Call it the Delta variant of book distribution woes.
At this time last year, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on publication dates and forcing a patchwork of office and bookstore closures all over North America, the prevailing attitude among publishers, distributors, and booksellers was that so long as the industry managed to navigate the roadblocks and emerge relatively unscathed, the future was clear. Vaccines were on the horizon and the promise of a return to normality seemed tantalizingly within reach.
Cut to fall 2021, with the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus running roughshod over entire populations. Governments in provinces like Alberta are initiating proof-of-vaccination programs and reimposing restrictions involving masking and social distancing. Then add in cascading disruptions to global supply chains, and the vast majority of industry observers will tell you that this year is markedly more worrisome than the previous fall. And things don’t show much sign of improving any time soon.
“Eleven out of ten, I’d say,” is how Rupert McNally, of Ben McNally Books, describes his level of nervousness at the challenges this situation presents. The Toronto independent bookseller is facing hurdles when it comes to ordering stock for the looming holiday season, with fluctuating demand for titles being unpredictable and the likelihood of confronting shortages from publishers unable to secure printer time for reprints a very real possibility. “We’re ordering larger numbers and crossing our fingers that we have enough,” McNally says. “We’re ordering carton quantity of a lot of books.”
Publishers are similarly concerned about their ability to supply books to customers during the coming months. “Things are fraught all around,” says Semareh Al-Hillal, president of House of Anansi Press. “We are monitoring stock levels and distribution channels daily to make sure our books reach bookstores for the critical holiday season.”
Inklings of trouble on the horizon first reached Brian Lam, publisher of Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, in the spring as the house was beginning to get quotes for printing its fall books. For a colour book printed in Canada, Lam says they were used to turnaround times of four to six weeks. Because of overcapacity at domestic printers heading into fall, Lam was getting estimates of three to four months for turnaround. “That kind of put us in panic mode,” he says. “We had to rush through a lot of the colour work, especially, to accommodate those schedules.”
Lam mentions one children’s picture book, For Laika, written by Kai Cheng Thom and illustrated by Kai Yun Ching, with a ship date of September 10. A week prior to that date, the printer contacted Arsenal to let them know that they would not ship the book before October 30. Thom had already been scheduled for festival appearances in October; those appearances will now have to go ahead without books in stock.
The issues arise out of disruptions at various points along the supply chain, beginning with printers who are maxed out on their capacity and are dealing with looming paper shortages. “The usual printer for our paperbacks basically ran out of paper in August and is not expecting more stock until October,” says Lam. “We have a couple of titles that need reprinting quickly and there’s nothing we can do. There are literally no printers who can fast-track those titles for us right now.”
“We’re being warned left, right, and centre about reprints and that kind of stuff,” says Bob Newland, owner of the independent Fanfare Books in Stratford, Ontario. Newland mentions a temporary blip trying to get stock of Fight Night, the new Miriam Toews novel, which has since been resolved, but also suggests that Towes’s publisher and distributor, Penguin Random House Canada, is making rumblings about not being able to get reprints to bookstores in time for the holidays should those stores sell through their initial orders. “Every couple of weeks now, it seems we’re getting an email from them saying make sure your numbers are high because we’re unsure of where this is going.” (PRHC did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
“Our goal is customer driven, so any time you can’t deliver when your customers want and need it concerns you,” says Ryan Hildebrand, Canadian sales manager for Friesens, a printer in Altona, Manitoba. Hildebrand locates the reason for printer overcapacity in the robust growth of the publishing industry over the last few years. In its book division, Friesens’s sales are up 30% year-over-year, which is astounding for a sector that targets growth of 5–7% annually. For sheet-fed presses, Friesens’s impressions are up 23%, while print impressions for web presses, which account for the bulk of traditional trade books, are up 73% this year. Softcover book production is up 56% for the company, and hardcover production is up 88%. “It’s a great problem to have in some ways, but a frustrating one in that we wish we could do more.”
The growth that Friesens’s book printing division has seen over the past year is at least partially attributable to increased demand during the pandemic, Hildebrand says. Though the company’s sales cratered in the first half of 2020, by the second part of the year, the market rebounded as impacts from COVID-19 dragged on. “April, May, June [of 2020] were down thirtysomething percent; we were really concerned,” Hildebrand says. “Then everyone seemed to start reading books.”
Exacerbating the challenges of increased demand are those of diminished supply. Labour shortages, COVID, and supply chain disruptions have combined to cause manufacturers to scale back operations while the price of wood pulp and paper has skyrocketed. “We’re ordering paper now to come in at the end of November,” Hildebrand says, adding that allocation measures from suppliers mean that Friesens can order only a limited amount of stock. “We’re asking our customers to give us more lead time. If you have a book that’s going to print in December, I needed to order that yesterday. If it’s happening in spring, we’d better plan for that now.”
But there’s more. Global supply chain issues and a workforce that continues to be ravaged by the Delta variant of COVID have resulted in decreased ability to source shipping containers for products coming from overseas – a situation that is especially significant for children’s publishers and others who print four-colour separation in China. Ports in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, and elsewhere are backlogged and containers routinely end up in the wrong place. And a shortage of long-haul truckers means that even if a container does make it onshore, there may not be a truck available to carry the product to its eventual destination. “The hard part is, because of the trucking situation, even if you have an idea of when your container is going to arrive, there’s still a question of whether there is going to be an available truck to get it across the country,” says David Caron, owner and co-publisher of ECW Press.
The invisible chain that ferries books from the point of production to the hands of a consumer is one of the most crucial parts of the publishing process, although it’s a facet of publishing that people rarely consider unless something goes wrong. One point in the chain failing is bad enough; the current situation sees multiple, cascading failures that threaten the whole process of shipping and procuring books. “The entire chain has been disrupted all at the same time,” says Kate Edwards, executive director at the Association of Canadian Publishers.
What the issues at various points across the supply chain amount to, according to Caron, is a perfect storm for the publishing industry at the most crucial selling time of the year. This also calls into question practices that have developed over time and that may no longer be viable. “We have as an industry got to the point where we’ve got used to this less predictive, more just-in-time orders and inventory,” Caron says.
The notion of just-in-time ordering – where booksellers will place initial orders of ones and twos for a title, knowing they can have a reorder filled quickly should the title prove popular, while publishers rely on speedy turnaround for reprints – is proving unworkable in a situation where the supply chain has shown itself to be fragile not just at a single vector point, but across the entire spectrum. “Once you find a book you like that isn’t that big name recognition, you’re worried that if that goes out of stock because the print run is shorter, you won’t see it until next year,” McNally says.
Or, as Noelle Allen, publisher of Hamilton, Ontario, independent Wolsak & Wynn puts it, “Everybody’s move to just in time is going to turn out to be not enough time.”
In at least one instance, Arsenal had contingency plans in place that provided a short-term buffer in terms of stock levels. Advance orders for Casey Plett’s short story collection A Dream of a Woman were strong enough before the author was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize that Lam decided to go back to press for a reprint. “Luckily for us, our printer was able to find just enough stock to get a second printing going,” he says. “But if it does get on the shortlist, I am a little worried about supply.”
One issue both Lam and Caron point to is that printers, especially larger, colour printers like Marquis or Friesens, have had much of their capacity taken over by American publishers, who prefer to print their books in Canada because of the advantageous exchange rate. “That, combined with the paper supply, is a really grim situation,” Lam says.
For Anansi, that grim situation is mitigated somewhat by the strong relationships the publisher has developed with domestic printers – relationships Al-Hillal is counting on to help them navigate the stormy waters ahead. “The Canadian printers that we have close relationships with are being amazing at trying to do what they can, but they have questions and needs from publishers all across the country,” she says.
Al-Hillal is also cognizant of the fact that in order to keep things running smoothly, in-house practices may have to change, even as they begin to plan for printing spring 2022’s books. “Looking ahead, we need to build more time into our schedules to allow for contingencies,” she says. In the immediate term, Al-Hillal mentions moving orders to different printers than what Anansi would normally use in the instance that they require a quick reprint of a certain title. “It’s an incredible amount of work, obviously, for our production folks and our in-house designers to move the files and for everybody in-house to turn things around really quickly. But I also understand that, for printers, making capital investments to increase their capacity when this might be a short-term market need [doesn’t make sense].”
Wolsak & Wynn’s Allen suggests that this is an issue that will disproportionately affect multinational publishers, not those local presses who do small print runs and are fairly flexible. And McNally says that where the majors are concerned, he has even been told that Simon & Schuster, publisher of Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s nonfiction book Peril, one of the big fall titles, could not guarantee delivery in time for the book’s on sale date. (S&S did not respond to a request for comment.)
For Allen, this situation presents an opportunity. “Once everybody’s sold through their first print run of Sally Rooney, there’s likely no more Sally Rooney. But there will be Michelle Berry,” Allen says. “If you manage to get those books onto the shelves, or have them available, the booksellers can sell them.” Of course, that “if” is the operative word in Allen’s prognostication.
The potential for not getting those books into stores is a situation that has Caron particularly concerned. “What if people are walking into stores and saying, ‘Oh, there’s actually nothing here,’” he says. “Or, even more likely, they’re walking into stores and saying, ‘Oh, what will I choose?’ And your book isn’t there because the stuff that is there is the stuff that shipped out eight weeks ago.”
This so-called perfect storm pre-dates COVID, with supply chain issues first rearing their head during the previous U.S. administration’s ill-conceived trade war with China. But the pandemic has increased the pressure points on the system to such an extent that the ACP’s Edwards is doubtful things will stabilize even after the holidays. “This will not be resolved anytime soon,” she says. “We have to prepare for this reality for the next year, the next two years. It’s hard to know when things will resume a more regular pattern.”
“It’s heartening to see that books are selling so well that there’s worry about the book industry,” says McNally. “But there are so many big books out there and you want to make sure that people can get access to them.”
On the flip side of that optimism, however, lies an inconvenient truth for a lot of publishers, booksellers, and consumers who don’t plan early for their holiday book shopping. “If booksellers haven’t ordered so-called hot titles,” says Arsenal’s Lam, “they may be in for an unpleasant surprise when they realize there’s no stock.”