It doesn't seem fair. As booksellers looked to the Christmas gift-giving season to bring jingle to their cash register, they found that some of the hottest titles, the ones that practically sell themselves, were unavailable. Nearly every bookseller polled by PW two weeks ago complained of at least one bestselling title—from America (the Book) and Bad Cat to Polar Express and Chronicles—that it couldn't find.
The question is why. Some booksellers speculated that publishers had exercised too much caution in holding down print runs to avoid post-holiday returns. Publishers had a different take—surprise bestsellerdom, unusually effective reviews and color printings abroad that made quick reprints difficult. But booksellers aren't buying it. As Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., put it: "I was surprised at the books publishers let go out of stock. Some of them were no-brainers, and the publishers should have been better prepared."
Consider America (the Book) by Jon Stewart and the Daily Show Staff (Warner). In early December, Kleindienst ran out of the book and couldn't find it. "That was one that should have been an easy pick for the publisher to go heavier in the print run," she commented. Likewise, Ann Christophersen, co-owner of Women and Children First in Chicago, said she wished her store had "ordered America more heavily. The supply dried up." Even Ingram reported what it called "spotty problems" keeping America in stock. "Time Warner made a sincere effort to meet our demands for books, but it was a struggle," George Tattersfield, director of merchandising, said.
In an approach that echoed one of the Daily Show's classic tongue-in-cheek sketches, Warner said that it didn't know of any problems. (You can hear Stewart smirking, "Problems? What problems?") "As far as I know, everything was fine," Warner publicist Jimmy Franco stated. Knowing there was going to be "enough interest in the book," as he put it, the company printed 550,000 copies before pub date on September 20 and has done 15 printings altogether. Now the total copies in print is 1.9 million, an impressive amount but still a few hundred thousand short in light of the superpower of America.
Polar Express Sidetracked
Although last fall's movie version of Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg was widely panned, demand for the 19-year-old book hurtled along the tracks faster than the publisher could manage.
"We could have sold lots more copies of the Polar Express if we could have gotten them from Houghton Mifflin or Ingram after Thanksgiving," said Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston. Stina Seeger-Gibson, manager of the Book End in Lincoln City, Ore., complained that her store's "biggest problem was with the Polar Express Gift Set. Nobody had it. I tried Ingram, Partners, Baker & Taylor. It was a real disappointment because the kids were so excited."
For its part, Ingram said Polar Express was among the titles it had most difficulty keeping in stock. Partners said it had no problem stocking Polar Express but couldn't get enough copies of the gift set.
Of course, Houghton Mifflin, which has averaged sales of 200,000—250,000 copies a year of Polar Express for at least the past five years, knew that the Christmas favorite would do even better last year because of the movie. After conversations with accounts, it decided to triple its typical available amount, printing 750,000 copies to begin the season. But this triple wasn't a home run: sales went up seven times above the average. Thus, during the fall it went back to print and, including the gift set, which had 300,000 copies in print, wound up with 1.5 million copies.
Noting that the company prints in the U.S. but needs about a month to turn around a full-color reprint, Gary Gentel, Houghton Mifflin's director of sales, said, "We looked at figures daily and we reprinted three times after our initial 750,000 printing. There is no doubt that the amount of marketing the movie people did generated more attention than we ever would have been able to do on our own. The movie moguls should be applauded for continually promoting the book when they'd talk about the movie."
Or, as one industry observer summed up the situation: "I heard they printed a kajillion copies of Polar Express, but they must have underestimated the power that even a bad movie can have on the sales of a book."
Very Bad CatBad Cat by Jim Edgar (Workman), a handselling favorite of many booksellers, was also a handselling frustration.
"We could have sold another hundred of those, but it went out of stock," Elaine Sopchak, owner of the Book Rack & Children's Pages in Essex Junction, Vt., said. "We're putting it on our counter all year round." Calling it her "personal favorite," Karen Corvello, backlist buyer at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., said the store ran out of Bad Cat four days before Christmas. Kleindienst at Left Bank said she had ordered large amounts of Bad Cat "so I had enough until the day before Christmas." But the store, which sold more than 100 copies, didn't receive any more until this month. Even Bookazine, which had fewer problems than most wholesalers keeping hot titles in stock, had a little difficulty taming Bad Cat. "We sold out of it for a couple days but got it back within a week," vice-president of marketing Kathleen Willoughby said.
Workman top dog Peter Workman worked like a dog to meet Bad Cat demand, but was hampered because the first printing of 100,000 was done in Asia, and reprinting from there takes eight to 10 weeks for shipments to arrive. As a result, the company created new film and did the second printing in the U.S. Since then, the company has reprinted both here and in Asia. As of January 15, it has more than 250,000 copies of Bad Cat in print.
Workman observed: "The expectation was high, but when something sells as rapidly as Bad Cat, it's hard to keep it in stock. You have to use a little measure of caution not to get too far ahead of the explosion." He articulated the cautious, fiscally responsible approach that works for many titles but in cases like this leads to bookseller indigestion: Workman's aim is "to reprint quite frequently. Most publishers do smaller, frequent reprints rather than try to bite off the whole thing at once."
In an irony that might suitable material for an entry in this book, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker (Black Dog & Leventhal) seemed hard to find for some in the metropolitan New York area. Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, N.J., couldn't get enough copies, and Kathleen Willoughby of Bookazine said that this was "the one title we had a problem with. We were out of stock since the first week of November and we were promised stock that didn't arrive in time to service our customers."
The publisher's initial printing of 175,000 arrived from overseas in September, but many bookstores didn't want their copies until November, Black Dog & Leventhal's Mary Wowk said. So knowing that a reprint would take a while to arrive, the publisher had to make its first major reprint decision after the book had been on sale just a week. It decided to go for just 15,000 copies, which would arrive December 6.
"Distribution can be uneven, but we shipped to all independent bookstores," Wowk said. "We tracked it week by week, and there were always books out there in stores. As of mid-November, Tattered Cover had more than 100 copies. I tracked our top seven customers out in the field, and on November 21 they had 47,000 copies. On December 12, there were 38,000. And on December 26, 17,000 copies." She noted that because The Complete Cartoons is a $60 book, "we're not in the position to have an extra 50,000 copies on hand." The company is expecting another printing of almost 50,000 more copies to arrive momentarily, an amount than should last until June.
Blowing in the Wind
Bob Dylan's Chronicles (S&S) was difficult for at least one bookseller to find. Margot Sage-El sang this sad song: "Dylan's Chronicles sold strong all the way through the season, but in the last couple weeks we ran out and so did the distributors and publisher."
Sam Speigel of Partners Book Distributing called Chronicles the "hardest book to get," particularly between December 10 and 28, "in the middle of one of the hottest weeks of the Christmas season." Ingram also called Chronicles one of its hard-to-find titles.
There's a reason wholesalers had more trouble finding this title than many booksellers: in a striking policy that might exclude booksellers who don't buy direct, S&S, which did a first printing of 250,000 copies in October, responded to a big jump in demand following Dylan's appearance on 60 Minutes on December 5 by bypassing wholesalers "for about a week or so," and selling directly to retailers, according to Aileen Boyle, director of publicity. "It was our strongest title of the season for sure. No other book went back to press with the frequency and strength of this title." By Christmas, the company had almost 500,000 copies in print.
Yiddish with Dick and Jane (Little, Brown), a parody of the Dick and Jane primers, was "hysterical, and we sold through everything we had," Richard Goldman, co-owner of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., said. "Unfortunately, Time Warner ran out of it totally and didn't have reprints available until right around Christmas, so we missed the entire Hanukkah market."
Terry Adams, Little, Brown's vice-president and director of trade paperbacks—and the editor of Yiddish with Dick and Jane—admitted to "taking off small," with an initial printing of 27,500 copies in September. Several factors worked against a higher figure, he said: at the time, bookstores' humor sections were crowded with political books and most humor books build up sales slowly. "Humor books need word-of-mouth because they don't usually get reviews," he explained. "We had faith in the book, but there's nothing we can do to force it on booksellers, customers or the media, so we're gratified that the book is finding its audience."
The company looked for a printer in the U.S. for a quicker turnaround since the color in the book meant any reprint order would take five weeks to be fulfilled. Now, after five reprints, there are 142,500 copies in print; the last reprint ordered before Christmas is just coming in.
Not that Hanukkah is chopped liver, but Adams noted that the title was a "gift book but not a holiday book."
Little Balm for Gilead
Marilynne Robinson waited 24 years between novels, but her much-praised Gilead (FSG) was a title that Ingram had trouble keeping in stock. Roberta Rubin owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill., said, “I was surprised that I couldn’t get Gilead.”
“We’ve been reprinting like crazy since we published on November 19,” Sarita Varma, FSG’s publicity director, said. “We’re in our seventh reprinting based on demand. We now have over 100,000 copies in print.” The book was aided by “tremendous review coverage” and Varma speculated that Gilead “touched a nerve at Christmas time because it touches on issues of faith in everyday life. It was one of our major literary publications of the year and it’s gratifying that it has become such a runaway hit.” Faith, it turns out, was in short supply in some regions.
Left Bank Books' Kleindienst said that one of the store's top-10 requested books of the season, particularly after its review by Daniel Pinkwater on NPR in November, was The Wind in the Willowsby Kenneth Grahame. "We have 15 holds and they still haven't gotten it in" as of 10 days ago, she said.
Candlewick had only a few days' notice of the Pinkwater review, publicity manager Susan Hershberg said. "So we placed an out-of-the-country reprint order in early December, and we got a portion of the reprint at the end of December. The remainder of that initial order will be available at the beginning of February. We pushed this through very quickly." She noted that this isn't the first time Pinkwater has boosted a Candlewick title. Last spring, he featured And Here's to You by David Elliot in a segment and "very quickly it landed on the New York Times bestseller list."
A Long Trip
Calling the book "just gorgeous," Susan Capaldi, manager of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., said that her store sold out of Lonely Planet's The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World "the second week of December and it's just coming back into Ingram the first week of January."
Maybe Lonely Planet's international approach led to problems. As U.S. president Todd Sotkiewicz noted, the company publishes globally, printing in China and distributing to the world from a central warehouse in Singapore. The Travel Book, he said, was "a great success. I think we could have sold even more into the channel." Yet he seemed not to admit any stocking problem. "Right before Christmas, we sent a bunch more units to Ingram. If anyone was out of stock, they should consider working with us directly because we worked with the channel to make sure we were supplying books all the way through the holidays."
Then Sotkiewicz put a positive spin on the situation that applies to all publishers who couldn't quite fill total demand: "I think returns are going to be low."