Publishing is Broken Part 59

I blame Christianity

Everyone in publishing is freaking out about the fourth quarter, aka “holiday sales,” when 80%1 of books in America are sold. Like, really freaking out. And the anxiety is creating a perfect storm that might doom a small press or two, or create 2022 Q2 layoffs.

The reasons for the freakout include:

  • the continued supply chain mishegas created by COVID2

  • the continued and strangely fascinating printer shortage created by conglomeration combined with digitization3

  • the continued and also fascinating paper shortages and price hikes.4

  • Christianity, or the compulsion to buy things in December

Combine the above with the freaking idiotic returns system5 and you get a disaster scenario for COVID Holidays, The Sequel.

Two (at least) things are happening simultaneously: 1.) publishers are worried there will not be enough time to order additional print runs for their fall books, because the current turnaround time is sooooo slooooow (and has been since fall 2019—this predates COVID, actually, and has to do with a unique combination of printer conglomeration, involving smaller places going out of business and/or being bought up by larger ones)PLUS an increased demand for printers (I know!) Two years ago, we could get a book printed in 2 weeks; now, it takes 8 weeks. So our distributor is sending us all emails saying PRINT LOTS OF BOOKS NOW, IMMEDIATELY, OR YOU WILL RUN OUT BEFORE BLACK FRIDAY AND WE WILL ALL SUFFER.

This is an obvious problem for any press that, well, likes to keep its expenses commensurate with expected revenue. Deciding to simply print twice as many copies as you think you need, for fear of running out, can be a disastrous financial decision. Regular readers of this newsletter will anticipate my especially disastrous for independent presses coda.

This is bad enough, but let’s add in another wrinkle: book sellers are also worried they will run out of books before last minute Christmas Eve shoppers. Amazon is worried, so they are placing larger orders than they would otherwise. In turn, independent bookstores are worried—for good reason—that Amazon will take all the available copies of books they want to have in stock from now until 2022, so they are placing larger orders than they would otherwise, just in case. It would be terrible if they were to run out of copies of a celebrity/politician thriller before everyone remembers they still need something for Uncle Joe.

All this increased ordering from booksellers puts additional pressure on publishers to print more copies than they might otherwise, not because they will sell those copies—hahahaha—-but because everyone will be ordering more copies than they need. Just in case! And there is little risk to overordering to retailers, because of the returns system.

The risk to publishers, however, is large. It is entirely possible to lose money by selling more copies than anticipated6 because an algorithm or overoptimism or “just in case” caution leads to large orders that force publishers to print more copies, only to have that demand evaporate, and all those freshly printed, last minute copies are sent back to the warehouse in a tsunami of bruised, tired cardboard boxes.

I now have a year of COVID large orders/large returns, plus enough “normal” years of publishing experience to know that it might be wise for me not to be sucked into the “OMG we have to do triple the print run of everything!” logic of the moment. If we do that, as my inbox keeps telling me I really, really should because everything is going to be insane this fall and if I don’t prepare now I am doomed, and those copies do not sell, we will lose a shitload of money. And we won’t lose it all at once—we will lose it in dribs and drabs throughout 2022, in the. most dispiriting way to lose money imaginable, as copies get sent back to the warehouse in unpredictable jumbles of quantities, their cardboard coats even more battered and exhausted. I wouldn’t really know how much we’d lost by playing this game until….2023? I mean, come on.

Right now my plan is to….run out of copies. Not really. We will always have enough copies on hand, in the Belt office, for anyone who decides to order from us directly, be they individual or retailer. But I am going to (try to) commit to letting those who go to the Ingram dashboard to order a book see there are none on hand—-as is true, right now, of a Booker winner.

—and trust that returns will replenish the stock, or people will find us, with our cartons of fresh, sweet-smelling cardboard cartons of those books they want, in beautiful Cleveland Ohio. It's as scary to anticipate losing sales as it is to be too late with an additional print run, but we will have books available for those who do an extra google search. This line of thinking leads, of course, to this thought: “boy I hope CBS News does NOT cover our October release, and nothing is nominated for a major award this fall!”

Everything is perverse.

And of course I would not be surprised if, come October, I’m panicking and regretting and calling printers to see if they can squeeze me in [shruggy emoji].

For now, though—-last week’s rash cleared up, I’m excited about our new books, I am writing this on my balcony overlooking Lake Erie, where it is sunny and not snowy, as the Christians are not yet worried about Uncle Joe, and I’m relieved to be healthy, in business, and able to be laugh about all this. After all, none of this would be an issue if 80% of Americans didn’t squeeze all their annual book buying in between November 29th and December 24!!

1

*I made up that figure, partially so I could try out the new footnotes feature.

2

I’ve written about this before, here.

3

I’ve written about this before too, here and here

4

Somewhere in the archives