Supply Chain Disruptions Plague Book Publishing, Impact Libraries

High shipping costs, skyrocketing paper fees, and labor issues wreak havoc on book publishing schedules. 

Container port-truck moving cargo

More than a year after the start of the pandemic, supply chain problems—including those impacting books—are not going anywhere.

Earlier this year, news feeds across the country were replete with images of a massive bulk carrier, the Ever Given, awkwardly wedged in Egypt’s Suez Canal.

The 700-foot-long ship was stuck in the canal for six days, which hampered worldwide shipping. Billions of dollars of goods pass through that waterway’s 120 miles on a daily basis.

After the carrier was freed and no longer dominating the news, most people probably did not think much about it. However, about a month later, Compliance Week editor Jacklyn Jager described the incident as a catalyst for disruptions that would eventually impact almost everyone, including book publishers.

“The canal’s temporary blockage created a domino effect of global supply chain disruptions, exacerbating already congested ports...and distribution centers...straining containership shortages; and delaying shipments,” Jager wrote.

Jager predicted that those effects would “impact...production and the manufacturing of all kinds of consumer goods.”

Fast forward to the present, when—reminiscent of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—product warehouse Costco has reinstated purchasing limits on key items including bottled water, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper.

Grocery stores handling higher costs by increasing prices on various items like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, due to shortages of raw materials and other ingredients and labor. Labor shortages have caused some chains to reduce their hours, while numerous industries struggle to find willing workers.

Freight, labor, and paper issues

Publishing’s supply chain challenges are ongoing. Authors who have been impacted are posting on social media.

“Authors! Be aware of supply chain issues, but don’t freak out,” tweeted @SueCampbell.

“Sorry everyone. You’ll still be able to pre-order…to make sure you have one in time for Halloween. This world, it’s all connected,” wrote illustrator Oliver Jeffers on Facebook about a book release.

Existing supply chain issues have been exacerbated, not only by the Suez Canal blockage in March and increased consumer demand, but also by more recent shortages of everything from paper to available space on cargo ships.

“The scarcity of shipping containers combined with overscheduled freighters and congestion at ports, all impact the ability to meet [book] delivery dates,” says Andrew Smith, senior vice president and publisher at Abrams Children’s Books.

Smith says that “Abrams is having to adjust and delay on-sale dates for some of [its] titles this fall and [that] much of the book publishing industry is experiencing the same conditions.”

Many publishers’ on-sale dates for books are being delayed because “the [COVID-19] pandemic has caused massive disruptions of international shipping and domestic freight,'' said Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, speaking at a July webinar.

This is due in part to capacity cuts at some points of origin early in the pandemic, which led to backups in shipments, O’Leary said.

“Soaring consumer demand has led to crowded shipping lanes, increased travel times, and a number of other significant impacts on the freight and shipping market,” since then, O’Leary added. “Arriving international shipments are also competing with domestic shipments for increasingly scarce trucking capacity.”

Some of that soaring demand has come from the book industry. Print sales increased by almost 19 percent in the first half of this year, according to Publishers Weekly, compared to the same period in 2020.

But freight, shipping, and increased product demand aren’t the only problems faced by the global and North American supply chains. Manufacturers in varied industries across the country are struggling to meet consumer demand amid lumber and labor shortages.

Paper shortages are partly attributable to rising costs of raw materials needed to produce paper, like wood pulp. Data show a 20 percent increase in the price of wood pulp from last year. Additionally, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the cost of paper has increased more than 14 percent since 2020.

A lack of workers to print and process orders is also a concern, as some printers and manufacturers were impacted by the Delta variant or are—like many employers across the country—struggling to find workers.

As of April of this year, there were 9.3 million job openings in the United States, according to Forbes. While the specific reasons for the so-called worker shortage are unclear and multifaceted, it is difficult to predict how or when labor shortages will ease.

Smith says that Abrams is taking “extraordinary measures” to get its books delivered to customers.

“We are closely monitoring the situation on a daily basis and working with teams across inventory, sales, editorial, marketing, and publicity, to ensure smooth coordination in bringing our books to market,” explains Smith.

Librarians: Stay apprised, communicate with patrons

Smith is also keenly aware of the impact that book supply chain issues have on libraries.

“These supply chain constraints equally impact the distributors servicing libraries, and they will likely continue,” Smith says. “But we are working diligently to ensure as few disruptions as possible in order for books to ultimately reach school and public libraries to coincide with adjusted on-sale dates.”

In terms of what librarians can do, youth services librarian Karen Jensen says that good communication is key.

“Communicate with all library staff, share articles about what is happening with the supply chain…and how it is impacting libraries,” Jensen suggests.

This might include letting staff know that book dates are being pushed back and that publication dates are fluid. Jensen also recommends giving library staff talking points that they can turn to when patrons have questions.

For example, staff could offer an apology for any delay or confusion and explain that there is a global supply chain issue happening that is affecting how quickly the library receives its book orders.

Jensen follows a lot of authors and publishers on Twitter and frequently sees announcements that book release dates have been pushed back.

“Sometimes it’s as little as two weeks, sometimes it's as much as six months,” she says. To those who work in collection development, Jensen advises: “some books may get pushed so far back that your order gets cancelled.”

To stay on top of delays, she recommends having order lists downloaded and saved in order to facilitate cross-referencing and tracking what titles are coming in and how long it is taking.

Overall, the unprecedented nature of this disruption is largely what drives Jensen’s belief that keeping library staff well informed is paramount.

“I have worked in libraries for a long time...and I have never seen anything like this on this scale,” Jensen explains, adding, “What is happening with the supply chain right now, and how it’s affecting our libraries, is the type of knowledge you should definitely share” to alleviate confusion and empower staff.

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