Going 'Cuckoo' Over Finding The Latest Rowling

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As the publishing landscape shifts and struggles, hot titles are often viewed as problem solvers, welcome additions to profit and loss statements. Outside of having successful books, the publisher’s greatest interest is having the right quantity of books to meet demand. There are two nightmare scenarios to be avoided: 1) having unwanted books sit in warehouses and take up space and 2) having public outcry for a title that is not available. “This has never really happened before,” says Sean Stanford, sales representative for Quad Graphics, a book printer in Taunton, Mass., in discussion of the second scenario. That all changed Sunday when word broke that the new mystery novel, "The Cuckoo’s Calling," was actually penned by J.K. Rowling.

For a while a pseudonym masked the truth: Robert Galbraith was reported to be a first-time author when the title launched from Mulholland Books, the crime and thriller imprint of Little, Brown and Company (itself part of Hachette Book Group) in April. As such, “his” book received a modest first printing, probably somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 copies. Once the New York Times revealed Galbraith’s real identity, Rowling fans across the country streamed into their local bookstores. (Click here for an NPR review and excerpt.)

By 3 p.m. on July 15, the day the news broke, local independent bookstores such as Porter Square Books, the Harvard Bookstore, and Brookline Booksmith reported that the one or two copies they had on the shelves were gone. The same was true of the Boston Barnes & Noble, as well as the Harvard COOP.’s stock soon ran out. Independent bookstore and online book outlet Powell’s City of Books, based in Portland, reported the title as in-stock on their website, but later issued apology notices by email to those who had placed orders: "The Cuckoo’s Calling" was not in stock and not on back order.

"The Cuckoo's Calling." (Courtesy, Mulholland Books)
"The Cuckoo's Calling." (Courtesy, Mulholland Books)

So what happens when the book-reading populous demands a title that’s not there? Sean Stanford, a board member of Bookbuilders of Boston, used to work for book printer Quebecor before it was acquired by Quad a few years ago. Quebecor ran reprints of several Harry Potter titles, so Stanford has seen “the Rowling effect” cascade through the printing press before. When family and friends started asking me for insider’s baseball on the book, I knew just whom to turn to. While it is not yet known who will print the additional copies of Rowling’s latest book, the parameters of a job like this are well-known to printers.

The good news for fans, Stanford says, is there should be no difficulty getting the book back on the presses. “The job has already been printed once,” he explains “so they have the files to print from. They already know the kind of paper, the cover, the book’s dimensions, so it is much easier to expedite.”

The real question is how many books will be needed. Despite the demand, Stanford says it will still be difficult to predict the right number. "The Cuckoo’s Calling" is immediately available for download onto e-readers, and once the shock of the news dies down, fewer people may be interested in the book. “On a hot title, publishers will order 20,000 books to begin with, and schedule 5,000 reprints every week,” Stanford says. That way, demand is met, but the market is not saturated. Once interest dwindles, the weekly reprints are reduced.

The publisher may choose to publish small batches, or they may call for a half-million at once. To maintain a steady stream of available books, the printer’s technique will be important. Most printers today already run all night, operating at max capacity. Ultimately, the greater the quantity of books, the cheaper the unit cost.

While the bottom line of "The Cuckoo’s Calling" is still being figured out by its publisher, the bottom line for J.K. Rowling fans is this: expect a week to a week-and-a-half delay before you have a book in your hands. I tried Harry Potter’s trick and said, “Accio Cuckoo,” but it didn’t help me at all.

Holly Van Leuven is a writer, publisher and musical theater historian in Boston. Her first book, the biography of song-and-dance man and Dorchester native Ray Bolger, is forthcoming.

This program aired on July 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.