Amy Fisher's Book Tests New Publishing Model
It was a publisher's dream. Amy Fisher, the center of one of the largest media frenzies of the early '90s, had re-emerged in the media spotlight. After a decade of relative obscurity, the "Long Island Lolita," convicted of attempting to kill the wife of her older lover Joey Buttafuoco in August 1992, had served her seven-year sentence, started a family, become an award-winning journalist, and completed her first book, aptly titled "If I Knew Then …" The autobiography, which Fisher describes as "The truth behind the many sensationalized stories of who I was back then and some insight into who I am today," had again catapulted Fisher into the limelight, and publishers were taking notice.
The subject matter alone would have made most publishers salivate. But Fisher enjoyed the added clout of having secured a one-hour special on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," in addition to numerous other major TV and radio interviews, as well as the possibility of making the cover of People magazine, all to promote the new book. Demanding total editorial control and subsidiary rights, Fisher decided against going with traditional publishers and to instead take on the role of publisher herself, turning to iUniverse to pursue the self-publishing route.
Recognizing the strong potential to test a new production model for the publishing industry, iUniverse President Susan Driscoll and Kirby Best, CEO of Lightning Source Inc.—an on-demand print operation and subsidiary of Ingram Industries Inc.—set out to determine how they could best produce and distribute the title by combining a mix of print-on-demand and traditional offset printing. The problem was that although the anticipated media attention ensured a lot of interest in the book, it did not necessarily guarantee record-shattering sales.
"It was a unique experiment," recalls Best. "We wanted to show that if you combined an offset and digital strategy, and added in some micro inventory, you could cut waste, boost returns and make the book profitable whether it was a big hit or not."
For the Nashville, Tenn.-based print-on-demand and digital fulfillment services company, "If I Knew Then …" was an ideal experiment to challenge the traditional and accepted economics of the book publishing industry.
'Sell One, Print One … Repeat as Necessary'
Lightning Source routinely manages short-run book printing through its on-demand and digital delivery/fulfillment system. It can cost-effectively print books in quantities as low as one copy and is capable of producing up to 30,000 books per day.
"Instead of printing thousands of books and keeping them warehoused until they sell," Best explains, "… why not wait for the order—in other words: Sell one, print one, and repeat as necessary."
Not sure whether to print 10,000 or 200,000 copies of Fisher's book, Driscoll listened to Best's plan for ensuring production levels were optimal by combining old and new technology through a demand-driven publishing model. "In traditional publishing there is the curse of traditional printing, but with this model, I wouldn't have to worry about printing too many copies, " says Driscoll. "It would be a bit more expensive per unit, but actually turned out better for us overall."
An offset run of 25,000 was first required to fill retailers' shelves with copies, in anticipation of Fisher's appearance on "Oprah," Sept. 27, 2004.
Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing Group in York, Pa., was the printer that produced the initial offset run, and RR Donnelley was on standby to print a much larger run if, at some point after "Oprah" aired, "sales went wild," says Best. In the meantime, Lightning Source had the ability to print up to 30,000 copies per day if required until Donnelley got the order ready. The idea behind the process was that, although digital print's cost per book is significantly higher compared to offset, the flexibility it offered in terms of continuity of supply minimized the overall cost for the project.
Lightning Source and iUniverse stood by, monitoring inbound shipments, warehousing levels and retail sales (brick-and-mortar and online) on a daily basis, filling additional orders as necessary on Lightning Source's digital presses.
"For us, it wasn't about the title, the author, or the end-of-day sales of the book, but whether we could meet any demand peak without overproducing," says Best.
Disappointingly, even though the title eventually hit "The New York Times Bestseller List," book sales never reached the numbers required for a second offset run. Although seemingly anticlimactic, the flat sales were in fact a strong endorsement of the demand-driven publishing model employed. Lightning Source and iUniverse were successful in ensuring the continuity of supply without the risk of underproduction or overproduction. "We always had enough inventory, but never too much," says Best.
The program continued for a full month with daily sales numbers evaluated and orders fulfilled on an as-needed basis. Today the book continues to sell steadily, with digitally printed books produced through automation. As orders come in electronically from Lightning Source's distribution partners, the electronic orders are batched and sent to the print queue, then shipped out within 24 hours with virtually no human intervention.
At press time, all parties involved were eagerly anticipating the re-airing of the "Oprah" show in January to see if things would be better the second time around. There has also been some talk of the possibility of an upcoming movie deal, which would also help boost sales and possibly even lead to a second offset run.
Best admits that the system is not appropriate for every book published, but it was a good test, showing how the printing process can be automated for publishers in similar dilemmas using an advanced business model that works. Lightning Source's main challenge remains that many publishers are not ready to put this level of control in an unconventional system managed by a digital printing and fulfillment operation.
Driscoll saw the potential and avoided the costly pitfalls that would have come with overprinting books. The model is sure to be employed again, and Best says it will become a valuable tool for publishers of all sizes in balancing anticipated demand with real-time production requirements.
Vincent DeFranco is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Toronto. He specializes in the printing and publishing industries. He can be reached at VDeFranco@Sympatico.ca.