The cover story in this month's issue is the third article I've written on the Harry Potter phenomenon. For anyone who thinks about issues of physical distribution, the challenge of getting 12 million books to the right place at the right time under strict security requirements is a compelling story.
What that story shows in spades is something everyone in the business of distribution already understands—that each link in a sprawling global supply chain must operate as seamlessly as possible with every other link. Publisher, bindery, carriers, distribution centers, and customers all had to be aligned.
Of course, in this case, the end customer for Scholastic Inc. was often the midpoint of the books' journey. The Amazons, Barnes & Nobles, and Borders of the world worked with their own partners to ensure that books got to stores or to customers' homes on time.
Maybe I was just more attuned to it than most people because of my work on the story, but I found it amazing in the days after the book was released to see just how ubiquitous Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had become. It seemed that just about everyone under the age of 20 (and not a few parents) had a copy open, tucked under an arm, or sticking out of a backpack. At the time, I was spending a few weekends on a community project with several teenagers as well as adults, and every one of the teens had the book. One girl proudly announced on Sunday afternoon, some 40 or so hours after the book was released, that she had finished. She hadn't wanted anyone spoiling the surprise for her, she told us, so she wouldn't discuss the book with the others until they had a chance to finish it.
I take a couple of things away from that experience. First, as someone who has spent a career in print journalism, it pleases me no end to see young people actually reading books. Researchers tell us that school-age children read less with each passing year. That is disheartening, and it is good to have evidence that the right book could instill a love of reading. Avid young readers are likely to become the next generation's articulate writers, whether in journalism, other forms of non-fiction, novels, or poetry. Even if print fades and some form of online communication becomes dominant, users will still seek out forums that present information in clear, trustworthy prose.
The other thought I had on seeing the book in so many hands and seeing the ready piles of books at local retailers is something that I think about often as editorial director of this magazine, and that is just how vital well-executed physical distribution is to our economy— and how little awareness exists among the public of just what it takes. Millions of Harry Potter fans expected the books would be there at midnight on July 21 or at their doors in the morning, and they were right. Likewise, their parents expect to find food at the grocers, tools at the hardware store, and the current fashions at the mall. And while 100-percent satisfaction is well nigh impossible to guarantee, it is almost astonishing, when you think about all the details involved, just how well those in the business of distribution succeed day in and day out, allowing the public to remain blissfully unaware of what goes on behind the scenes.
Unlike the world of Harry Potter, there is no magic involved—just careful planning, close attention to details, the application of the right tools and technologies, regular and candid communication, and reliable execution. That's true for the biggest event in publishing history. And it's true for the more mundane business of ensuring that goods reach the nation's factories and stores every day of the week.