Paper and cardboard shortages – along with warehouse and shipping capacity issues – are wreaking havoc on the publishing industry just before the start of the holiday shopping season.
ARI SHAPIRO, HTE:
The edition has had an excellent year. Book sales are booming above pre-pandemic levels. But if you want a physical copy of a book, you might be out of luck. The pandemic has scolded supply chains around the world every step of the way, and so the printing, shipping and selling of books is sort of a mess right now. NPR Editor-in-Chief Petra Mayer is here to help us unravel what’s going on. And, Petra, explains what the problem is.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Yes. So, well, part of the same is happening in a lot of other industries right now, isn’t it? The pandemic has meant there is no one for warehouse and port staff, so getting print books to market is much more difficult and expensive than it usually is. But the thing is, first you have to have the books printed. And there are a few challenges that are specific to editing. So I spoke to Candice Huber. They are the owner of Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Bookstore in New Orleans, and I think they sort of summed it up the best.
CANDICE HUBER: The paper, the printing, the shipping, the warehouses – quite simply, every step of the process has been affected.
MAYER: So to be precise, you probably heard this summer that there was a shortage of lumber. That’s why your two-by-fours cost so much more. So, you know, guess what else uses wood? Pulp and paperboard. Paper pulp is therefore scarce at the start. And then, since a lot of people are at home ordering stuff online right now, most of that dough is bought to make shipping boxes. On top of that, there are actually very few physical factories in the United States that can actually print books. And some of them went bankrupt during the pandemic.
SHAPIRO: What does it mean to me if I go, I don’t know, buy some holiday gifts and go to my local bookstore? Like, do I find empty shelves or what?
MAYER: No empty shelves, but you might have trouble if you want a printed copy of a specific book. Here is Candice Huber again.
HUBER: So one book that I can think of by heart is a book called “She Who Became The Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan, which is a great book. And I love it, and I want to recommend it. And I can’t get it because it’s out of stock. And it was really overwhelming.
MAYER: By the way, I agree with Candice. “She Who Became The Sun” is a sexist account of the rise of the first Ming ruler in China. And it’s so good.
MAYER: (Laughs) So you might not be able to get this particular book. But, you know, booksellers like Candice Huber are going to make sure you find something. And I should also add that giant online sellers like Amazon will have less of a problem because they have so much warehouse capacity. It’s mostly your local stores that can’t get their hands on popular books.
Graphic novels are also hit hard because they require better quality paper and more sophisticated printing. And in fact, it’s not just books. Board games and puzzles, you know, they’re of course paper and cardboard too. So the supply chain issue is messing up the gaming companies as well. For example, Ravensburger North America, which makes things like Brio trains and some very popular board games, announced last month that it would not be taking any more orders for the remainder of 2021.
SHAPIRO: Other than the bands you mentioned, who is hit the hardest by this?
MAYER: Well, publishers have problems, sure, because, you know, they rely on your ability to find a specific book, and the release dates keep changing. You know, if I had a dollar for every email I got about a release date change because of supply chain issues, you know I could buy a lot of books.
MAYER: But really, they’re first-time writers, mid-list writers, anyone who doesn’t have a lot of resources to get through a situation like this. We talked a lot last year about what it was like to publish during the pandemic and how that, you know, was ruining book visits and authors’ ability to interact with their fans. But it is something different.
You know, if a newbie author relies on someone who hears about their book and wants to buy it, but that book isn’t printed or is in a shipping container at a port in the United States. on the other side of the world, this author is in great difficulty.
And, of course, you know, eBook sales aren’t affected at all. But it turns out that no one reads e-books anymore. I spoke to Kristen McLean, who is the book industry analyst at the NPD Group. And she told me that only 20% of readers prefer eBooks. So, I don’t know, I guess me and my Kindle are in the minority.
SHAPIRO: This is Petra Mayer from NPR, a book editor with our team. Thank you so much.
MAYER: With pleasure.
(EXTRACT FROM THE “FOLLES NATURELS” OF THE STATE OF MARIBOU)
NPR transcripts are created within an emergency time frame by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR entrepreneur, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.