This week is the penultimate week of Heartland Summer, the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association’s eight-week virtual trade show, and organizers wound down educational programming with a session on a topic that is already prompting much anxiety among booksellers as the holiday season looms: how to keep bestsellers in stock.

On Tuesday afternoon, Danny Caine, owner of the Raven, an indie bookstore in Lawrence, Kan., moderated a panel called “Demystifying the Book Supply Chain,” which featured panelists from one large house and several small presses: Karen Torres, v-p of account marketing and field sales at Hachette; Anne Trubek, publisher at Belt Publishing in Cleveland; Eric Obenauf, editorial director at Two Dollar Radio in Columbus, Ohio; and Joanna Demkiewicz, marketing manager at Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis.

Noting problems over the last few years with supply exceeding demand for hot titles due to a recent dearth of printers in the U.S., Torres explained that Hachette has been warning booksellers “since early September” that there may be supply chain disruptions this holiday season—especially with so many blockbusters scheduled for release this fall. A number of publication dates were postponed from this spring to fall, while others are being released on schedule in the fourth quarter. Adding to the anticipated printing logjam, Penguin Random House announced recently that the first installment of President Obama’s memoirs will be published on November 17, with a three million copy initial print run.

“This is not a typical year,” Torres explained. “Everyone has the same delivery issues.”

Keep Communication Lines Open

Torres urged booksellers to report their data to publishers in a timely fashion, order stock sooner than later to meet cutoff dates, and keep in touch with their sales reps. “If you get your orders in early, you are in alignment to get your books on time,” she said. “This is about less reaction time.”

Demkiewicz disclosed that using quality paper and recycled paper is important to Milkweed, and that the availability of quality paper for small presses as they compete with larger publishers for supplies “can be a problem if we’re not on top of our shit, if we’re not communicating with our printers. It takes a lot of coordination and communication hitting deadlines on our end of things.”

She also emphasized the human factor in the book supply chain, pointing out that small presses have limited resources and employees. “We’re people doing all this work," she said. "Human error can occur. On a human resources level, if we’re not training folks well and if we’re not empowering them to get excited about their production responsibilities, that can also cause delays. It’s as much about the cultural systemic issues that we’re facing today about expectations and communication.”

Obenauf recalled that last year, the typical three-week turnaround times for books to ship became four weeks—and then five weeks. This year, Obenauf is trying to prevent such delays by giving the printer as much information as possible as soon as a pub date is decided, “so that the turnaround time is really efficient and we’re able to get the books out” on time. Two Dollar Radio also keeps close tabs on the inventory of the books in warehouses so that they can move quickly to replenish stock before supplies get low.

“That paper shortage, and this year, with publishers pushing back books until the fall, and into the fourth quarter, it’s pretty tricky for all the printers to make everyone happy and get the books out,” Obenauf noted.

The "Witchy Science" of Setting Print Runs

Trubek added that not only have three-week turnarounds turned into five or six weeks, but print-on-demand titles, which used to have a one or two-day turnaround, are now seeing turnarounds of as long as three weeks. “Which is not POD at all,” Trubeck complained, noting: “There is so much anxiety about how we’re going to get the books to a printer on time to meet the pub date. And then I hope that none of our books do so well that we’re going to need a second printing at the end of the year, or a third printing, because who knows if that’s going to happen.”

Trubek also recommended that publishers order smaller print runs and crash titles, explaining that such strategies speed up turn-around times. But for booksellers, her advice was simple: “Get your orders in early. If we’re screwed, at least you won’t be screwed—you’ll get your books by November or December.” That advice came, too, with a lament: “Everyone’s dream is to be a bookstore owner, but can’t we have some people whose dream is to become printers?”

In response to Trubek's recommendation for publishers, Torres disclosed that Hachette is trying to better figure out print runs using an inventory management department that oversees inventory and makes sure stock is replenished in a timely fashion. “It’s not an exact science, but it’s the closest thing we have,” she said, prompting Caine to note that bookselling has changed due to Covid-19's impact upon bricks-and-mortar retail. Caine suggested that perhaps the industry has to look at the data differently when determining print runs, describing such computations as “witchy science.”

When Caine declared that booksellers have to figure out how to explain delays to impatient customers who do not understand that there is a book supply chain, commission sales rep John Mesjak of Abraham Associates in Minneapolis suggested that booksellers be prepared to hand-sell other appropriate titles to customers when blockbuster releases are not available. And when several booksellers questioned whether it was feasible for them to order early and to order big, the publishers clarified their stance: “Order at your comfort level,” Demkiewicz advised, while Torres suggested that booksellers order “what you can sell.”

As the session wound down, Caine got in the last word about avoiding delays in receiving books. He suggested that, rather than investing heavily in blockbuster books that big chains will also carry, that indies might instead focus on books “that are unique to you. Those books may not be facing the same supply chain issues the blockbusters may do.” And Obenauf reiterated: “We’re all in this together. We’re open to being transparent.”

UPDATE: Joanna Demkiewicz's statements concerning the human factor in book supply chain disruptions has been edited to more accurately relflect her sentiments.