If you’re already thoroughly tired of the ubiquitous phrase “supply chain” — in reference to the current delays being experienced along the global pathway for manufacturing and distribution — spare a thought for the local book industry. Bookstore workers are becoming weary of explaining to customers why their books are taking a while; publishers are organizing author events without actual books present. In short: It’s going to be a rough holiday season. Order your gift books early. As in, now.
“We haven’t ever in the history of our business seen an issue like this,” said Dan Ullom, co-owner of Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, of the delays. “Our business model is kind of predicated on the idea of getting books in the next day, or two days.” Now he’s telling customers that they’ll have to wait a little longer. How long? It varies, depending on what you want; for some color-intensive books printed overseas, like cookbooks or manga, it might be quite a while.
Essentially, what’s hit the book industry is a perfect storm of problems. For books printed internationally, there’s a global shortage of shipping containers, long delays with cargo and coronavirus-related staffing issues at every link along the chain. Domestically, staffing shortages are likewise rampant, and there’s been a decline in recent years in the number of print plants, meaning that the demand for domestically printed books far exceeds the supply.
Tracy Taylor, manager of Elliott Bay Book Co., said that while there were challenges for bookstores during last year’s holiday season, this year feels quite different. Last year, she said, bookstores were limited to how many customers could browse at once, and the store’s online ordering system was taxed by an unusual number of digital orders. Now the store is bustling again, but uncertainty over whether the store can get requested titles has made ordering challenging.
“We know that the printing presses are backed up, we know that the cargo ships are backed up and we know that we get one chance at ordering a lot of the new titles that are coming out — or at least we think we have one chance,” Taylor said. Whereas last year, the store assumed reordering would be possible for popular titles, this year, “we need to kind of make those decisions of what we’re going to sell and what books we think are going to be big, before they hit the market. It’s a little bit more of a gamble, and we’re ordering larger quantities.”
This means ordering “probably twice as many than we normally do” of the titles making up the holiday staff pick wall, and doubling up on orders of new books by prominent authors sure to sell well: Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich, Lauren Groff. Luckily, they’ve got a bit of extra space to store all these additional copies: Taylor said a nearby business closed down, allowing Elliott Bay Book Co. to take over its storage area.
It isn’t just bookstores that are feeling the pain; local publishers are also finding it difficult to get copies of their books in a timely fashion. “We had a book that had a date of July 30, and we got it last Monday,” said Mountaineers Books publisher Tom Helleberg, speaking in mid-October. Its author came from Alaska for several events — Mountaineers’ first in-person events since the pandemic began — and had to do so without actual books to sign.
Frustratingly, Helleberg was able to track the book’s progress, or nonprogress: “The delays are affecting every step of the chain,” he said, describing how, via a GPS tracker, he was able to note that the shipment was delayed for three or four weeks leaving China, then delayed after a stop in Canada, then delayed further when it finally dropped anchor in Bremerton (“We could practically see it!”) due to a backlog in processing by the port. The disruption wasn’t limited to this one book: Helleberg said that two new titles on his fall list are “totally MIA, somewhere in that container backlog,” and that he’s concerned about the ability to order backlist copies as well.
And while books are the most obvious casualty, bookstore staff are struggling to obtain nonbook items as well. Ullom said he tried to order paper shopping bags with the store logo and was told it would be four or five months. (They’ll make do with plain ones.) Taylor said that when Elliott Bay attempted its usual large Christmas order of gift items for kids, the store received almost nothing. “We were told that they wouldn’t be available until January,” Taylor said. “That’s a no for us. We don’t want a bunch of stock in January.”
It’s not clear when these supply chain delays might ease; likely not until well past the holiday season. So if you want to support your local booksellers and publishers, order holiday gifts early and be flexible. The book you want might not be available, particularly if you wait too long — but another one just as good might.
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