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With the announcement in November of the The National Book Award winners, and the upset win by Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy" in the fiction category, many of you came out to Barnes & Noble or one of the other bookstores to pick up a copy. "This'll be easy," you probably thought. "After all, Ms. McDermott lives in Maryland and teaches at Hopkins, and she just won the National Book Award. Everyone will have this book, right?" Wrong. Instead what you found was that no one had the book and most stores couldn't even order it. "How can this be? It just won the National Book Award, for Pete's sake!" Indeed.
Many of you had a terrible time finding Peter Jennings' "The Century" or Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" this Holiday season, despite both men hyping their books all over the place as "the perfect gift." Bookstores were out of stock and were unsure when they'd be getting more. Why do such goofy things happen in the world of books? I'll attempt an explain using the case of "Charming Billy," since that scenario is more complex, and on the surface appears more ridiculous ("…it just won the National Book Award, for Pete's sake!").
"Charming Billy" was published in December of 1997. It got good reviews and sold respectably, exhibiting the normal selling cycle for this type of book. The publisher sold the rights to a January 1999 paperback edition. The National Book Award nominees were announced and "Charming Billy" was nominated for fiction, but was thought to be a long shot in the company of fellow nominees like Tom Wolfe's second novel, "A Man in Full." The publisher was content to sell down their hardcover copies and come out of the publishing cycle quite clean, with few copies to remainder. They didn't expect to win the National Book Award.
Of course "Charming Billy" did win, and the look on their collective face could be called "publisher in the headlights." The remaining hardcover copies sold almost overnight and they had to decide whether to reprint. This happened when there were six to eight weeks remaining before the January paperback release by another publisher. By the time additional copies could be reprinted and distributed (one to two weeks), how much demand would remain from a public with a TV attention span?
As it turns out the publisher did reprint a modest number of hardcover copies, which have already hit the stores and in most cases sold out again. So, the next time you'll be able to "just go down and pick up a copy" of this year's National Book Award winner for fiction will be in January when the paperback is published.
I display my firm grasp of the obvious by saying that these situations are the result of media driven demand. As with most obvious things, however, there is more to consider. Media driven demand for a particular book is hard to predict and can be quite fleeting. This puts publishers in a tough spot because of the nature of their product. Consumers of books each need their own copy of a given title. Each one of these must be individually manufactured, and carries an incremental cost in time and money. Ideally one copy of a book would be manufactured and sold to every person who wants it-no more, no less. It has always been a hard target to see. Hyping books on radio and TV has made this even harder. Not only is it hard to see-but now it's constantly moving as well.
This phenomenon presents no great difficulty for Oprah, Imus, et al. Production time and costs for a single show are the same regardless of the number of viewers. The producers wouldn't have to scramble around trying to come up with more air waves if their audience size suddenly tripled as a result of being mentioned in some book. If more people want to consume the show, they simply tune in a signal that's already out there.
What's the answer? Well, prescience or patience. There were plenty of copies of "Charming Billy" to be had a year ago. And soon you'll be tripping over "The Century," "The Greatest Generation," and "Charming Billy" in paperback in every bookstore you enter. Of course another alternative is to choose your reading material on your own.