The credit crisis and economic slowdown combined to force James Atlas to postpone Atlas & Co.'s spring list, but interviews with a number of independent publishers found them hoping to ride out the economic storm through a combination of flexibility and vigilance. None of the houses mentioned plans to reduce its spring line, although most acknowledged that since September business has slowed considerably. “I'm drowning in a sea of no orders,” said the marketing director at one children's publisher. Richard Grossinger, publisher of North Atlantic Books/Frog Books, said that while sales at his company are still up for the year, September was “much weaker” than expected. Square One publisher Rudy Shur said sales were up in September, largely due to big orders from retailers outside of the traditional book trade. “We've been very, very lucky,” Shur said, adding that he expects most book retailers to keep inventories lean over the holidays.

Borders is one retailer that has been especially focused on keeping inventories low, and the high amount of returns it generated early in the year may have been a blessing in disguise for some publishers. Dave Oskin, publisher of Big Earth Publishing, said he immediately began to tighten operations when the Borders returns hit. “I've been preaching all year that the supply chain is likely to be very stressed, and that is something we have to deal with,” Oskin said. For Oskin that's translated into keeping print runs and inventories low, exploring digital printing options and picking titles carefully. Ronnie Sellers, president of Sellers Publishing, said he held his first executive meeting about the economy in June and told everyone, “It's the time to be vigilant.” Since the economy has worsened, Sellers has been having daily meetings, reviewing everything from expenditures to accounts receivable. “We look three times at every expenditure,” Sellers noted. Since cash flow is critical to all indie publishers, Sellers said his company is constantly analyzing its inventory levels and tweaking its models almost daily.

Despite the weak economy, Sellers said sales through the first nine months were up about 20%, something he attributed to strong brand recognition of his calendars among retailers. Jed Lyons, head of Rowman & Littlefield and National Book Network, said publishers that have developed a reputation for quality in specific niches will fare better than more general interest houses in a down economy. “Publishers with brand names and salable books won't get cut by retailers when they are looking to reduce inventory,” Lyons said. Execution is also key, Sellers added: “If you are an unreliable vendor, you're the first to go.” But Shur has found that with many retailers “sticking to what they know,” it has made it harder for Square One to open new accounts.

Given the current economic turmoil, publishers were uncertain about how holiday sales will play out. “The fall won't be great,” Lyons said. Several publishers hoped that after the election, business may pick up, but Lyons said he doesn't expect consumer confidence to improve until some time in 2009. “Hopefully, the holidays will be reasonably good,” said a not too convincing Shur. “The big question will be the consumer,” Sellers noted, asking what is becoming a popular question in publishing: will books be seen as an inexpensive present or a discretionary purchase that consumers can do without?