The Advance Information (AI) Sheet

What is an AI Sheet? Why do I need one? And how can I create my own?

Short and sweet, here’s what AI (or Advance Information) sheets are. Here’s why indie authors can make use of them too. And here’s how to make your own.

(And if you’re not an indie, just a trad author curious to know how your industry works, then welcome aboard. We’re here for you too.)

First up, let’s talk about what AI sheets are and how they’re used.

The seven stats all indies need to know

Simplify your thinking: find out what matters, and forget the rest.

What AI sheets are for and how they’re used

An AI sheet is typically an A4 page used to help sell your books pre-publication, given to anyone in the industry who needs a fast guide to a particular title.

There’s no industry standard format for an AI Sheet, but a typical one looks something like this. (That’s a sheet put together by Merchiston Publishing. If you want to magnify the image, just click on it to see it enlarged.)

As you’ll see, your AI sheet contains straightforward, concise buyer information on your book as a product first and foremost.

So the main content – down the left hand side in this example – will typically cover:

Book title, author name, cover image

Up at the top. Unmissable and clear, please!

Personally, I think the cover image should be substantial – I like to see it as almost 1/4 of a page – but it does depend on the title, the marketing campaign and the target audience. A lot of AI sheets are mono (black and white) only, but if you can do them in colour, it does look better!

Quote / plug / endorsement

I think it’s important to have this up top and visible. You’re not just looking for the most positive quote either. You’re looking for the quote that is (a) most positive and (b) is most in line with the marketing campaign of the book.

So, to take a slightly silly example, if you are writing gritty urban noir type crime, you don’t want a quote that says, “Hilarious! I absolutely loved it.” Keep everything on message: cover, title quotes, AI sheet, everything.

About the book

In this instance, that section is entitled ‘Synopsis’ which strikes me as a slightly dry way of phrasing things. I’d prefer simply, ‘About the book’ or something of that sort. Then again, this is a ‘B2B’ or business-to-business product, so some dryness is hardly out of place.

About the author

If you’re wanting to build an AI sheet of your own, I’d suggest that you keep the ‘About the author’ part pretty short, unless you are:

  1. A known authority on the topic of the book. (eg: the book is about a presidential election and you are a Professor of Politics at some well known university.)
  2. Have a substantial social media or other platform, and/or
  3. There is an interesting and important connection between you and the topic of the book. So, for example, “Andrew Author chose to write a thriller about abduction, following eighteen years spent in the hostage negotiation industry, during which time he . . .”

But don’t worry too much. If none of those things applies in your case, it’s not an issue. Most authors don’t have some sexy connection with their subject matter. And who cares, right? It’s the book that matters. That’s the way it should be.

Key Selling Points

You’ve got to have something of this sort. Those selling points could be related to you, the author: “The world’s leading hostage negotiator turns to fiction and . . .”

They could be related to any ad campaigns you are running, or any publicity work you have arranged. They can relate even to any publicity stuff you hope to have arranged. I’ve seen any number of Advance Information Sheets from Big 5 publishers that say, in effect, “Publicity plans include . . . nationwide book tour, national radio, yadda, yadda, massive pop-up firework show over Pennsylvania Avenue.”

The key word there? Nope, it’s nothing to do with fireworks. It’s that little word ‘plans’. If nothing happens at all, no one has broken any promises. That also means that retailers and other industry participants read those things with a knowing cynicism. They can smell the BS too.

But also, of course, you can include bullets to do with your killer concept. If I were writing an AI sheet for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, I’d definitely have something about: “Brings feminism up to date for the #MeToo generation. Strong message for millennial generation.”

Those things may not sound as hard as “Signings arranged in 50 bookstores nationwide”, but they sell a whole heap more books.

Details

Here you need to cover the bits that people need to know:

  • Publication date. If you have staggered release dates for e- and print-versions of the book, then list both.
  • Pricing. What price are you selling the book at? List different prices across the different formats.
  • Retailers / distributors. Are you selling exclusive with Amazon? Or through all the e-tailers? Or have you published with Ingram? Or what? Buyers need to know where and when they can get the book. And that includes not just retail buyers – readers – but commercial buyers too.
  • Publisher. Personally, I like my self-published work to have a publisher name attached to them. It’s a bit silly, because this publisher doesn’t exist except in my head – it has no legal form – but my books go out as ‘Sheep Street Books’, just because I like that name. If you, like me, have adopted a publisher name, then give it. Otherwise probably say nothing.
  • ISBN: if you know your ISBN (and have one), then give details
  • Length: If you are releasing in print, then give a page count. If you are releasing ebook only, then you probably want to offer something as a normalised page count. (Measuring things in KB doesn’t mean much to most people.)
  • Genre. You want to say something about this, even if you just use the rather bland catch-all ‘General Fiction’ or ‘Contemporary Fiction’.
  • Social media and other web info. Is there a website for the author or publisher? If so give details? Are there Facebook or Twitter pages that you want people to look at? If so, give details.
  • Contact info. A key purpose of this AI sheet is to make it incredibly simple for people interested in the book to reach you. So make it easy. Phone numbers, email addresses – whatever you’re happy giving out.

Layout

As I say, Advance Information Sheets don’t have any set format, so you can mess around as you please. Just two rules therefore:

  1. Keep the book title and author name right up at the top. If you have a great quote you want to use, then I’d have that up top (and unmissable) as well
  2. Keep your AI sheet damn easy to navigate. Big clear headings. Not too much text. A font that’s easy to read, even if the reader is slightly drunk, on a train, being jostled by other commuters.

OK. All that covers what an AI Sheet is. Now we need to talk about how the traditional publishing industry uses it . . . and how you can do the same.

Buyers are time-pressed, and though your cover thumbnail will be on the AI, there is minimal written information, just the essentials in a short, clear blurb, so your concept is everything, whether it seems desirable, ‘sellable’ to the bookseller.

The concept is what helps sell your work here.

What AI sheets are used for, and how to use them

Publishers have three major tools in the pre-launch campaign for a book. (And make no mistake. Perhaps that “pre-launch” term sounds like we’re talking about some kind of phoney warfare. But we’re not. No traditionally published book can be a bestseller unless it has really good traction in physical bricks-and-mortar bookstores. So that pre-launch campaign is the single most important element of any trad campaign.)

So, the three big tools are:

  • Proof copies of the book
    These can be near-identical to the actual book, or they can just be cheaply printed and bound so publishers have something to give away. If a publisher is really trying to push the boat out, they might do a shiny gold binding, or send the book out with some giftwrap or trinket that alludes to the subject matter of the book itself.
  • The publisher’s house catalogue
    This will cover a particular six-month selling season. That catalogue will be the key document when the publisher’s sales team comes to meet a big retailer’s buying team. The publisher will basically be saying, “Buy this! Buy this! Buy this!” The retail guys will basically be saying, “Yeah . . . but Little Brown / Pan Mac / Bantam Dell have the same kind of stuff, and they’re offering us a better deal.”
  • The AI Sheet itself
    As already discussed!

So who gets to see the Advance Information Sheet? If that’s not the key document between the sales force and the retailers, then who sees it?

The answer is that the AI sheet will be tucked into any proof copies that are handed out. So:

  • Particular retail buyers might be sent a copy, in the hope that they actually read the damn book, and don’t just work from a catalogue entry. (You can imagine how many books those guys receive . . . and what proportion of them ever get read.)
  • Newspapers will be sent proof copies, with AI Sheets included
  • Notable authors will be sent (mountains of) proof copies, with a flutter of AI sheets falling out of them.
  • Other opinion-formers will also receive them: book bloggers, or anyone influential in the specific area covered by the book.
  • Publicists may also be sending the book and AI sheet to any outlets that might want to run a story about the book and the author.

The idea, in essence, is to get key people excited about the book before it hits the shelves. The AI Sheet is like a quick crib sheet for important facts. That includes impotant facts about ordering (for retailers), about dates (for retailers and newspapers), and just about the book itself (for everyone.)

How traditionally published authors can get the most from an AI Sheet

First point is a simple one: you need to ask to see the Advance Information that is being sent out to the world about you, because it’s not standard industry practice to run that thing past you first.

And also, if you are going to ask about this, then enquire early. The AI sheet could easily be fully or partially written six months prior to launch date.

And then . . . well, the sad truth is that you can’t do very much here. Publishers don’t solicit or want much author input, so there’s not a lot you can do.

But there are two exceptions to that rather sad rule, and they’re important ones. They are:

  1. Include handwritten, personal notes wherever you can.
    I know one million-copy selling author who always includes hand-written notes in her proof copies, nestled right up next to that AI Sheet. The note might just say something like, “Dear X, I’m such a fan of yours. I do really hope you enjoy this.” It’s not that you’re hoping your little note will bias that person’s judgement (it won’t), but Mr or Ms Famous Author is only going to read one of the books that plopped through their letterbox that morning, and if only one of the ten includes a handwritten note, then which one do you think they’ll pick?
  2. Make sure you have a killer concept
    Books without amazing concepts are hard to sell. Books with amazing concepts are much, much easier. So get yours right! It’s still a thing I (Harry Bingham) find hard, and I think most novelists do. If you’re not sure how to isolate your concept – or how to improve it once you have – then you might want to click through to more advice on elevator pitches or on getting more ideas for your book. Remember: marketing time and expense is a tax on lousy product design. So write hard, and market easy!

How self-published authors can make the most of an AI sheet

Well, the basic answer is the same as the above.

Fact is, if you’re an indie, you are already entrepreneurial enough to have thought of a lot of this – the nicely laid out AI sheet, the hand-written notes, the killer concept.

So the issue for you, really, is this one: how do you get the contacts? How do you reach those opinion-formers?

And the answer there, in essence, is: You hustle. You network. You are a little bit (but only a little bit) pushy.

My own rule of thumb in playing that networking game is simple:

Always be authentic. Always be strategic.

That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not.

What I’m saying about authenticity is that you can’t fake-like someone just in the hope that they’ll plug your book. That game never works. So be enthusiastic about the people you really like or admire. Just move on from anyone you don’t connect with, no matter how well connected they are.

But at the same time, be strategic. Let’s say you’re a crime writer (like me) and you’re at some big crime Festival. You have a choice of two people to talk to. A reader, who loves your work, and who could, seemingly, talk for hours. Or an author whose work you really like and who, you think, might like your work too. Which one are you going to spend more time with?

If you don’t say the second person, you’re really missing out.

For indies only: Do AI Sheets matter?

For trad authors, I said that the whole pre-launch campaign in some ways was the campaign. The bit that really, really matters.

That’s true.

But for indies?

Meh. An AI sheet is no big deal. So much so that I’ve never done one for any of my self-pub books. I doubt if I’ve ever missed a significant sale because of my laziness.

And the reason why is simple.

Trad publishing lives in a corporate world – big publishers selling to big traditional retailers and supermarkets. The AI Sheet is a creature of that world. Born of it. Made for it.

The world of the self-publisher is an online one, and it’s mostly an author-to-reader one. One where you have a direct relationship with your readers, by email and (perhaps) social media or blogs as well.

Those relationships just don’t care about the damn AI sheet. Why would they? They’d rather get a personal email from you telling them when your next book is out, and how come you’re so excited.

So if you’re an indie author and you’ve just spent ten minutes of your life reading about AI sheets only to be told they don’t really matter. Well, uh, sorry. But you did ask . . .!

But trad or indie, good luck with your publishing – and as ever, happy writing!

The seven stats all indies need to know

Simplify your thinking: find out what matters, and forget the rest.