TV Host Puts Supply Chain to the Test
Book editors, publicists, and marketers sent a collective "thank you" to media queen Oprah Winfrey, when the Association of American Publishers presented her with its AAP Honors award.
The reason for the award: Oprah's Book Club, a wildly popular segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The segment routinely turned titles into bestsellers. But while publishers love the show's impact on revenues, dealing with massive, often unexpected surges in demand can vex even the most efficient supply chain.
The format of Oprah's Book Club was simple and effective. Winfrey chose a novel, then broadcast a reader discussion and author interview. The first book featured: The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard, published by Penguin Putnam's Viking imprint.
The book was already successful for a first novel, with 100,000 hardbacks in stores. But one month after its appearance on Oprah's Book Club, demand increased almost tenfold. Penguin Putnam suddenly needed to manufacture and ship 900,000 additional copies, and fast.
"Nobody knew how big the Oprah Book Club was going to be," says Pamela Dorman, VP and executive editor at Penguin Putnam Inc., in New York. "It was incredible."
The production team had to scramble to meet an avalanche of orders, says Roni Axelrod, then senior production manager at Penguin's Viking imprint, now director of production at HarperCollins Publishers, in New York. Reader interest could wane, and delays would mean lost sales.
Reprinting the book's text block was not a problem. But the jacket was another matter, Axelrod says. Intended to have a lush, tactile feel, the jacket was made of vellum paper, laminated on the inside, and printed with a water motif, using metallic inks.
That presented some technical challenges. "You have to test how the metallic ink looks on vellum paper," Axelrod says. "Then you have to print a photo in four colors, and make sure the photo is opaque enough. [So] you have to put down white ink. [Then] you have to make sure the bar code scans."
Complicating matters, the vellum wasn't completely opaque. Viking Penguin's production people had to make sure the book's case design didn't bleed through the jacket. This translated into extra printing and binding time, which Viking Penguin couldn't afford if they were to strike while demand was hot.
Axelrod made the tough call. She jettisoned the elaborate jacket used in the first printing, and went with simpler specs: 80 pound stock with a matte film laminate.
"That simulated the look of the first printing," she says. "It didn't have the tactile feel, but it looks similar. We had this [readied as] a fallback in case the book took off. We tested it and knew it would work."
Other book publishers fortunate enough to have a title featured on Oprah's Book Club found themselves in the same last-minute, high-stress rush. Since Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean inaugurated the club, the segment launched 48 more overnight bestsellers.
Random House published 20 of them. Their biggest hurdle: finding enough paper, and ratcheting up printing capacity, says Andrew Weber, senior VP of operations and technology at Random House Inc., in New York.
Sometimes Weber wound up using a different grade of paper, and spread the printing out among multiple book manufacturers, such as Berryville Graphics Inc., in Berryville, Va.; R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, in Chicago; and Quebecor World, in Montreal.
While multiple printings for bestsellers are not unusual, Oprah's Book Club put the process into fast-forward, Weber says:
"There's very little time to plan and react when you learn you're going
to need 750,000 copies of a 5" x 8" trade paperback in 10 days." Started in 1997, the AAP Honors award recognizes people and organizations who helped bring attention to American books. Past honorees include country singer Dolly Parton, for her Imagination Library program; C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb, for devoting broadcasts to books; and National Public Radio, for its continuing book coverage.
- Emily Barker