Today’s post is adapted from an article I first published in my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet.
I happen to know more about the ins and outs of publishing’s supply chain because I’m married to a former production guy. He not only worked in book production for 20 years at a mid-size publisher, he also visited Hong Kong to meet the printing team he worked with. Whenever there were worker strikes or supply chain problems that affected how quickly books could be printed, shipped, and delivered to the warehouse, his number was on every executive’s speed dial. Because if books don’t arrive on time, book sales don’t happen as projected, and revenue goals get missed.
These days, he is happy to be out of production, given that the supply chain issues have never been worse for book publishers. Partly this is pandemic related and caused by a shortage of workers and shipping/transportation problems, but it’s also the result of years-long contraction in the printing market. In a nutshell: The largest US printers have gone bankrupt and consolidated over many years, and some paper mills have converted over to packaging—all those Amazon boxes—rather than manufacturing papers used for books, magazines, and photocopies. The book paper and printing shortage isn’t really a result of decreased demand for books (except maybe textbooks), but decreased demand in other sectors, like magazine publishing.
This month, the biggest US book wholesaler and distributor, Ingram, released several statements to its customers warning about the challenges ahead. They warn, “This fall, the global publishing business can expect disruption in shipping, increases in costs throughout the supply chain, shortages in consumables used for packing and shipping, and shortages in manufacturing supplies for books and printed matter. Like many other companies that rely on warehouses, trucking, and manufacturing, IngramSpark expects to be challenged by labor shortages and transportation challenges. We expect to have difficulty finding available workers in many of our warehouse locations and manufacturing plants. We may also lack enough transportation assets to keep books moving at our typical speed.”
I’ve seen anecdotal reports on social media of slowdowns at Ingram warehouses, but no one wishes to go on the record about their problems. However, small press founder Anne Trubek of Belt Publishing wrote extensively about the supply chain situation she faces in her July 27 newsletter, Publishing Is Broken Part 59. Two years ago, she says, she could get a book printed in two weeks; now it takes eight weeks. Because of supply chain problems, she has been pressured by her distributor to print more books than she needs right now, as it may be near impossible to print, ship, and stock later in the year. But the solution to “print more now” isn’t a good one, she says: “Deciding to simply print twice as many copies as you think you need, for fear of running out, can be a disastrous financial decision.”
The aggravating factor is that booksellers, including Amazon, are worried they will run out of books over the holiday season—and placing earlier and larger orders than they would otherwise. Ingram has suggested bookstores order as early as possible and in quantities of 15 units or more; Shelf Awareness notes, “In addition to stocking up early, Ingram also recommends that customers review excess inventory early and make room for new stock, and speak to publishing reps about anticipated titles, which will help Ingram predict demand.”
I heard from Michigan-based bookseller Chanda Stafford, at Parallel 45 Books and Gifts, who says she’s been ordering earlier and more than usual—and has already received her first shipment of holiday books. “There have been so many delays this year, not just in books but in other products we carry, that we feel we can’t wait or we’ll miss out,” she wrote me. “It all affects our bottom line, and by ordering earlier, we can ensure we have the books our customers want the most.”
Small publishers that run close to the margins are just as worried about their bottom line. I reached out to Meg Reid of Hub City Press, who said if customers over-order and Amazon behaves like it always does in the fourth quarter—and buys up as much stock as possible—then “You still have no books in the warehouses for those who actually want them and face massive returns in January of 2022. That’s when we get paid for our fall sales. So heavy returns in January can basically knock out our entire fall season, or worse, put us upside down.”
Reid said that last year, when she went back to press on a book in November, the shipment didn’t arrive in December as expected due to printing delays. When the reprint landed in January, it was welcomed alongside the same amount of returned books. “So, the compromise I’ve had to make,” she said, “is deciding to print what I believe will sell and not upping my orders or rushing large reprints to accommodate for inflated ordering around the holidays.”
Reid said she’s not sure why the forecast this year is predicted to be worse than before, since she’s been dealing with these issues for over two years. “I wonder if it’s just that corporate publishers are now feeling the pain of running out of books and not being able to get more?” she said. I did hear from one agent who said that a printer cut the volume of books it will print for Big Five publisher Macmillan, who will now have to determine which titles will take the hit before the holiday season.
The books most likely to be affected
Agent Kate McKean told me, “It feels like the calm before the storm. I have my eye on my graphic novels, because I bet those are going to be trouble.” In other words: full-color books, often printed internationally, might take the hardest hit. ICv2, which covers the comics and graphic novel market, recently reported that DC is delaying 35 titles, with more shifts likely to come.
Also, new releases with unexpected demand could run out of stock. However, you may still be able to get the book you want by ordering directly from the publisher, assuming they sell direct to consumer. Many have started or improved their online shops, especially since the start of the pandemic. Small presses greatly benefit when you buy from them directly.
For a broader perspective on supply chain issues across every industry, I suggest reading this New York Times piece on how the problem may get worse heading into the holidays.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet, which has been continuously publishing since 2015.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.