Responding to the Coronavirus, Duke University Press Transforms into Virtual Business

Team ensures that readers and scholars continue to have access to important books and journals

Pandemic book titles published by Duke University Press. These are now available by print on demand.
Pandemic book titles published by Duke University Press. These are now available by print on demand.

Dean Smith was getting worried. As director of Duke University Press, he watched the rise of COVID-19 in the United States and knew that remote working would be necessary to protect the health of his staff. But could the Press continue to reach customers all over the world with its books and journals? And could the business survive?

The big punch came on March 26, when Duke University Press learned that its largest customer, Amazon, would stop placing orders. The Duke Press team was quick to respond.

“As soon as everything got very serious, when we went fully remote and COVID-19 cases soared, we accelerated our planned online sale of 50 percent off,” said Allison Belan, director of strategic innovation and services. “When Amazon said they’re not ordering any books for a while, we still had a way to take in orders through our website and get them shipped out of our warehouse.”

A hit with customers, the sale provided a heartening stream of revenue. But the staff knew that the Durham warehouse would soon have to shut down, and they would no longer be able to process orders for items stored there.

So the Press met this challenge by moving its operations to print-on-demand.

“It was wonderful to see our team embracing chaos with innovation,” Smith said. “Allison jumped in and said, ‘Let me run point on this.’ She tapped her technology team to figure out the ordering aspects of the project, and she began coordinating the effort on the print production side. She was the glue, and we are close to going live with a virtual publishing company.”

Working through the weekend, Nancy Hoagland and her team managed to prepare a thousand titles for print-on-demand. Hoagland is director of editing, design and production for books and journals. With each new title converted to this format, customers can order a book that will be produced at a printing facility and sent out from there.

Smith was impressed with the speedy response. “I’ve been in the publishing business for 32 years, and I’ve seen teams do pretty incredible things—but nothing like creating a virtual publisher from scratch in seven days and handling an online sale on the same day your biggest customer tells you they’ll no longer be ordering.” 

While all publishers have been striving to adopt just-in-time scenarios, Smith explained that making titles available to be printed on demand isn’t as easy as it sounds. “Print on demand involves a very careful, detailed and complex process,” he said. “Many titles won’t fit into this format, such as art books in four color.”

And as Belan pointed out, with scholarly books there is still a high demand for print, which represents a significant revenue channel. “We’re publishing specialized knowledge for specialized fields,” she noted. “We need to get these [materials] into our virtual warehouse. Soon we will have more than two thousand titles available, and the challenge is seeing [if these match what customers will be ordering].” She relies on book marketing and sales manager Michael McCullough, “the person with his finger on all the pulses,” to inform this decision-making process.

“It’s been a great team effort that has been a challenge and a great achievement,” McCullough added.

Partners were also vital to this effort. Smith credits John Hussey, senior manager of content acquisitions at Ingram’s Lightning Source, for being “instrumental in helping to save our business.”

“During this unprecedented time, we feel that it is our responsibility to help make sure readers can find their books,” Hussey said. “So when we heard that Duke University Press had to temporarily close their warehouse as a result of the pandemic, we knew we had to act quickly. In less than a week, we partnered with the Press so that their titles are virtually stocked, and can be printed to ship out to their customers on demand. The world needs books, and I’m glad that Duke will be able to get their books to their readers.”

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