The 20th anniversary of Lightning Source, the digital service provided by Ingram that supplies both printed-on-demand books and ebook file distribution services for publishers, was recently noted in a tribute piece in Publishers Weekly. The growth of the file repository at Lightning was reported to have reached 15 million titles.
Those represent books that might not have copies for sale in anybody’s inventory but which can be delivered in the next 24-48 hours by Ingram to any bookstore, library, or consumer in the country (and many more around the world).
John Ingram was quoted suggesting that publishers would only get the full benefits that Lightning has to offer them if they have every title they own archived with the service and ready for delivery. The story doesn’t unpack that idea, but it is a very powerful one.
The value that almost all publishers now recognize in Lightning was summed up very well by Steve Zacharius of Kensington Books.
“We use it for short runs to cover books temporarily out of stock or to keep the book available when there’s not enough demand to do a full offset printing. We also, of course, use it for ARCs.” (ARCs are “advance reader copies”, sometimes called “bound galleys”, which are usually pre-publication samples of a printed book.)
But there is another way to use Lightning which only a few publishers have employed so far but which could become one of its most valuable capabilities in these times. Ingram now has what they estimate is “several tens of thousands” of titles within the catalog that sell thousands a year, so they wouldn’t be obvious candidates. But they are set up “Just in Case” (as opposed to for “Just in Time”) and they make use of Lightning in ways most publishers still don’t.
Because, more than ever before the Internet changed communication, our collective attention is briefly grabbed and we see a “spike”. A sudden and unpredicted surge in interest in a topic (which often means a book) is suddenly driven by an event in the news or public sphere. These surges can be extremely brief but the boost in demand they can deliver for any book can also be extremely powerful. And, of course, the body of thought contained in a book could actually further sustain the interest, if the book is available for media exposure and public consumption at the moment of opportunity.
And that’s where a different use of Lightning might unlock sales that have remained inaccessible.
Because if there’s a news break on a Monday morning that could promote interest in a book, even a publisher with ample inventory in its own warehouse is unlikely to be able to get copies to Ingram to place on sale any earlier than Wednesday. Those two days could be two major days for sales, perpetuating a chain of interest into the book-buying public.
Turning on Lightning printing for that book could mean thousands of copies in stores and libraries by Wednesday. This is the potential magic of the Lightning-Ingram connection. Ingram is shipping books to just about every bookstore and library that matters just about every single day. The newly hot book could be in all the shipments to stores that want it almost from the moment of the news break by employing Lightning. In our times, delaying the book’s real distribution into the marketplace by even 48 hours could be the difference between a book that catches fire and one that misses its opportunity.
And the distribution reach and impact of the Lightning-Ingram connection is global. Of course, in the Internet age, so are the impacts from the “spikes”!
The business affairs people at the publishing houses will really have to sharpen their pencils to analyze this. There is a knee-jerk (but reasonable) resistance to printing books at Lightning that already sit in a publisher’s inventory. The books in inventory cost less per unit to deliver. Whenever the publisher does a press run, they take the risk that some books printed will never be sold, so the reflex to draw from printed inventory rather than printing more (at a higher unit cost) is totally sensible.
The problem is that following that logic leads to failure to “strike while the iron is hot”. The books that hit the stores and libraries quickly in the wake of news can create their own news and further sustain the interest. At stake here are not just the sales made in the immediate wake of a news break but a longer tail of sales that could be driven by the book in the marketplace. And, in addition, keeping the title in supply can forestall a drop in a title’s rank at Amazon and other dot com retailers. Dot com is where the spikes have the most impact and a title’s rank is the fastest way to communicate to a potential customer that a title is “hot”.
That’s what makes the math slightly more complicated for a publisher contemplating this strategy.
And what is posited here is the most extreme case for conflicted thinking, where the book affected by the unpredicted publicity break is actually in stock at the publisher. Often it isn’t, or it isn’t in sufficient quantity. So the publisher will then order a printing which will take a week or two to deliver. Once again, there’s a reluctance to siphon sales away from the printing, so the publisher might not use Lightning to fill orders while they wait for the printing.
My instincts would say this is almost always a mistake. And it is undoubtedly another example of how Lightning could be used better that was on John Ingram’s mind when he suggested there were untapped capabilities.
It is rationally counterintuitive for publishers to put spend time, let alone money, to set up with Lightning to print books on which they intend to maintain inventory in their warehouse. Although it would seem the cost would be near zero if the Lightning set-up were done as a part of delivering any book to publication, changing procedures to enable more expensive inventory to be employed will definitely make some analysts scratch their heads. But John Ingram suspects, and I agree with him, that a publisher with every title they own set up with Lightning would encounter circumstances where sales were made because of the ubiquitous instant delivery capabilities that are unique to Ingram, sales that would have otherwise been lost.
And in some of those cases, the title will have been enabled to go on a bit of a run that would otherwise simply not have happened.
If the title is set up, the publisher has a straightforward calculation to do. Printing with Lightning will, for the paperback or hardcover priced between $15 and $35, might raise the cost of a single book a buck or two over the press run cost of present or future inventory. But the publisher would also save the cost of picking and shipping the inventory, what would probably be some expedited freight charge, as well as the time on both ends for it to be dispatched and received. Is that relatively minor additional unit cost a worthwhile marketing expense to get inventory into customers’ hands a day or two or even a week or two sooner? If the choice were framed that way, the answer might frequently be “yes, it is”.
Twenty years in, Lightning Source is a critical component of the book business’s infrastructure. It won’t take another 20 years before every book with a sentient publisher will be in its database and, as that happens, the inventory practices of the industry will be rewritten, cash investment requirements will be cut dramatically, and many publishers will be able to point to sales surges they wouldn’t have gotten in previous times. Previous times, of course, are right now.
Looking forward to spending Jan 6 to February 5, 2019, in New Zealand, with a week out for a visit to Melbourne, Australia. Any readers of The Shatzkin Files on that side of the world who want to try to connect should email me at [email protected] to see whether we can work something out.