‘Supply chain devastation’ spreads to bookstores as the summer holiday season approaches
“October is the new month of December,” as one bookstore business group put it.
“The pieces of this chaotic supply chain puzzle have been piling up over the past year and a half,” said Alex Meriwether, managing director of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “We can’t magically make books appear. “
A confluence of hurdles – with paper, print, and manpower – has left publishers struggling to meet release dates. Like so many other products, many books now, and the paper they are printed on, come from Asia.
The disruption has forced stores to review when and how they buy books. In Before Times, bookstores relied on a just-in-time strategy, ordering titles in small quantities as they were purchased by customers. This year, those same books can take weeks, rather than days, to get on the shelves.
Sellers therefore buy earlier and in bulk.
Wendy Hudson, who operates Nantucket Bookworks and Mitchell’s Book Corner, said her approach this year was to “order everything”.
Rachel Cass, purchasing and inventory manager at the Harvard Book Store, picked titles from publishers’ fall catalogs in August, a month earlier than usual, and released the “100% of holiday ‘from the store in October. She also increased the quantity of her fall order by 50 percent.
“If I hadn’t, we could have been in a situation where the holiday season is in full swing and the book we need is lying on a freighter somewhere,” Cass said.
Of course, buying wholesale like that is a roll of the dice, an educated guessing game predicting which titles will sell.
This can inevitably place a burden on sellers with limited ability to buy and stock large orders. Meriwether, for example, removed the event chairs from the Harvard Bookstore basement to accommodate dozens of boxes.
But bookstores say the investment is worth it. One in four printed books is purchased in November and December each year, according to the NPD market research group. Some bookstores make 30 to 60% of their annual sales in the last six weeks of the year, said Allison Hill, executive director of the American Booksellers Association.
However, overcoming supply chain barriers to meet demand can be a tedious task. (Sales of print books had their best year since 2009 during the pandemic, NPD found, with more than 750 million books sold nationwide. So far in 2021, sales have increased by nearly 19%. additional, according to Publishers Weekly.)
The problem begins with a shortage of paper, caused by widespread closures of Chinese paper factories and the rise in the price of wood pulp, according to a report from the Sheridan Printing House.
Then there are difficulties with printers, which are increasingly difficult to find in the United States. Major printing presses within U.S. borders have shut down steadily since 2008, when print sales began to decline, and books with heavy color printing have largely been outsourced to Asia. This means that publishers cannot reprint popular titles that sell quickly.
“Front-line titles that sell throughout their run cannot be reordered on time,” said Katherine Nazzaro, Managing Director of Porter Square Books: Boston Edition. “Once something is available it could stay that way until January.”
Then there is transportation. The cost of renting shipping containers has increased tenfold and truck drivers to transport them are scarce. Labor shortages are also affecting warehouses and bookstores. Even after the crates have been shipped, they reach besieged cargo ports struggling with container ship traffic jams.
“I don’t even know if I would call this a supply chain disruption,” Hill said. “This is the devastation of the supply chain.”
Take Candlewick Press. The Somerville-based publisher said his children’s books were traveling from Asia to the West Coast and then to Chicago, two executives said in an email. The transfer of the marshalling yard there initially felt problems early in the pandemic, and the effects worsened. Candlewick titles sometimes arrive six to ten weeks late and several release dates have been pushed back by two months.
“We have worked to avoid critical bottlenecks,” wrote President Karen Lotz and CFO Hilary Berkman. “But since everyone is doing this, the arrears quickly grow into new areas. “
Dan Wackrow, chief financial officer and operations manager of Harvard University Press, agreed. The college publisher has seen a fifth of its titles delayed by a month or more, after staying in ports for up to two weeks. Press freight container prices have more than doubled this year, from 12 cents to 25 cents per pound.
And delays abound in bookstores.
Porter Square Books’ Nazzaro: Boston Edition postponed the early opening of the Seaport store by a month until October because much of the inventory hadn’t arrived. She was also waiting on shelf scales and cash registers, another consequence of the disruption in the supply chain.
Nicola Orichuia, co-founder of I AM Books, said 15 of the 100 titles he orders are not immediately available. It has operated online during the pandemic and will open a storefront in the North End in November. Shipping charges have increased 10-20% for Orichuia, while USPS media mail rates have increased by 30 cents per pound.
“It’s all a bit heavier on the wallet,” he said.
Despite their best efforts, sellers recognize that the stocks of fan favorites – “Song of Achilles” or Stanley Tucci’s memoir, “Taste: My Life through Food” – may eventually run out. The situation has worsened since 2020 when the book shortage was less noticeable. Yet, this is the time for which independent bookstores were created, Nazzaro said.
If a customer comes in and can’t find what they came for, they can go elsewhere, she admitted, or buy it “from Amazon, God forbid.” But also, a savvy bookseller can recommend something unexpected and open up a whole new world.
“The stores are always going to have books,” Hill said. “Of course, they won’t have all the books. But they’re still going to have things they love that might not be mainstream bestsellers. Often times, these make the perfect gift.