Hollywood’s Calling, But Bookstore Shelves Are Bare

It’s every author’s dream: You write a book that everybody loves. It gets fabulous reviews-one of them on the front page of The New York Times Book Review . You appear on the Today show and on C-Span and you tape Charlie Rose . There’s even interest from Hollywood-and you fly out to take some meetings.

There’s only one problem: There are precious few copies of your book to be found in the bookstores-and if someone wants one, they’re going to have to wait, sometimes as long as three weeks. You’ve got buzz, all right, but without books to sell, you could also go bust. Will would-be readers wait or, by the time the stores are stocked up again, will they have moved on to the Next Buzz Thing?

That’s exactly the situation author David Lipsky found himself in last week. His book, Absolutely American , an exhaustive and very human account of West Point and its cadets, was published, cannily, by Houghton Mifflin on July 4. By Aug. 4, he’d made the rounds of the TV shows, seen his book lionized in the TBR and gone west at the behest of the movie folks. But you’d have had to dig far to get your hands on the actual book: A midtown Manhattan Barnes & Noble was sold out last week, Amazon.com advised buyers there would be at least a week’s wait for shipping, and even Powell’s-the mighty independent that, by the way, conducted an online interview with the author-was waiting for back-ordered copies. The actual old-fashioned hard-copy version of the book was so rare, in fact, that at 12 of the 14 meetings Mr. Lipsky said he had with film producers, they were passing around Xeroxed pages. (I finally found two copies in a small-town bookstore in Pennsylvania last weekend.) On the one hand, said Houghton Mifflin director of publicity Lori Glazer, “even people who thought they had no interest in [West Point] are requesting it.” On the other, offered Dave Weich, director of content and marketing for Powell’s and Powells.com, the lack of books is “frustrating for customers and booksellers and incredibly frustrating for the author.”

Scratch any author and you’ll surely hear tales of “bad” publishing-of how agents, publishers and publicists didn’t do enough to turn his book into the star it was meant to be. Mr. Lipsky went out of his way to praise Houghton-the book, in fact, is dedicated to his editor, Eamon Dolan-but admits to frustration with the dearth of copies. Like all authors, he wants attention, sure, but he also wants readers to be able to buy the treatise he spent four years compiling.

But what’s a poor publisher to do? Houghton was clearly behind this book from the beginning: The initial print run was a substantial 40,000, and Mr. Lipsky was the only Houghton author this season invited to a sales conference (a vote of extreme confidence). It was positioned as a “lead title,” got a two-page spread in the catalog, and the sales reps returned early, enthusiastic reports and orders. Two weeks after publication, Houghton had gone back to press twice, and the number in print will soon be 84,000. But reprinting takes time-two to three weeks to make the books, another week to transport them to the stores.

But the byword in publishing today is caution: The last thing a publisher can afford to do is overprint and risk the embarrassment and expense of returns. And when demand for a book has outstripped even the most optimistic publishing plan (the same “problem” that happened with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , a Doubleday title that was just picked by Today ‘s book club, and Scribner’s Jarhead , which got a boost from the Iraq war), a publisher is stuck playingcatch-up. “This doesn’t happen a lot,” Mr. Weich said, “but it happens a lot more than it used to.” Why? Surely because publishers have noticed the worrisome drop in book sales across the board and don’t want to get too cocky.

Still, things could be worse-and they were worse back in the pre-Internet days, when an anxious customer had to remember to write down the name of the book he wanted, call the bookstore and check back a couple of weeks later. (Read: He got tired of waiting.) At least now, readers can satisfy their craving-and the author, bookseller and publisher as well-by pushing a button to order a book that will arrive in the mail a couple of weeks later. “You don’t necessarily lose the customer the way you would have five years ago,” said Mr. Weich. Not to mention how much worse the situation could be for Mr. Lipsky or Mr. Haddon or Jarhead ‘s author, Anthony Swofford. They could be suffering-as hundreds of other authors annually do-under the realization that nobody wants their books, however well written, published or distributed. “The good news is, the book is selling,” said Mr. Lipsky.

Or, as Mr. Weich of Powell’s put it, “Everybody should have such problems.”