Supply chain issues continue to affect the publishing industry, leading to diminishing stock, publication delays, and more. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, publishers had already been affected by the drastic reduction of stateside printers. The pandemic only exacerbated the shipping delays, labor shortages, and diminishing materials. So as the demand for books, and especially print books, has increased during the pandemic—a wonderful thing for the industry—it ironically has caused tremendous pressure on the remaining printers to produce enough inventory. With the onset of the fall and winter book-buying seasons, a traditionally busy and lucrative quarter for publishers, U.S. printers are unable to keep up, and at the same time international transport and supply chain problems have made it extremely difficult for books to be printed in China—where most multi-color book printers are located. 

A recent webinar co-sponsored between Publishers Weekly and Westminster Publishing Services went into some depth on how the supply chain has affected publishers and also explored strategies to adapt to what will likely be an ongoing issue well into 2022. The panelists included Matt Baehr, executive director at Book Manufacturers’ Institute (BMI); Kelly Gallagher, VP at Ingram Content Group; Bill Smith, director at the MIT Press; and Tyrrell Mahoney, president of Chronicle Books. The panel was moderated by Jim Milliott of Publishers Weekly.

“There will be no quick fixes,” Milliott announced. The panelists all seemed to agree, outlining a clearer picture for where the sources of these issues are derived. It comes down to labor and cost. “The rising cost in labor has been pretty dramatic,” Gallagher mused. Ingram has experienced a 30% increase in labor costs alongside new competition. One new competitor is Walmart. The corporation can afford to pay their employees more ($19.50 per hour and full benefits) while Ingram struggles to keep up—one of many examples of how the labor shortage has proliferated in all corners of the supply chain. A deficit of plant workers and truck drivers on the road hauling stock has only added to the problem, as carriers like FedEx are forced to place caps on the size of deliveries that they can pick up at any given point.

Freight is an issue, too. “The price on shipping containers is four times the cost than last year,” said Baehr. This drastically diminishes any value publishers receive from printing abroad, especially with the delays in stock arriving in time, and it has led in many cases to publication dates being pushed back weeks, and even months, sometimes into 2022.

Both Mahoney and Smith expounded on the pressures each individual publisher faces as they consider changes to their on-sale dates and publication schedules. Chronicle Books has adapted by planning well in advance, more than ever before, with their distributor on the printing and delivery of books. At the MIT Press, there is an understanding that books might be delayed and they are finding “solutions on a day-to-day basis,” Smith explained. It also means that books set to be released in the winter season should be already on a boat heading for one of the harbors. If these books aren’t enroute, they will undoubtedly be pushed into 2022.

One increasingly attractive option has been print on demand (POD). By printing stateside rather than in other countries, publishers can print short runs to keep up with demand. The quality of POD has increased dramatically over the last decade, though the cost is much higher on a book-by-book basis than a print run. Deemed an “insurance policy” by Baehr, POD might not be a permanent fix, but it is an example of how resourceful and adaptive publishers will have to be going forward.

“My expectation is that we will see some cost increases that will have to be passed on to the consumer,” said Gallagher. This means prices of books, particularly hardcovers, will see a spike. How much exactly remains to be seen.