October 2, 2018

What Bob Woodward’s Fear tells us about the state of publishing

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In its first week on sale, Simon and Schuster announced that Bob Woodward’s Fear was their fastest selling book ever; 1.1 million units sold in all formats. Ten printings by the end of the first week!  At this writing, it’s still selling like mad. Additionally, Scholastic’s The Wonky Donkey (a book about an ass, I should point out), is the current #1 title on Amazon. I digress.

Photo via Paul Schafer/Unsplash

So, is this a Trump book story? A Bob Woodward story? A partisan politics and the state of publishing story? Yes, it’s a bit of all of this. 

But, let’s just take a moment to appreciate a bestseller as the excellent business story that it is – a case study in the art of amplification, bringing books to readers, and contributing to the national conversation. So, hat’s off, S&S! It’s not easy getting that many books into the consumer’s hands so quickly.   

These days, readers want books in physical, digital, and audio formats. They want to read them, listen to them, buy them, download them, and borrow them from the library. And readers want these formats to be beautifully produced and available simultaneously. Not easy, and we’re just getting started. 

Inventory is a gigantic consideration. It has to be managed with caution and courage. One might think there’s little difference between printing 1 million and 1.1. million books, but that extra 100,000 copies of a 448-page, hardcover book is expensive. Additionally, that hardcover can sometimes be quite a gamble. 

And once the books are printed, publishers have to ship them. Finished books travel a complicated supply chain to booksellers around the country. Retail distribution centers, independent bookstores, wholesalers, non-traditional book retail stores, and libraries all want books on their shelves in a “just-in-time” environment. No one wants more than a few weeks of inventory at any given time, which means lots and lots of (insufficient) reorders, which the bookseller will want yesterday so that they don’t go out of stock. Everyone cries a little when books go out of stock. Lost sales! 

And, of course, long before the printing and supply chain challenge, the publisher’s amplification machine is in high gear, positioning the work for booksellers and media outlets, creating buzz and demand. That demand shows up as preorder metrics that guide publishers’ print and distribution strategies. But interpretation of that data is rarely straightforward.  Metrics matter, but there is also art.  Why didn’t S&S just print 1.1 million books in the first few printings? Because even a Bob Woodward book on Trump can be tricky. S&S had gone back to press 10 times by the end of the first week on sale! That’s the way publishing works:  produce, amplify, measure, print, ship, amplify measure, print, repeat.

It’s a lot of good, hard, important, work and publishers are right to crow about these successes. So, let’s crow loudly and often! And not just about the million plus printings, but how about those “midlist” successes? Arguably, traversing the middle ground of publishing is even more treacherous (and getting harder every day). When publishers plan a twenty-five thousand copy book, it’s not easier or less important because it smaller. In most cases, it’s hard as heck and takes a lot of love and guts and overtime. Hundreds of midlist books find success every year because dedicated publishing professionals persevere! 

So, I’m going to take a quick moment to crow about two midlist gems on the Melville House’s fall list. Chalk: The Art and Erasures of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin is the first and only biography of one of the most in-demand American artists of the 20th century. It’s researched and written by a Fulbright scholar and was ten years in the making. I call that a publishing event!  Not a million copy event, but an event just the same. And then, in November we have a beautiful debut novel from Sarah St. Vincent, a human rights attorney and an excellent writer. Ways to Hide In Winter unfolds subtly, in counterpoint to the harrowing human stories at its core. I’d call it the opposite of a Woodward/Trump book (at least the subtle part). How does anyone know how many books to print on a terrific debut novel? I’m telling you, it’s an art. 

Tim McCall is the vice president of sales at Melville House.

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