Struggling Book Supply Chain
Everyone is aware of the delays that occur during any holiday season. Orders increase to the point that warehouses and carriers cannot always keep up with the demand. But when it comes to the book industry that is only a fraction of the problems occurring.
From now through the end of 2021, the book industry is going to suffer an enormous book shortage. (It’s more of a giant delay but we’ll get to that.) We all thought that the issues that plagued the industry last holiday season was bad because of the COVID-19 pandemic but things are about to get so much worse.
Now, some may suggest that if there is going to be a book shortage, why don’t stores just stock up on books beforehand. Larger chain stores may actually do this to increase the number of books that they have an available in house. But that is not always an option for independent bookstores, otherwise known as Indies. Indies are typically a lot smaller in store size and in staff size which can cause any number of problems with the holiday rush. But especially now, due to finances and available space, Indies may not be able to stock up on too many more books than what they currently have in the store. So they are already out of luck compared to other large corporations. But Indies are far from the root cause of this shortage. They are just another step on the supply chain that is suffering because of this shortage.
It is also good to keep in mind that the COVID-19 pandemic is still having its effect on things. There is a lack of workers, certain safety procedures take longer to keep employees safe, and many suppliers are behind due to shut downs or quarantining workers. A lot of places are also still playing catchup from the long term shutdowns during 2020. This has caused its own assortment of problems that play a part in the supply chain issues.
The most important thing to understand, is that there is not a specific issue at any one particular spot. Every single part of the book supply chain is being disrupted in some way. Almost every order can be effected anywhere from the creation of the book, to sending it to stores, to getting it to the consumer, and anywhere in between.
One of the things that is causing problems from the beginning, is the growing demand for physical books. As the digital age has grown the entire industry, from paper mills to bookstores, have had to shift with the idea that not as many people read physical books. Paper mills have even lessoned their production of paper over time since there was not a large enough need in paper products. But just within the first half have 2021, the demand for printed books has grown. This caught everyone unaware and now we are frantically trying to accommodate this unexpected and growing demand for print books. Publisher’s weekly has an article, "Print Book Sales Soar in Year’s First Half”, discussing the specific percentages that they have analyzed during this trend.
Continuing on the topic of paper mills, they have been backed up due to issues with the lumbar shortage and reductions in workers since the layoffs during the pandemic, among other things. And now we have a paper shortage that is affecting paper towels, toilet paper, envelopes, and book production. The demand for wood never dropped but with the shortage the prices have shot up for all these products. The demand for common paper products have actually increased even more. This is probably due to people going back to work in offices rather than staying home and schools opening again. Paper mills have to fight over the cost and availability of these raw materials. Another thing this all effects is the production of cardboard. Not only are there less materials and higher costs but also boxes are being bought up in large quantities by big corporations which leaves less available for smaller businesses and personal use.
Now onto the printing of the books. Printers themselves are understaffed which causes the production of books to fall behind. They are feeling the effects of high paper cost, shortages, and lag time in paper production. This causes such a large backup with the production of books (and remember that book production includes dictionaries, textbooks, cookbooks, and other miscellaneous subjects). Plus the autumn season is the time where many new titles are released which raises the printing demand even higher than it already is during the holidays. It is unrealistic to believe the printers would be able to catch up on all of the products this year.
Then there is that fact that many books are printed in China. The route from China to the U.S. is currently a rocky one. Port congestion, lack of shipping containers, a shortage of dockworkers, and more. I’m currently shopping for my wedding dress and that industry is meeting the same arising issues. Books may reach the U.S. in a timely fashion but then sit in customs for weeks before being processed. Then there is the trucker shortage which causes more delays with getting books to the publishers and book distributor warehouses. Many people who had jobs before the pandemic rightfully refused to go back because these companies won’t provide proper healthcare among other things. Now there aren’t nearly enough workers to sort, pack, and ship all of the orders. One of the main book distributors in the Northeast, has reported that they will have ordering delays of 2 weeks+ due to a lack of seasonal workers. And that delay is bound to grow.
From there, we again have a lack of delivery truck drivers. This can create a whole variety of other issues between the books being shipped out to when the bookstores receive their orders. Delays and damages are very common. An issue that has frequented the book industry is that shipping boxes that are normally used can break in transit. This causes carriers to have to repackage the books into another box. But unfortunately, these workers typically aren’t aware of how to properly package books so that they are not damaged. This results in the books arriving to bookstores damaged and unsellable. Creating another delay as the bookstores need to return those books and/or get them replaced.
Only after all this can the bookstores begin their own processes of selling titles and fulfilling preorders. But bookstores are also undergoing their own delays from staffing shortages and an increase of holiday orders. Indies are also sometimes run by only a handful of people. As specified earlier there can also be issues for smaller businesses when it comes to getting materials like cardboard boxes. Clearly, this creates another round of problems when it comes to the necessities for packing and shipping orders.
Then, once those orders do ship out, they are once again at the whims of the carriers. Which as we specified already, are short staffed and experiencing delays. And all of this doesn’t even take into consideration that mistakes happen where packages sometimes get delivered to the wrong address or lost in transport.
This entire process creates anywhere from a few weeks to several months of delay. As I specified before, there is no shortage when it comes to the books. But the entire method of making and selling books is severely delayed that there appears to be a shortage. The bottom line is, this is not going to be an easy holiday season for the book industry or its consumers.
There are a variety of ways that consumers can still enjoy this holiday season and support Indies. One method is to simply shop at independent bookstores. Big companies will survive through this shortage but some Indies may not be so lucky. Support these small businesses as best you can in a variety of ways. Purchasing gifts cards or book merchandise are other great options. Besides, who doesn’t need more book merchandise?
Another choice is to purchase used or preowned books rather than new books. These are not in short supply and never will be. Find an Indie near you that sells used books and they can help you find something that you may have never thought to try.
If you still would like to purchase brand new books, then maybe consider some midlist and backlist titles. Front list items are the big sellers, new releases, the stuff with big promotions, and what is going to be hit the hardest during these times. Midlist and backlist items are the books that are still popular enough to keep in print but don’t get as much attention anymore. These can be classics or series that are older but still relevant like Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Midlist and backlist items are regularly stocked and Indies may have a specific amount in house available for purchase. So if you have any books that you heard about a while ago but never got, then maybe check with your local Indie. They may have a few copies just sitting in stock.
Something that you may have already been advised to do is preorder. This is important when it comes to any holiday season but especially so now. Publishers can better estimate how many books that they need to print depending on preorder information. Because of this, what is most likely to happen is publishers will make sure they get printed the number of books required through preorders, but no more until 2022. So if you desperately need a book that is coming out between October and the end of the year, preorder it. And if you preorder from Indies, they will most likely be a lot more upfront and transparent with you when it comes to the process and status of your order. We are waiting on our preordered books just as excitedly as you are.
Finally, my last bit of advice is to be patient and kind. Please be nice to booksellers. And all retail workers for that matter. This is a business sustaining product that they are losing. They understand this and are rightfully scared. When you buy books, you are interacting with people who are very far from where the issues in the supply chain are occurring. It is not the booksellers fault. Booksellers are not the villains; don’t treat them like they are.
This is an industry wide struggle from authors and publishers all the way down to booksellers and customers. We’re all frustrated with this and are doing our best to get through it mostly unscathed. So try your best to be understanding and do what you can to support Indies through this holiday season because they're really going to need it.