Mass market paperbacks in non-bookstore locations were usually supplied by a wholesaler who’s rep would turn up and “restock the shelves”. The retailers only cared that the books should sell, not whether their inventory included this or that title. People didn’t tend to go to the drug store to ask after the latest bestseller: there they would buy on impulse. The Shatzkin Files carried an interesting consideration of the stocking technique last year. Mr Shatzkin’s father, Leonard, was it turns out something of a pioneer in this area, establishing the Doubleday Merchandising Plan.

One might have thought that bookstores would have been resistant to someone telling them which books they should stock — after all aren’t they the ones who are in close touch with their local audience — but about 800 stores signed up for the Doubleday plan (though maybe they were mostly non-bookstores). But it does seem like an idea which might work. And now would seem to be an even more propitious moment for Vendor Managed Inventory than 1957 when the Doubleday Plan was introduced. Cheap computing allows us to know what’s selling where almost in real time. Your exposé on election fraud is selling fast in Duluth — send ’em some more. That bright and bushy-tailed first novel is doing well in Seattle — off go more copies. Of course it doesn’t work like that: the publishers don’t presume to send books on spec, they wait instead for the bookstores to place their own orders. A rep may call the store to suggest that they might reorder, but few publishers will presume to ship books without an order. And yet they could: we have the knowledge and could surely earn the trust. And of course we do accept returns!

No real reason to stop at this level of the business continuum. Publishers could easily have printers monitor the publisher’s inventory and autonomously print more copies for supply into the publisher’s warehouse at the moment before existing stock is depleted. All that’s needed is trust that giving your printers access to your inventory planning data isn’t something that they’d abuse. As they have precious little motive for doing so, and plenty pointing them in the other direction, this is a trivial problem. You’d want of course to have confidence that they’d act on the information and not leave you book-less.

There is precedent. For years paper merchants have been putting paper on the floor at various book printers. The printer’s customers will call for the use this paper from time to time; the printer uses it for the printing and reports usage; the merchant will bill for the usage, and monitor stocks so they can ship in more paper when the inventory runs down.

Beware, manufacturing department staff. I am probably not the only one to have had this thought.