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Fire and Fury is out of stock everywhere. Blame a Depression-era publishing policy.

Publishing industry norms combined to lowball print runs.

500 Copies Of Hotly Anticipated Trump Book Arrive At Waterstones Neil P. Mockford/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Since its early release last Friday, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has become the hottest book in the country. The book, which purports to reveal the toxic inner workings of the Trump White House, has flown off the shelves so quickly that there are few left: You can’t get a hard copy of Fire and Fury, well, basically anywhere.

Amazon is expecting a two- to four-week wait. Barnes & Noble warns customers that they won’t have the book back in stock until January 19. The New York Public Library has more than 1,000 holds on its 49 copies. Independent bookstores report that they sold out on the first day the book was available. The supply here is not coming anywhere close to meeting the demand.

Some commentators have suggested that’s because Wolff’s publisher, Henry Holt and Co., “botched” the rollout. “Holt’s struggles to keep up with demand have deprived thousands of readers of a book they want right away and likely cost significant sales,” wrote Alex Shephard at the New Republic, decrying Holt’s “flat-footed” response and calling the situation a “debacle.”

It’s true that Henry Holt and Co. significantly underestimated the demand for Fire and Fury. John Sargent, the CEO for Holt parent company Macmillan, has said that Fire and Fury had an initial print run of 150,000 copies, and that to keep up with demand, Henry Holt has begun a second print run of more than 1 million copies. “We would never have predicted [President Trump’s] statement and thus never have predicted the full scope of demand for the book,” Sargent said, referring to Trump’s threat to sue both Michael Wolff and Henry Holt for libel, which sparked such widespread interest in the book that Holt moved up the publication date from January 9 to January 5.

At the New Republic, Shephard argues that while Holt couldn’t have foreseen Trump’s threats, it should have known interest in the book would be high regardless. “Henry Holt not only had the first Game Change-style book about the Trump White House,” he writes, “but also an author who, unlike Game Change authors Mark Halperin and John [Heilemann], was more than willing to burn his sources.”

But the scales of publishing are set up to heavily encourage Holt to hedge its bets and err on the side of a lower print run. While it’s arguable Holt should have known it had a big hit on its hands, all of the business practices of the publishing industry would have discouraged it from starting out with a print run big enough to accommodate current demand.

Here’s how publishing works to keep print runs conservative, and how it led to you not being able to buy a hard copy of Fire and Fury anywhere.

In book publishing, megahit best-seller numbers look very different from those of ordinary best-sellers

Scales of success in book publishing are very, very quirky.

There are some books that become major cultural touchstones that everyone in the country wants to read and have an opinion on — your Harry Potters and your Fifty Shades of Greys. Those books sell millions of copies and are wildly in demand.

But those books are vanishingly rare. Most books, including most best-sellers, are not major cultural touchstones. They might be well-respected, well-reviewed, and well-read, but that usually means sales in the range of hundreds of thousands, at best, not in the millions.

In 2014, the two best-selling books of the year were true cultural events: The Fault in Our Stars, which sold 1.2 million copies over the course of the year, and Gone Girl, which sold just under a million.

The third-best-selling book of the year? Awful Auntie, a children’s book that sold just over half a million copies.

Which means that the difference between the third-best-selling book of the year and the No. 1 best-selling book of the year can be more than 500,000 books, an increase of 100 percent.

That’s a ridiculous level of variance! How can anyone possibly predict that a book, even a book you truly believe in, will be a No. 1 best-seller with a justified print run of a million-plus copies, rather than a No. 3 best-seller, better served by a more conservative print run of several hundred thousand copies?

When Fire and Fury got an initial print run of 150,000, it was a show of confidence. It suggested that Holt believed it could enter into respectable best-seller range, maybe even third-best-selling-book-of-the-year range. Holt just wasn’t confident that the book was No. 1 best-seller-of-the-year material.

And it had good reason to be cautious. Because if publishers get it wrong and overestimate their print runs, the economic ramifications can be painful.

An outdated Depression-era returns policy means publishers have to print low

Book publishing’s returns policy is different from that of almost every other industry. Essentially, if a bookstore doesn’t sell all its copies of a book, it can return unsold copies to the publisher for full credit, regardless of their condition, and the publisher will pay the shipping costs.

“Imagine that Best Buy had the right to return all its flat-screen TVs to the manufacturer, at cost,” a publisher once told me bitterly, “and it didn’t matter if they all had their screens kicked in. And then the manufacturer was like, ‘Sure, we’ll pay for the trucks.’”

In practice, that means that the major booksellers, particularly Amazon and Target, will often over-order books on the off chance they might need them, and then return them a few months later to the publisher, having lost nothing but the cost of processing and briefly storing the books. (Indie bookstores, with their limited space, tend to order more conservatively.)

It’s a Depression-era policy that never quite got updated, NPR reported in 2008: “During the Great Depression, publishers were looking for a way to encourage booksellers to buy more books and to take a chance on unknown authors. So they offered bookstores the right to return unsold books for credit.”

Now the policy is thoroughly entrenched in the way publishers and booksellers do business. And that means that when publishers are figuring out how many copies of a book to print, they have to figure that roughly 20 to 30 percent of the books they print will come back to them as returns. So if you’re a publisher, you have to plan on eating the cost of two or three books for every 10 you sell — plus shipping — and then somehow figure out how to still make a profit.

All of which means that print runs are already inflated just to cover the returned books that publishers don’t expect to sell. If you overestimate demand for a book and print too many copies, you just burden yourself with even more excess inventory that you need to pay to store, on top of the excess inventory already coming in from bookstore returns.

All of this is to say that in an industry as quirky and illogical as book publishing — a business run by English majors — the incentive to lowball a print run is strong. Henry Holt and Co. may have botched the release of Fire and Fury, but it had an entire industry’s worth of norms pushing it to do so.

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