In the last year, the supply chain has become less of a chain, and more of a fraying thread.
Almost every industry has experienced issues, and even some of the world’s biggest companies have not been immune – with experts warning that disruptions, especially around holiday shopping, are inevitable.
In all manner of ways, the supply chain – that complicated, multifaceted, too-many-steps-to-name process that brings products to consumers – has been derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
And the book publishing industry is no exception.
So, what exactly is going on with the supply chain?
Paper shortages, labor shortages and busy shipping ports are all among reasons to blame, Carly Watters, a senior literary agent and senior vice president at P.S. Literary Agency, explained to CNN.
A book’s journey begins in Asia, mainly in China and Hong Kong, where almost all printing occurs, Watters said, because doing so in North America is too expensive. But because of new environmental standards, there’s not as much pulp, leading to less paper and, thus, a paper shortage. Obviously, you can’t print books without paper.
But that’s only the beginning of the problem for the book industry and its deteriorating supply chain. Then there’s the actual shipping, but a labor shortage and rampant Covid-19 risks means there’s less people working in warehouses. And shipping containers, which are used in every industry, have all gone up in price, because of such high demand, Watters said.
If that wasn’t enough, books are too heavy to ship by air, meaning that books are typically brought to other countries via ships, and the ports have all been heavily congested, both in the US and abroad. Then there’s the shortage of truck drivers in the US, to bring the books from the ports to the bookstores.
Everything about the process has been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, Watters said.
“Well, like so many other Fall 2021 books, (“Bibliophile: Diverse Spines”) is stuck on a slow boat, an even slower one than usual,” wrote author and illustrator Jane Mount on Instagram last week. As a result, her new book would be delayed by nearly two weeks, she said.
Mount did not respond to CNN requests for comment, but many authors have experienced similar issues.
Watters told CNN that a colleague of hers had eight clients who had their publishing dates pushed back. Watters’ clients have also experienced disruptions, with books showing up at stores randomly – either before the official publish date or after.
Before the pandemic, in her 11 years in the industry, Watters said she’d never even heard of a publishing date delays. Now, it’s become relatively common.
“That, to me, is completely out of the ordinary,” she said.
A book gets delayed. What’s the big deal?
On the surface, a delayed publishing date might not seem like a big deal. But for authors, booksellers and publishers, it can change everything.
If, for example, an author and a marketing team have a set publish date, everything about the marketing strategy for that book is circled around that date in an attempt to increase visibility of the book, etc. But when that date is consistently pushed around, or when the book appears earlier or later than expected, it affects the success of the initial marketing push, Watters said.
All of that could affect the author’s future earning potential. If a book doesn’t make as much money, the deal they get on the next book could be affected, too, Watters said.
Mid-level authors – authors who may have a few books under their belts, but may not be household names yet – are particularly vulnerable. With the paper shortage (and delays), publishers have to choose which books to priotize. Watters used Barack Obama’s last book, which came out in November 2020, as an example. The initial print run for that book, she said, was 3.4 million units, leaving very few resources for other books.
If you don’t have a lot of resources, “you’re going to give priority to the (books) you know are going to make your year,” Watters said.
How is this affecting the holidays?
For the holidays, this basically means that if you want books (or, really, anything) it’s best to go ahead and order now.
Preordering a book is one of the best things a consumer can do, because they signal to publishers that certain titles have a lot of buzz. When publishers see a lot of preorders for a certain book, they’ll prioritize those titles over others, Watters explained.
“There’s always been a preorder push, but it’s more important now than ever,” she said. “Because (publishers) are going to say, ‘Oh, let’s make sure we have enough copies.’”
Watters also recommends foregoing the typical paper book, and instead buying an e-book version or an audiobook.
But shopping early helps booksellers, too. Allison Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, emphasized that October is the new December when it comes to buying books.
“Stores are already seeing significant preorders for upcoming titles and this type of support will go a long way in helping independent bookstores have a successful holiday season,” Hill said.
Many independent bookstores rely on the holiday season to “make their year,” Hill explained, so shopping early helps these stores plan their inventory and manage their cash flow. It’s all increasingly important, especially since the supply chain issues this holiday season are expected to be even worse than last year, Hill said.
Will things ever go back to normal?
Somewhere on the horizon, there is hope.
Hill predicts that things should at least improve after the holidays.
Watters agrees, while noting that trouble with the paper supply will probably continue into 2022 – especially as issues with reprints persist (without paper, getting second and third runs of books can be difficult, which is why some books may simply be listed as “out of stock” online). Labor shortages will probably continue, too.
However, publishing as an industry could see some changes, Watters said. WIth the process of printing abroad becoming such a hassle, Watters predicts some publishers may look into having more North American printers instead, as a way to mitigate operational issues, even if it’s more expensive.
For now, while literary enthusiasts should expect some delays with their most anticipated titles, they should not fear – the books will eventually come.