You may have heard about the supply-chain issues currently affecting multiple industries in the United States, and unfortunately, that also includes the book industry. While issues in the book supply chain are causing substantial delays in both printing and delivery of books, readers can take a few simple steps to help booksellers and authors manage the problem.
There are two main factors causing the book supply chain issues: a paper shortage and COVID-19. First, the paper shortage. Demand for wood pulp has rapidly increased, in no small part due to the massive amount of cardboard used by online shopping. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of wood pulp has gone up 50.2% over the past year; the cost of paper has gone up 14.2%. For years sawmills have been cutting production due to lack of demand, and when the pandemic hit, they cut production even more in anticipation of less demand. But instead, demand ramped up—and now there’s a major lumber shortage, which is causing delays in the paper-making process as well as sky-high prices. (That’s the reason everyone started hoarding toilet paper.)
Then there’s the pandemic. Quarantine and COVID outbreaks mean that there are many fewer workers in factories, in warehouses that pack and ship books, on shipping docks, and driving the trucks to transport books—causing major delays at pretty much every step of the book delivery process. Plus, high-volume shipping ports overseas are closed due to COVID risk, meaning longer production times as well. These delays build on each other, causing the much-discussed supply chain issue.
According to New Orleans indie bookstore Tubby & Coo’s, as they posted on Twitter, if a bookstore doesn’t have a book in stock, it could be 6-8 weeks before they can get more. The supply chain delay is going to hit indie booksellers especially hard, as their limited space and financial resources make it harder to stock up on books early—and they might lose business from irate customers.
The supply-chain delay is also a special concern for debut authors, who rely on the sales of their first book to make a case for future book deals. If debut authors’ books aren’t showing up at as many bookstores as usual because printers are backed up, the momentum of good buzz can dissipate before people actually buy the book. Lee Mandelo, whose debut novel Summer Sons is out from Tordotcom this week, is concerned about the stakes of the delays: “Debuts don’t have that kind of reliable audience already built in that an established writer has, so the importance of hand selling in stores and building word of mouth is pretty high,” he told me in a DM. “And that spooks me, because this feels like the main shot to set a good trajectory for the book.”
So how do customers support both bookstores and authors in the face of supply chain delays? The easy answer is preordering forthcoming books. This helps debut authors’ sales numbers and allows companies to gauge the right amount of copies to print. And, if you want your books to arrive in time for the holidays, order those holiday books now so they have time to ship. Also, as always, be kind to your indie bookseller: don’t blame them for a global problem. “This is in no way our fault, and we are doing our absolute best,” said Tubby & Coo’s on Twitter. “Don’t be a dick.”