Bookshop with truck icons in front showing supply. (Image: Canva and Ksenia Chernaya from Pexels.)

Supply Chain Problems Mean You Need to Buy Your Holiday Books, Pre-Orders ASAP

This year things are going to be much worse, so get ahead.

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Since the pandemic began, it feels like there has been a new shortage of something or other almost monthly, due to how interconnected and globalized our economies are—well, that and, of course, workplace safety and social distancing due to how we know the COVID-19 virus spreads. From chicken to equipment to work-/learn-from-home, most people have been affected one way or another by supply disruptions, and publishing is no different.

While this issue really ramped up in 2019 and 2020, the paper shortage has been a problem for a while, even before the pandemic. In a 2019 interview with Forbes Magazine, Lee & Low Books’ director of production and manufacturing said that this issue was cyclical, but that this cycle (now expected to persist through 2022) is unusually long. He pointed to consumer habits, technology, politics (Trump’s Tariffs), and business.

The tree farms used to print books in the U.S. are now sharing clientele more frequently with packaging businesses, as consumers demand more sustainable (and recyclable) alternatives to plastic. Also, with magazines bought less (a client requesting similar grade stock of paper as book publishers) and a decline in print book sales over time, mills are less willing to dedicate space and time to the type of paper they need. My paraphrasing is a simplification, and the interview is worth reading in its entirety. This is not just an issue of attempting to be more sustainable.

Enter 2020, where nothing has gotten better. We kicked off the pandemic by buying up the toilet paper, remember? Toilet paper wasn’t the only increased demand for paper last year, either. Books sales rose to an eight-year high in 2020 alone, due to the pandemic. Between people reading (or at least buying) racism away after last summer and the general need to escape into a book while stuck indoors, books were in high demand last year. This year, the trend is still continuing despite the printing constraints, as many print mills died out over the previous few years.

There is also the issue of the shipping element of the supply chain worsening. Shipping costs more due to increased demand, along with workers in both docks and warehouses needing to quarantine due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Sprinkle in the Suez Canal issue (that happened TWICE) plus a lumber shortage (also exacerbating issues in housing), and you have more stressors to the industry.

Like most issues, this hasn’t been felt by everyone equally. Smaller shops have less bargaining power with larger retailers (and Amazon) because they cannot hold as much stock, nor can they discount books further despite rising prices.

For authors, the “safer” the author, the more likely they will get greater advances and numbers in first prints. Safer usually means they are already famous, face fewer barriers in general (white, able-bodied, “respectable,” etc.), the subject is recycled or just really trendy, etc.

This caused an upset last year when Barack Obama released the 700+ page A Promised Land. As the first book (of two) after his tenure as the first Black president, the demand for his book meant priority over others in not just marketing but also printing. Even his book required keeping a dying paper mill running two more months, and printing 1/3 of the books in Germany. The publisher tried to dust off criticism by saying that Obama’s book’s impact on the market is nothing different from other high-demand books. Not slick, but it does show the disparity is noted and undeniable.

Why does this matter?

Why am I giving you all this doom and gloom now? Because if you want to guarantee you get a book in time for any holiday festivities, birthdays, or just because that is when the book you want comes out, now is the time to buy it. Books out of stock are now commonly taking six to eight weeks to restock.

Even if you don’t care about getting a book in before 2022, this still matters. With the tension in the supply chain, pre-ordering books matters more now, especially for debut authors and marginalized communities that already get smaller first-print runs. Pre-ordering tells publishers there is a demand for the book. That can then result in more books for the first-print run and a bigger marketing budget.

Also, as this TikTok explains, it ensures that workers in independent bookstores will be paid through the holiday season. They also cite this Forbes article showing the increasing shipping container cost, truck driver shortage, and warehouse property cost.

In a live stream earlier this week, fantasy writer S. A. Chakraborty addressed questions about the upcoming The River of Silver: Tales from the Daevabad Trilogy (coming March 2022), as it will only be available digitally at first. Chakraborty said that if the book does well, there might be physical printing. Citing the paper supply issue, she said that it could be months before that is confirmed.

If you want to purchase a physical book before or in early 2022, get it now. Avoid Amazon (and other big companies) by buying from places like Bookshop.org, secondhand, or at your local indie seller.

(image: Canva and Ksenia Chernaya from Pexels.)

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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.