Books overboard! Supply chain headaches leave publishing all at sea


The supply chain crisis over the last year has caused quite a splash for the book publishing industry – literally.

In early January, a large shipping vessel coming from Taiwan was stalled in the mid-Atlantic, its arrival into the port of New York delayed by port congestion. Intemperate weather – huge waves and powerful ocean winds – knocked 60 containers overboard. Another 89 containers were damaged as the ship rolled in the waves.

Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Inside the containers were two highly anticipated cookbooks scheduled for release this spring: Turkey and the Wolf by the New Orleans chef Mason Hereford and Dinner in One by the New York Times columnist Melissa Clark.

“The good news is that there were no critical injuries, as can happen in these situations. But the bad news is the books might be in a cargo container at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean,” Hereford wrote on Instagram, saying it was the “most hilariously 2022 thing to happen yet this year”. Both authors pushed back their books’ release dates to later in the year.

The loss of the books to the stormy seas almost seems like too apt a metaphor for the strain and chaos the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted on the publishing industry as it struggles to cope with supply issues, paper shortages and a surge in demand.

The effects of the crisis have been far-reaching: even Donald Trump has weighed in, lamenting to Fox News about delays in printing more copies of a photo book of his presidency, titled Our Journey Together, that is being printed by Donald Trump Jr’s publishing company.

According to Trump, the book’s printer told him, “Well, we have one problem: We can’t get paper. We can’t get ink. We can’t get glue. We can’t get leather for the covers.”

While these issues are new to Trump, the publishing industry has been experiencing difficulties in its supply chain for months, affecting the release dates and availability of new titles.

Hachette UK’s chief executive, David Shelley, warned in December that supply chain problems were causing the “most extreme” challenges he had seen in his career.

The strain on the book industry’s supply chain coincides with soaring demand for print books during the pandemic. Print book sales in the US were up 8.9% in 2021 compared with 2020, which was already up 8.2% compared with 2019.

While increased sales is generally good for the industry, book printing capacity has diminished over the last decade. One large US printer closed in 2018, while two others have significantly downsized their book printing operations in recent years.

“It’s been a long-term trend to see diminished capacity in printing,” said Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, which has been analyzing the industry’s supply chain problems. “That loss of capacity has been an issue since 2018, well before the pandemic … but there has been continued consolidation and declining capacity.”

Printers have not been able to keep up with the increased demand from publishers as investment in new printing machines is costly, and it is unclear whether demand for print books will continue to rise.

Paper has also been harder to find, O’Leary said. Mills have cut back on producing paper for books and magazines, instead using pulp to make more cardboard, packing and other types of papers that are more lucrative. While buyers once had the upper hand in the paper market and could order as much paper as needed, paper mills now tell printers how much paper they can give them.

The shortage of paper has, in some cases, visibly changed the size of books. Different grades of paper will determine the thickness of a book. One Twitter user in September posted a picture of two copies of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one significantly thinner than the second though both are the same price.

Some books, especially those that require a lot of color like cookbooks and art books, are typically printed in Asia, where the cost of printing is cheaper. But like many industries trying to ship goods across oceans, delays abound.

Large ports on both coasts have been clogged for months, with dozens of ships floating offshore waiting to dock and unload their containers. Containers have piled up on docks, leaving a lack of space and a shortage of containers, as there has been a shortage of truck drivers. Warehouse storage has also been scarce because of labor shortages in warehouses and companies stockpiling products to meet demand.

Book publishers expect that this slate of supply chain problems will continue this year.

“We have to anticipate some continuing disruptions in 2022. We’re working hard to improve our ability to receive and ship our books faster and [keep] more reliable schedules,” Hachette Book Group’s CEO, Michael Pietsch, said in a company-wide email last year.

The clogs in the supply chain have been especially tough for independent booksellers across the country, who have had to encourage customers to be patient with titles that are out of stock or have delayed releases because of the supply chain.

“It’s made things a little bit more stressful just because things are always changing last-minute now. A lot of books have very long publishing timelines, and we’re just seeing a lot of books getting their publication dates pushed back,” said Colleen Callery, marketing and communications manager at Books Are Magic, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn.

Some books have had their release dates pushed back several times, which leads to “domino effects”, affecting pre-order campaigns and events.

Callery said that customers have been patient, and the bookstore’s sales have not been affected, in some part because of campaigns encouraging readers to shop at independent bookstores.

In a statement to the Guardian, Allison Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, said that many independent bookstores saw an increase in demand over the last few years.

“2020 and 2021 were challenging years for so many businesses, and independent bookstores were no exception, struggling with significant increases in costs and uncertainty, but their recent sales have been encouraging,” Hill said.

Independent booksellers have started to change the way they order books, Hill said, predicting what new titles will be popular, investing in titles they want to promote and reserving copies in case stock runs low. Booksellers have also been recommending more backlist titles – books that are not considered new releases – to customers, encouraging them to buy books they already have in stock. At least it’s too late for those to get lost at sea.

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