The need for more standardization in production, ongoing collaboration between publishers and vendors, and continued flexibility in what is still a period of uncertainty were among the key takeaways offered by the speakers at the webinar “Best Practices for Publishing Books in a Changing Marketplace,” presented by PW with support from Westchester Publishing Services on March 23.

“In 2022, demand for books slowed somewhat,” said Jim Milliot, senior v-p and editorial director at Publishers Weekly, before introducing the panelists. BookScan reported that unit sales were down 6% in 2022 compared to 2021, and the Association of American Publishers’ preliminary figures showed that dollar sales were likewise down 6%. “The good news is that bookstore sales rose 6% in 2022,” Milliot said, adding that bookstore sales last year were almost 1% higher compared to 2019. BookScan executives also like to compare 2022 to the pre-pandemic time of 2019, Milliot said, noting that though units had slipped from 2021 to 2022, sales last year were still up 12% over 2019 levels. BookScan data for the first quarter of 2023 shows unit sales down less than 1% from 2022. So despite all the current uncertainty facing publishing and the overall economy, it doesn’t look like the sky is falling, Milliot said.

Matt Baehr, executive director at Book Manufacturers’ Institute, kicked off his remarks by also putting market conditions in early 2023 in context. He observed that BMI’s survey of members found that capacity and lead times for book manufacturers for hardcover and softcover printing have declined from the extreme highs of early 2022. In looking back over 2022, Baehr noted that publishers panicked because of supply chain problems and over ordered, which is likely the reason the printing crunch eased in late 2022, as publishers then cut orders to reduce inventory. With all the shifts in manufacturing that occurred during the pandemic, it is critical for publishers to have strong communication and partnerships with vendors, he advised. “If you had strong relationships (with suppliers), you were able to weather the supply chain storms,” Baehr said. The various shortages and challenges that occurred over the last two years made clear the need to build partnerships with multiple vendors, both stateside and internationally, he emphasized.

Stephen Driver, v-p of production services at Rowman & Littlefield, pointed to the importance of communication throughout the supply chain. “Communication is key,” he said. “We really found it’s helpful to plan ahead and talk to your vendors.” Another important lesson R&L learned, Driver said, was not to be tied to specific materials in designing books and to become more flexible about standardizing some production work. Though supply chain pressures have eased, there remains lots of question marks regarding the availability of certain materials—such as different types of paper—making it increasingly important for publishers to standardize their manufacturing requirements. “We’re big fans of standardization wherever possible,” Driver said, noting that if publishers standardize where they can, they’ll have the time to track down options on titles that would truly benefit from a unique design.

“Standardization is a good thing,” Baehr added. “It helps everyone, from mills onward, and will help ensure books are being printed and help prices even out and become steady.”

It’s helpful to plan ahead and talk to your vendors. –Stephen Driver of Rowman & Littlefield

Many BMI members developed a plan B and in some cases a plan C during the pandemic to ensure they could have access to needed supplies, Baehr said. Driver said R&L developed alternative plans as well and was aware of the need to be flexible: “We had to react to changing forces in the marketplace and could no longer be wedded to one particular material or printing approach.”

“We are still feeling the effects of the last three years,” Kelly Gallagher, v-p of content acquisition at Ingram Content Group, pointed out in beginning his remarks. “We still have kinks in the system.” Though paper shortages have lessened and shipping container prices are down, there are still issues throughout the entire production pipeline, including ongoing transportation challenges and pricing pressure due to inflation. “Don’t assume the past challenges are behind us,” Gallagher warned.

Gallagher advised publishers that they shouldn’t return to a business-as-normal routine. He said that publishers that developed—and then implemented—new ways of working in response to the pandemic continue to fare better than those that didn’t. Many publishers adopted a digital print strategy to cope with the backlog at offset printers during the pandemic, and many are now using a hybrid model that incorporates the use of digital printing to meet demand when supply chain issues arise at offset printers or sales surge, Gallagher said. (He referred to a point last summer when Ingram’s Lightning Source service was providing most of the inventory for six of the top 10 bestsellers.)

In another example of the need for publishers to develop a hybrid print strategy, Gallagher pointed to an internal survey Ingram conducted for one of the major publishers tracking how their books with active ISBNs were selling. Gallagher reported that 85% of titles sold 500 units or less yearly, while most others sold between 2,000 and 5,000 annually; all those titles, Gallagher suggested, are excellent candidates for print-on-demand or digital short-run printing. “We have to realize that the old model and metrics are broken,” Gallagher said. “Without hybrid strategies, we are in trouble.”

In addition to maintaining good relationships with printers, Gallagher said publishers should also develop strong relationships with retailers. He pointed out that while online sales softened in the year, independent bookstores enjoyed a generally good 2022. He also advised publishers to engage more with consumers by expanding their direct-to-consumer marketing efforts.

During the pandemic, many publishers turned to North American printers, and while some business has gone back overseas as costs have come down, speakers said they believe publishers will continue to adjust their printing strategies. “A lot of people learned that they need a distributed model where they have vendors available in the United States and that they needed to diversify their list of printers,” Baehr said.

Given all the questions surrounding doing business with China, publishers have been seeking partnerships with printers in other countries, not only in India but also in Mexico and even in Scandinavia. Driver wasn’t sure how much printing may return to the U.S., explaining that he sees adjustments “as more of a shift from one region to another.” Still, given the various unknowns, “offshore printing isn’t the slam dunk compared to onshore that it was a few years ago,” Driver said. In looking at overseas options, Driver stressed the need for working in multiple regions. “Don’t put your eggs all in one basket” he advised, but he noted that it is important for publishers to give their different printers enough projects to foster a working, productive partnership.

Another issue that was made worse by the pandemic and hasn’t been resolved yet is the scarcity of qualified people to work in printing plants, Baehr said. Even as manufacturers work to increase capacity, including by adding more automation, they still need workers to operate the machines. “Labor is still a big issue,” he said.

On the topic of prices, Gallagher said that while publishers’ costs went up in the past year, they were slow to raise book prices. He understands the reluctance by publishers, but said that testing different pricing strategies is a good way to see what prices the market will bear. Driver said R&L had raised prices on some titles and may raise prices on others depending on the market. “The price of everything has gone up; books shouldn’t be unique in this area,” Driver said, adding that he doesn’t believe publishers should devalue their content. He said publishers need to find a “sweet spot” where even if unit sales decline, the price increase will make the book more profitable.

The general consensus from the panelists was that it remains difficult to predict just how book sales will perform in the near term, and given that uncertainty, all industry players need to be agile enough to quickly react to changes in the marketplace.