Days after the release of Rebecca Donner’s book “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days,” its hardcover edition sold out on Amazon, then at the online retailer Bookshop.org and at Powell’s Books. When it made its debut on The New York Times bestseller list, the country’s largest book retailer didn’t have any copies.
“I spent the better part of a decade researching and writing this book,” Donner said. “So, of course it’s frustrating. Of course it’s disappointing. And it’s entirely out of my control.”
The churning disruption in the global supply chain, which has touched everything from minivans to dishwashers to sweaters, has now reached the world of books, just as the holiday season — a crucial time for publishers, and a period that can make or break the entire year for an independent bookstore — approaches. Publishers are postponing some release dates because books aren’t where they need to be. Some older books are also in short supply as booksellers struggle to replenish them.
To get a book printed and into customers’ hands, there are essentially two different supply chains. On both paths, at virtually every step, there is a problem.
Books that require a lot of color, such as picture books, are often printed in Asia. But transporting cargo to the United States has become excruciating, with every imaginable product jostling for position.
First, there aren’t enough shipping containers. Publishing professionals say that a container, which can hold roughly 35,000 books, used to cost them about $2,500 but can now be as much as $25,000.
Once books get into a container, the ship carrying it is likely to wait in line to dock at a backed-up port. Last month, a record 73 ships were bobbing around in the water near the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. The trouble began in 2020, when a drop in demand meant that containers weren’t where they needed to be to move goods around the world when demand snapped back. After a series of other setbacks, many containers are now stuck in transit, like those aboard ships waiting to dock.
Worker shortages are also slowing down operations at warehouses and distribution centers. Companies are raising wages to attract more staff, but they’re competing with other businesses and employers doing the same thing. COVID has exacerbated staffing issues, as some workers get sick and others are told to quarantine. At some book distribution centers, one executive said, the vaccination rate is as low as about 30%.
When publishers print books in the United States, those workforce and transportation issues still apply, but they face other complications as well. After years of printing plants shutting down and going out of business, the demand to print books domestically now exceeds the available capacity. The plants that remain sometimes don’t have enough people to run them, so badly needed machinery can sit idle.
All of these problems compound one another. “Trucks are more expensive, containers are more expensive, labor is more expensive,” said Jon Yaged, president of Macmillan’s U.S. trade-books division. “And all the extra touches. It used to be that you would place a purchase order, and it would just arrive two weeks later. Now, it’s 10 touches and 15 emails. It’s a lot more work.”
This mess has led to a cascade of changes in publication dates, sometimes postponing a book a few weeks, other times for months, missing the holiday shopping season altogether. “Move” by Parag Khanna was previously slated for release Tuesday but is now due out next week. Princeton University Press pushed the “The End of Ambition” by Mark Atwood Lawrence from October to November. “Smahtguy,” a graphic novel about former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, was delayed by Metropolitan Books, a Macmillan imprint, from fall until spring.
One factor compounding these problems is good news for the industry: Demand for printed books is strong. Publishers’ trade-book revenue, which includes most fiction, nonfiction and general-interest titles, was up nearly 10% last year compared with 2019, according to the Association of American Publishers, and was up 17% for the first six months of 2021, compared with the same period in 2020.
“No one is getting any sleep, and people have been at this for 18 months,” said Sue Malone-Barber, director of publishing operations for Penguin Random House. “It’s brutal. But the industry is managing to supply a big surge in demand.”
This balancing act extends to bookstores. Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books, which has stores in and around Seattle, said there are probably 100 older titles he hasn’t had in stock for more than a month, books that his suppliers would normally never run out of. That includes some staff favorites such as Ottessa Moshfegh’s story collection “Homesick for Another World” and Haruki Murakami’s novel “After Dark.”
“It feels like it will add up at some point,” he said. “This is probably the beginning of the snowball going down the hill, and it’s a question of how big it’s going to be by the time it hits the bottom.”
As a retailer, however, there are advantages these days to being a brick-and-mortar store rather than an online retailer — and advantages to being in the book business.
“If you walk into a supermarket needing bleach and there’s no bleach, that’s tough luck, you really can’t go and buy milk as a substitute,” said Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt. “Whereas in bookstores, we’ve got plenty of books to read. If you can’t get the Sally Rooney, we’ll sell you the Richard Powers or Anthony Doerr or anything else.”
That said, he added, when they sell out of the runaway hit or the blockbuster that did even better than they expected, “I’ll be tearing my hair out and wailing along with everybody else. But it will be a book.”