With the holiday season heating up, Thomson-Shore and the University of California Press are working closely together to make sure that the season's sleeper hit—The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, edited by the Mark Twain Project at the University of California–Berkeley—reaches eager, and anxious, booksellers before Christmas.
"They will get hold of the book," insisted Reagan Borton, marketing manager at Thomson-Shore, a medium-sized, wholly employee-owned, book manufacturer headquartered in Dexter, Mich. "We're doing all that we can to keep up with the demand. We're receiving [purchase orders] from the press and have met those P.O.s. In some cases, we've been shipping books early."
The 38-year-old company, which is more accustomed to short and medium print runs averaging 4,000 copies for university, trade, and religious publishers, has been working at maximum capacity this past month to meet an unexpected demand by consumers for the 736-page tome, which was released November 15. Thomson-Shore's entire staff of 220 has been working overtime on that and other projects, with approximately 70 employees dedicated to working exclusively on Mark Twain. The company has even rented additional space to store the huge amounts of paper required. "It's not a staffing issue, it's a capacity issue," Borton said, disclosing that Thomson-Shore recently rehired employees laid off in 2009, as well as temporary workers, to fill all three shifts.
Since its first print run of 50,000 copies, Mark Twain has gone back to press seven times, for a total of 350,000 copies. Thomson-Shore is printing the last, 100,000-copy print run in batches of 30,000, as its presses can typically handle only 50,000 copies of a book per run. Due to the book's size and the high quality of its production values, POD is not an option to supply some titles in a hurry. "We don't want to push them through so fast that the books fall apart in booksellers' hands," Borton said.
Besides renting additional space to store the huge quantities of paper, Thomson-Shore has rented large trailers to deliver 10,000 copies in each load to the University of California Press's distribution centers in California and New Jersey. "With these trailers, they can deliver about 2,000 more than on standard trailers," explained Laura Cerruti, the University of California Press's director of digital content development and sponsoring editor for the press's Mark Twain program, who has worked directly with the Mark Twain Project on the book for the past eight years. After delivery to the press's distribution centers, the books are transferred directly from the loading docks onto trucks taking the books to booksellers and other customers.
While it's not business-as-usual these days at the company's plant, this isn't the first time Thomson-Shore has had to immediately ratchet up production to meet huge demand. Five years ago, after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, Ignatius Press, a Catholic press in San Francisco that's Ratzinger's English-language book publisher, was swamped with orders. "All of our existing stock of books was sold out within hours," recalled Carolyn R. Lemon, Ignatius Press's production editor, who praised Thomson-Shore in an e-mailed statement for successfully meeting the demands placed on them to immediately both reprint existing Ratzinger titles and to accelerate production on new releases by him—24 titles in all. Nine of those titles were among Amazon's top 10 bestsellers the day after Ratzinger was elected pope.
While the University of California Press will not ask for bids from its stable of five or six approved printers until next year for volume 2 of the trilogy, which is expected to be released in November 2012, Cerruti insisted that the press's longstanding relationship with Thomson-Shore "has been invaluable" in managing the printing and shipping of volume 1, which was originally scheduled for a 7,500 initial print run. "We know that we are successfully delivering books into the hands of readers and expect to satisfy most of the holiday demand successfully," Cerruti said. "We couldn't ask for more."
More Early Holiday Trends
Fortunately, other big titles for what is shaping up to be a very memoir/biography-driven holiday season have been much easier to restock. Former President George W. Bush's Decision Points is topping bestsellers lists even at Porter Square Books in the blue community of Cambridge, Mass., as have Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra and Keith Richards's Life. "There aren't any big books in fiction," said Porter Square co-owner Jane Jacobs.
On the children's side President Obama's newly released picture book Of Thee I Sing, with illustrations by Loren Long, is starting to take off. But the two real standouts are the fifth volume in Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero. "I don't have to work hard to put those in the hands of people," said Jane Knight, children's book buyer at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt.
While sales at most independents got off to a strong start the weekend after Thanksgiving, the real test is yet to come. "We'll mirror last year with a slower start and then a snowball of sales toward the end," predicted Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books in Seattle, Wash. At Park Road Books in Charlotte, N.C., which has picked up customers from a recently closed Joseph-Beth Booksellers and a soon-to-close Borders, owner Sally Brewster is "optimistic. We start incrementing up about now. We'll peak around the 20th, and then we usually have a great Christmas Eve. Those are the shoppers we see once a year."
Just how much e-books and e-readers could affect that last-minute sales pattern is still not clear. "I have a feeling this is going to be a real Kindle/Nook Christmas," said Betsy Detwiler, owner of Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, Mass. The launch of Google Editions is coming just in time to give booksellers, several of whom have waited impatiently for its launch, their first opportunity to crack the e-book market. As Lisa Baudoin, owner of Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wis., noted, "It'll help keep us in play."
If hard work can bump up flat sales from earlier in the year, a number of booksellers are certainly willing to try. "We're doing everything we can to bring December up," said Kerry Slattery, general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles. "We're even willing to put a Santa costume on our store cat."