Ambition Bigger than the Supply Chain
A bit of Dalkey history, but mostly an explanation and request for patience.
The TL;DR version of this post is: We’re trying our best to get Dalkey 2.0 books out to the public—and they all are in process! The total fuckery of the printing situation (see below) along with staff limitations + an overly ambitious launch plan has led to a round of delays for the summer/spring 2022 books. This post will provide some wide-ranging historical context and a complete picture of the current situation.
If John were still around, he would likely blame all of the press’s delays on the incompetence of his staff. And, even if he put a smile on for public, would probably bitch endlessly about those “idiot agents” who are demanding near daily updates on the status of their client’s books. To some degree he would side with disgruntled customers, but that would likely be transformed into further attacks on his stretched-bare-thin staff that’s overwhelmed and dealing with things beyond their control. Every Twitter complaint would be a referendum on the “stupidity” of the people who come work for him, how impossible the situation is, and how, “back in the day,” he did this all by himself and there were no complaints. (Or at least non that he remembered or granted any validity.)
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Let’s start in what’s maybe an unusual place: The DOJ vs. PRH antitrust case that’s investigating Penguin Random House’s attempted purchase of Simon & Schuster. There’s a whole lot of bullshit that’s been spewed throughout this trial (dig into John Maher’s Twitter feed and/or stay tuned for a future Three Percent Podcast on this), but even the accepted facts paint a really wild picture that most readers probably aren’t
Lots of qualifiers and dissimilar comparisons (authors vs. books) here, but whether the phrase “making less than $250k” refers only to PRH/S&S authors, or all authors, the “90 percent of these books sell less than 2,000 copies” is striking.
If the vast majority of books that are being published by the Big Five/Four are selling fewer than 2,000 copies, what chance do nonprofits—especially ones specializing in experimental literature and books in translation—have of selling more than that on average?
Obviously, the super-successes float all boats—Wittgenstein’s Mistress, The Third Policeman, Voices from Chernobyl, Eros the Bittersweet—but the majority of books (Dalkey and otherwise) sell hundreds of copies, not even thousands, much less tens of thousands.
There are essentially two responses to this . . . er, make that three. (John was INSISTENT that anytime we had to come up with a solution for a problem, we would come up with three. Two was lazy and cynical; finding a Hegelian synthesis often led to the best option.)
Find more profitable books. Simple! There you go! Problem solved. Wait, what was that about 90% of . . . most all books? Oh. Oh, shit. And if you’re willing to swallow the nonsense the Big Five CEOs were selling during the trial they, to paraphrase, have “no idea why some books get signed for large advances, or why any book sells at all! It’s a mystery!!”
Find another revenue stream. This can branch off into literally “selling” something other than your core product (if any press wants to buy the database system I created for tracking sales, royalties, publicity, and the like—hit me up), or adding on a significant amount of direct sales (such as the Deep Vellum Bookstore), or raising a lot of money as a nonprofit.
Focus on other engagement metrics. One of John’s sayings was that the best nonprofit publisher would be the one that gave away the most books. If we’re publishing things that, by definition and tax status, aren’t sustainable in the traditional marketplace, then why focus on “sales”? Yes, all books should sell as many copies as possible, but, if—given the royalties and payments, all under $250k, by the way—all things were the same, would you, as an author, prefer to sell 500 copies of your book, or have 2,500 readers of your book? Leading to the real question: How do you construct a publishing house that a) survives, and b) engages that number of readers without relying entirely on distributors, Amazon, indie booksellers, and academics?
I’m willing to make the argument that option #3 is the most ambitious—and difficult, and potentially most impactful—of the three, but let’s put a pin in this for a minute. It’ll come back soon enough, in a slightly more nuanced context.
Production is one the least glorious, most essential parts of the book publishing business.
Sure, cover design gets a lot of play, but typesetting? Getting quotes from printers? Adjusting spine widths and gathering mechanicals? Uploading files and getting InDesign files converted into ePub?
Not once have I had a student—in sixteen years of teaching—who was in my publishing class to learn about this part of the behind-the-scenes. Editorial? Oh yes. Marketing and publicity? On occasion. Typesetting and how to work with printers? Nope.
And yet, without this aspect of a press’s logistics working as smoothly as possible, things can go wildly awry.
When I first reached out to John O’Brien in 2019, he had approximately 60 books under contract (or “under contract”), all at various stages along the production line. Some needed to be edited, some designed, some needed covers still, some needed desperately to be proofread, most all had to be uploaded to the printer.
And for anyone playing the “how screwed was Dalkey circa 2021?” game at home, there were exactly zero people on staff with any background in production.
Thankfully, Ingram Distribution Services was able to assist him in getting books—frontlist and backlist—into Lightning Source (LSI), the digital printer they own, which can turn books around in 5-10 days (pre-pandemic) at the fastest, and deliver them to the warehouse free of charge.
Sounds perfect for an operation like Dalkey at that time, right? Well . . . As with most things, there are a few catches.
For one, there are some size limitations. For example, Antagony, which clocks in over 1,000 pages (more on that specific book in a second), can not be printed by Lightning Source—too big!
Also, there’s no price break if you want to print more than 1,000. For a printer like McNaughton & Gunn (which can do both offset and digital printing), there are financial incentives available the more copies you print. What might have a unit cost of $2.70 for 1,000 copies will only cost $2.10/unit if you do 2,000. And if you want to know one thing about the book business, know this: Profit margins are TINY, and every penny helps.
Which brings us to the third drawback: You pay a premium for LSI’s speed and efficiency. Without running a cost-analysis spreadsheet for various books and printing levels, let’s just say that LSI prices tend to be about 33% higher—per book—than a more traditional/legacy printer.
But those legacy printers? Hoo-boy are they having their own set of problems now . . .
Follow me into the weeds!!!!
In the past (aka the ‘Before Times,” aka “What is a COVID?” aka “2019”), you could send a book to McNaughton & Gunn or Kingery or Versa or the equivalent and get finished copies in the warehouse and office within 5-6 weeks on average. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Regardless, this was a reasonable amount of time to budget into your production schedule.
More weeds! Back then, if we got a manuscript in on January 1st, we could—ideally and with the right staff—have it edited by the end of February, designed (typeset) in March, proofed in April, to the printer for galleys/finished books in May, back in house in July with plenty of time for marketing and creation of word-of-mouth buzz, sent out from the distributors to stores in November, all for a pub date the following January. Ideally.
Would books get delayed? Sure. But as you can see, there is a nice buffer built into this schedule . . . if it only takes 5-6 weeks to print the book.
Welcome to 2022!! Nowadays, lead times—the time between when the printer receives the book and when it is shipped back to us—is anywhere from 20-30 weeks. So, between four and six months.
And this change? It seemingly happened overnight. When Winter in Sokcho won the National Book Award on November 17th of last year, we immediately ordered a reprint from the same printer that first did the book, begging for a rush, expecting the finished copies could make it to us by mid-December at worst.
Now sure, their printing press caught on fire thanks to a random tornado storm in the southeast, and it takes an extra minute to do French flaps, but they weren’t able to get the book back to us until February of this year.
The aforementioned Antagony, which I spent my last birthday editing (in Madrid, so I’m not complaining), went to the printer in May/June of this year (already delayed, but wow is that book a dense one to work on, and I’m proud of the final outcome), and we were initially told late-October would be the shipping date. A few weeks ago that was updated to September 22nd (yay!) which means it still took some four months to print.
Why such a long turnaround? This article from May of this year is a pretty simple, somewhat generic explanation of what’s going on. In short: paper shortage, paper cost increase, general inflation, lack of employees, overwhelming increase in the number of jobs as we start into the post-COVID times, increase in shipping time, etc.
Not only do all of those interrelated factors cause major delays (right down to the fact that it used to take 1-2 days to get a quote with price per unit, lead time, etc., and now takes 2-3 weeks), but the cost of everything has skyrocketed, making it about twice as expensive per unit to print an average book than it did a few years ago. (And LSI is still ~33% above that.)
On top of that, because of similar workforce and shipping delay issues, it’s taking Consortium/Ingram an extra week or two to get the books into the system once they’re printed and off to the stores.
Even if a press is fully-staffed and working at max efficiency, this leads to two situations: 1) if you want books fast, you need to pay a severe premium and do them through LSI, basically eliminating the profit margin AND restricting you (if you’re sensitive to the overall economics) to printing under 1,000, or 2) you print more than 1,000 at a legacy printer, but wait four to six months for stock, and delay the book by approximately half a year.
What about a third solution??
Harkening back to that opening bit about John demanding three or more approaches, I came up with one nearly impossible option (buy your own printing press!) and two semi-viable options:
Print a modest number through LSI to fulfill initial orders until copies arrive from the slower, cheaper printer. Upside: Books are more or less hitting pub dates! Downsides: Increased costs—especially if a first run sells out and you need to print more via LSI—and if the book doesn’t sell more than 1,500-2,000 copies (remember that DOJ vs. PRH bit about sales from above??) you end up paying storage costs per unit on a bunch of unsold copies.
Release the ebook version as soon as possible, and delay the book until copies from the printer arrive months later. In other words, stagger pub dates with the ePub predating the print book by weeks/months. Upside: Books are available to readers almost immediately. Downsides: Those are “books” not “Dalkey editions.” Independent stores (and, probably, a significant portion of print book readers) would not be super happy about this situation—especially if the book got some good attention/buzz.
Neither of these are ideal solutions. The ideal solution? Receive significant donations for capacity-building, and add an additional six to eight months to the production schedule to handle printing and other delays.
John used to talk a lot about “Dalkey’s DNA,” the elements built into the press that influence it and shape it in ways that are almost impossible to alter, since they’re ingrained at such a base level. “Great editorial, poor attention to sales” was the element he harped on the most—and this was relatively valid. Most everyone attracted to work at Dalkey is someone deeply invested in the aesthetic of the books, less so in how they reach readers—but there are elements, including, I would argue, “outsized ambition.”
The idea of reaching a sort of plateau, doing the number of books/programs that matched the staff size and expertise, doing what you do well to the best of your abilities . . . that was never really the Dalkey Archive M.O. It was generally about expansion: create CONTEXT, travel the world finding funding for series to greatly expand the number of translations being published (see future post on the Korean Library), open an office in Ireland, open one in London, start a translator training program, increase the number of author events and symposiums within a university context, etc., etc.
Another of John’s oft-repeated bits was that he couldn’t sit still and would generate idea after idea after idea and just needed the right people around him to implement them. All with the goal of increasing readership. And mostly through fundraising and non-sales based revenue streams.
This is why John had some 60 titles in the production schedule upon his passing. (We actually found a hand-written list with more than 80, but some of those were duplicates, and many were wishes not yet contracted.) Everything had been delayed by years, and no one was officially working for Dalkey.
It'll come as no surprise to anyone who knows us, but when Will Evans and I started planning a Dalkey 2.0 rebirth, we went full phoenix and plotted out a situation with: 20 Dalkey Essentials a year (reissues of key backlist titles), 20-25 new titles (in English and translation), and 5 Scholarly Series titles. With all of the books already signed on—and a handful of new acquisitions—that meant we were looking at doing around 50 books a year.
(Quick aside: If you think the Essentials would be time-saving because they’ve already been printed, you’re wrong. The majority of these books had to be cut, and then scanned. Then someone had to go through the mostly unformatted digital version of the text to fix all the paragraph breaks, add in italics and accents, and catch as many egregious scanning/OCR typos—like “comer” for “corner”—as possible. Then the book has to be designed. Then proofed one more time. Then sent to print. The “scan and raw correct” stage is about the equivalent—time-wise—as editing a new title.)
Looking at Coffee House Press, they seem to be doing about twenty titles a year, and their “staff” page lists fifteen people. I don’t believe all of them are full-time CHP employees (a couple are interns), and the press does a lot more than simply bring books into print, but let’s say you should have—at the minimum—a full-time equivalent (two half-time employees, or one full-time) for every five titles. (Archipelago Books lists about eighteen new titles per year with eleven employees on their staff page. Again, not eleven FTE, but at least six, or one FTE per three books.) That would mean that we should have ten FTEs working just on Dalkey titles to accomplish this relaunch with next to no hiccups.
Both examples above—Coffee House and Archipelago—are nonprofits, which means that their staff includes not just editors and marketing specialists, but development officers as well. Which is also the case for Deep Vellum/Dalkey Archive/Open Letter. Back—once again—to that bit about “readers” versus “sales,” our business plan depends on raising money to offset expenses and allow for creativity in distribution and promotion. (Especially for books we know won’t make a profit from the marketplace alone.)
At the moment, there are zero employees at Deep Vellum/Open Letter who are exclusively dedicated to Dalkey Archive. And by my best estimate, we have around 5 FTEs for these 50 titles a year.
Under-capitalized and overly-ambitious: The Dalkey Way.
(Don’t steal that! I think it’s going to be the title of the book I’m working on.)
So what does this all mean?
Well, I think Dalkey 2.0 is going to be as ambitious as it was in the O’Brien years. (My goal is that, when I pass, a historian will look at Dalkey and refer to the '“O’Brien” and “Post” years as separate epochs.)
It also means that, if you’re a sapiosexual millionaire looking for a bookish tax write-off, you should get in touch. We need you to make this work at the level which readers, writers, translators, scholars—the culture as a whole—deserves.
And finally, if you’re waiting for a Dalkey book to be printed/made available: we humbly beseech you to please hold tight. We’re not ignoring you, we’re not fucking off; we’re taxed to the limit, and some of these books (Miss MacIntosh, My Darling and anything else over 600 pages) face unique printing challenges in the current environment, both in terms of simply getting them printed, but also doing so in a way that won’t compromise quality or lose the press all of the money.
Three Percent readers know that I would typically end a post like this with my favorite words to live by: “Such is Baseball, Such is Life.”
But instead, since this is a new platform, I’m going to sign-off with my first ever American football reference. To everyone anxious about getting their Dalkey titles, follow the words of four-time MVP and multiple-time ayahuasca user Aaron Rodgers and “R-E-L-A-X.” We’ll get there, you’ll get your book as soon as physically possible, and in three years this will all be a blip in the past.
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This was an interesting post — thank you for pulling back the curtain. I think very few people realize how much the existence of good books is dependent on the passion and commitment of talented and dedicated people who could be making more money doing almost anything else.
I always appreciate these posts, and I'm nerdy enough to also find interesting the production elements (I ran a magazine for 5 years). I see a post below from somebody who has the same idea: I love Dalkey and would be happy to help out on a steady, voluntary basis.