. This is a problem shared by all retailers.
Part of the confusion was created by a 2010 BISG initiative in the US to implement an on sale/embargo date — something the US publishing industry formally adopted. In both Canada and the US, on sale date is the date when a digital retailer will start selling units. So if you can give them a file appropriately before the on sale date, sales will start that day. All digital metadata should include an on sale date for retailer convenience. The confusion comes from what it takes to implement an on sale date specifically for print products.
Functionally, an on sale date governs when the sender — i.e., the publisher and their distributor — will ship the product to retailers. US retailers are not actually expected to store products until the on sale date but instead work with publishers to ensure that the product is released on the date when it’s been responsibly delivered. (That's not that different from digital retailers, really.) So implementation of on sale date for print products involves distributor policies and dates — starting with an accurate expected ship date and an on-time delivery to the distributor. In the US market, all products are expected to carry an on sale date and many US distributors have specific policies that, if met, ensure the timely delivery of products to retailers appropriate to that date. It’s a “soft” embargo release (done without lawyers and affidavits) that results in products being released in both the print and digital supply chains at the same time.
In Canada, distributors of print products work with publishers to ensure timely product delivery, and digital retailers respect on sale date as the date to start sales. But we, as an industry, have never actually agreed to adopt or formally implement on sale dates in our metadata. Arguably, distance and scale would make implementing the US system problematic in Canada — but mostly I think it’s simply not been seen as necessary.
So: Take a gander at the policy statement. Play fair and be accurate! If a book is delayed, tell retailers, eh? It’s 2017 after all and we can each just do that much.