Independent booksellers report strong holiday sales; publishers see challenges continuing into 2022

For at least a certain segment of the independent bookselling community, the 2021 holiday selling season was stronger than anticipated, given concerns about supply-chain issues and potential staffing difficulties resulting from the appearance of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of Covid-19.

And how did publishers fare? It’s complicated.

“Overall, we had a very, very good season. I have no complaints at all,” says Bob Newland, owner of the Stratford, Ontario, independent Fanfare Books. He attributes the success of the season to a combination of online sales and foot traffic in-store, though he also points out that online ordering, while up since the start of the pandemic, still accounts for “a drop in the bucket” in terms of revenue.

While booksellers by and large say that the holiday season was profitable, in many cases their ability to supply books to customers was a result of panic ordering as articles about potential supply chain issues began proliferating in the fall. “Everybody basically tried to order between six and twelve times the norm,” says David Worsley, co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo, Ontario. “Instead of ordering twelve of the new Malcolm Gladwell, everybody just went right to, ‘Oh hell, what’s carton quantity?’ And then we started talking about exponential carton quantities.”

Newland expresses much the same sentiment, and suggests that the doom and gloom prognosticated in late summer and early fall did not, for the most part, materialize. “Not that there weren’t problems, because there were,” he says. “But I ordered heavily because I was expecting something to happen which never actually did happen. The titles I ordered heavily on never did go out of stock.”

Worsley praises Penguin Random House’s distribution arm for being upfront and honest about reprint schedules and their ability to supply stock. “They were pretty cool about letting everybody know what they thought they knew.”

Katherine Herrndorf, a bookseller at Queen Books in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood, says that there were some hiccoughs with shipments being delayed, but on the whole, the season went more smoothly than what had been anticipated. “There were some big titles that were delayed,” says Herrndorf. “Most of them were coming from overseas.”

One title that multiple booksellers say arrived late is the two-volume box set The Lyrics: 1965 to the Present by Paul McCartney, with essay contributions by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon. Queen Books received stock on December 22 but the shipment was not sufficient to cover all the special orders for the book, let alone allow them to display copies in-store. Newland received his copies on December 23. “Everything I ordered went out,” he says. “Half of them were [already] spoken for. They should have been here in November and didn’t arrive until forty-eight hours before the holiday.”

Another title that came in late to Queen Books was Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winner The Promise. “We did have a fair amount of demand for that,” Herrndorf says. The store also had trouble sourcing books by Abdulrazk Gurnah, the Tanzanian novelist who won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. In both cases, while Newland had to wait for stock at Fanfare, books arrived in plenty of time to supply customers buying for the holidays.

The Promise was a title Worsley ran out of stock on; another was The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. “Those were the two big books where I thought, ‘I really should have ordered sixty more of those,’ ” Worsley says. “But that’s not that different from every other year. Whereas in September or October, we thought we could lose thirty titles if we don’t order right.”

Delays that did occur were largely publisher-specific, says Herrndorf. “Hachette, we were told, was experiencing delays of up to four weeks from the time we submitted an order to them.” For small-press titles, the store had hard deadlines after which they told customers they were unable to supply books. Stock originating in Toronto was generally easy to source, Herrndorf says, while the store would not make any guarantees for stock that had to be shipped from as far away as British Columbia.

“Raincoast was underwater for a couple of weeks,” says Worsley, referring to the West Coast distributor that was hit by the unprecedented flooding in British Columbia in November. But once again, Worsley praises the communication on the part of western sales reps for keeping the store apprised of what had and had not shipped and what the medium- to long-term outlooks were. “Thank God it’s a bookstore,” Worsley says. “Because most people are civilized and understand the world. And what do you say to people? ‘Your book on the manifestations of climate change is underwater in Vancouver right now.’ Generally speaking, people kind of get it.”

It’s a sentiment that Herrndorf echoes, emphasizing the flexibility of shoppers who were unable to acquire their first choice of title. “As booksellers, if somebody requests a book that we aren’t able to get in, we do try to suggest something we do have on hand,” Herrndorf says. “For the most part, our customers were understanding about the delays and so were able to make alternative plans.”

It is less easy, of course, for publishers battling limited space at the country’s printers to pivot on a dime, which perhaps accounts for some of the reasons there remains a certain hesitancy about the status of the industry heading into 2022. It is too early to tell how all the frantic ordering in the fall will translate in terms of unsold stock returned to publishers; while the impetus going into the holidays was to ensure stock was available, publishers now face the opposite issue of having to deal with potentially excessive quantities of overstock.

“We do our own distribution and warehousing, so we spend a lot of time thinking about what we’ve got in the warehouse,” says Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Orca Book Publishers in Victoria. Wooldridge acknowledges that concerns about Orca’s ability to supply books over the holidays led to increasing print runs to offset the need to go back for reprints. “Our print runs are climbing, partly to bring the unit cost back to where it was before [as printing gets more expensive], but also to make sure we’re not going to run into issues with reprints, which are impossible to slot in right now,” he says. “That’s the lingering issue with our industry: trying to guess what you need and where it’s going.”

“You never can get the numbers right,” says David Caron, owner and co-publisher of ECW Press. “As publishers, we’ve always relied on fairly quick reprints to ameliorate that.”

Whereas booksellers claim that there was rarely a shortfall of expected blockbuster titles in distributors’ warehouses, smaller titles that sold unexpectedly well were less predictable. Caron points to Premee Mohamed’s novel The Annual Migration of Clouds as a title the press bumped up its initial order for, then had to scramble to try to get a reprint because that augmented order sold through. Which leaves the publisher wondering how many more copies might have sold had they been on store shelves. “Can I quantify the lost sales? I can’t because sales remained above average,” says Caron. “Would we have had more sales [without supply chain issues]? You would think so. But how many more? No idea.”

“I figure we lost a huge number of sales in October,” says Simon Dardick, co-publisher of Montreal’s Véhicule Press. “By the time the books came out we had missed deadlines.” In an effort to mitigate some of those lost sales, Dardick, who usually relies on Marquis Book Printing, tapped Montreal-based Rapido Livres to do a short run of Daniel Pambiachi’s fully illustrated, 620-page book Modern Home Winemaking: A Guide to Making Consistently Great Wines. Rapido delivered a run of 1,000 copies and Marquis was able to turn around a reprint by late December. But Dardick notes that difficulties in securing printer time and lengthy turnarounds are having a knock-on effect as to how the publisher does business. “It’s changed the way we print everything because we can’t rely on our regular printers.”

Lost sales and supply chain issues coincided for Orca in late October, when a cargo ship carrying five reprint titles – a total of 15,000 units – caught fire. Wooldridge says those books were older titles that were destined largely for schools, so the loss did not impact holiday selling. Woodridge adds that the whole of 2021 was a good year for the publisher, with sales rebounding from their spring 2020 nadir. While he refers to the loss of the cargo containers as “symbolic” of challenges during the pandemic, his biggest ongoing concern is not shipping but printing. Orca is currently booking for the end of the year, and Wooldridge does not foresee the lack of printer capacity changing in the near future. “We are attempting to print as much in this country as possible, but you come up against that issue where the printers are now overloaded,” he says. “Philosophically, we don’t want to be printing outside the country.”

For its part, ECW has already booked printer space for their spring 2023 titles, which was challenging because at the time those decisions were made most of the first-draft manuscripts were not due for another four months or so. “We had to do up a whole new strategy about likelihood of being ready for publication and how are we going to determine that if we don’t even have a first manuscript yet,” says Caron. “You have to book [printer space] now about fourteen months in advance.”

Challenges notwithstanding, Dardick feels bullish about the potential for the publishing industry not just to survive but to flourish in 2022. “From having periods of great anxiety, I am currently, and all of us here, are feeling pretty optimistic,” he says. “I think there are some really good signs already in terms of 2022.”

As Omicron continues to run roughshod in the broader community, there is cause for concern that booksellers, publishers, warehouse workers, and others may feel the effects of depleted staff levels due to sickness, though none of the people consulted for this piece said that they experienced such issues in December. (“That sound you hear is me knocking on wood,” says Wooldridge.) As we get further into 2022, the lessons learned in the fall will likely help inform how publishers and booksellers alike determine schedules and best practices for ensuring stock remains moving and store shelves are not empty. “I continue to operate on the premise that our books will sell,” says Caron. “And that’s the part that, if it changes, I‘m going to have to change the strategy.”

Independent booksellers report strong holiday sales; publishers see challenges continuing into 2022
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