As a general rule, I avoid the mention of Christmas or other gifting holidays any time before December, but I must make an exception for a theme that is timely and has been making the rounds on social media: shipping delays.
Now, if you don’t do a lot of online shopping, you may think this issue does not concern you, but if you enjoy books – which I’m guessing you do because you’re reading this on Book Riot – and you are looking forward to getting your hands on a particular new release, this article is very much something which has your best interests at hand.
Indie booksellers have been particularly hit by the pandemic in more ways than one, and shipping delays are creating an extra layer of stress on top of all other issues bookshops have to deal with on a daily basis.
I work in a small indie bookstore in the Netherlands, and with the pandemic and Brexit mixed together, it has been extremely difficult to put our hands on some books coming from abroad in the last year. Titles that used to take about 2 weeks to get to us are now taking a minimum of 3-4 weeks, and sometimes even end up all together cancelled.
Luckily, we have wonderfully understanding clients who know our stock is limited due to the shop’s size, so most of the time they don’t make a fuss about waiting, but I’ve encountered a lot of booksellers like myself begging people to be understanding during these times. Because while we want to provide the best customer service possible, getting books to our stores requires the work of a lot more people and services than just ourselves.
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Very often it is literally out of our hands.
Friends, the whole supply chain is a mess. If there is any book you desperately want a physical edition of pre-holidays, please PLEASE pre-order it as soon as possible (and from an indie bookstore!) so that we accurately measure demand and print enough books.
It is A MESS.
— Sam Howard (@SamAHoward) August 30, 2021
Please, please, please, please listen when publishing people say the supply chain is bad. It’s already awful and is only going to get worse every day over the next three months.
It bears repeating, do NOT be angry at bookstores. We’re literally all doing the best we can
— Ronnie Kutys (@Kutysv) September 8, 2021
If you’d like to make the life of your favourite bookseller a lot easier this year, all the while avoiding disappointment, keep reading to learn how that can be helped.
What Is Happening
Coincidence would have it that, just as I was starting to do some research in order to write this article, I got an e-mail from indie publisher World Editions, announcing to readers that they were being forced to postpone the release of a few of their titles due to pandemic-related shortages.
I spoke with Christine Swedowski, the director of World Editions about this issue, who gave me a clearer view of what they’re dealing with.
“We are working with US printers only”, Swedowski explains, “and publishers who print abroad, especially in China, will have a different experience. In the US, the trucking situation has become very problematic, and will likely be challenging for years to come, mainly due to a well-documented shortage of drivers throughout the country. In addition, paper shortages are becoming increasingly prevalent. Paper mills can’t keep up with paper demand, and are starting to ration resources to printers, who in turn can’t maintain inventory levels. We expect these shortages and delays to continue, as paper mills aren’t increasing their capacity, partially due to difficulties securing enough raw materials to maintain production.”
When asked when they first noticed these delays, Swedowski reflects, “Supply chain issues hit us out of the blue in August of 2021. We had expected shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, in the Spring of 2020 when everyone was stock-piling toilet paper. Those never materialized, until our printer was hit with a perfect storm of paper shortages, truck and container shortages, a downed printing press, and hurricane Ida.”
Josh Christie, from Print Bookstore, an indie in Portland, Maine, was also kind enough to answer my questions; they experienced delays slightly different from World Editions.
“We began to see major delays in both book production and delivery at the start of the pandemic in March of 2020.” says Christie, “While we’ve seen waves of things getting better or worse over the last 18 months, partners in shipping and publishing started telling us this summer that book availability and delivery times would suffer greatly during the last few months of this year.”
I was especially interested in learning how indie publishers, who have a lot more to lose when delays of this sort happen, and fewer resources to tackle the circumstances, were dealing with these challenges.
“For a small, independent publisher the situation is particularly difficult.” Swedowski notes. “We don’t have the purchasing power a large publishing house has. Our print runs are small. For a printer, the economic decision will always be in favor of the larger print run and the publisher who can exert the most financial pressure. It’s the unfortunate truth that small businesses have been disproportionately affected by the negative developments of the pandemic, and don’t have the resources to save themselves.”
And what does this entail?
“Missed pub dates mean the entire marketing and publicity plan for a book crumbles. Reviews are often lined up several months in advance, and so are events. Initial orders cancel when inventory is not at the warehouse in time for the release date, roughly a month before publication. It is very difficult to postpone or regain the lost momentum. Many of our trade partners are understanding and do what they can to support us. If possible, reviewers help by moving back run dates, and independent bookstores make sure their backorders don’t cancel. That said, it’s the independent bookstores who are most supportive, and they are of course struggling themselves.” Swedowski offers.
The supply chain is in a rut. Not only is there a shortage of materials, deliveries are also compromised. This means that suppliers can’t do what they do best (supply) and companies using raw material to build supplies can’t meet demand.
Besides affecting publication dates, this also means that other events, like book releases, have to be postponed, creating a whole shebang of inconveniences and delays that are not fun at all to deal with, and often mean financial loss that indie publishers and bookstores have a hard time recovering from – if at all.
Why Is This Happening
The simple answer is the pandemic.
As shops closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, and people were forced to stay in to avoid spreading the virus, online sales soared. This meant that people weren’t simply buying stuff they already bought online. They started investing in other stuff they would probably not have otherwise, either to pass the time or to stay fit, to be able to work from home, or purchasing things to make their lives more comfortable in these conditions.
People bought more consoles, office desks and supplies, better chairs, and even home trainers. Even I, not prone to overspending or online shopping, ended up buying a work desk in order to work freelance from home (though I still spend 80% of my writing time on the sofa, computer propped on my thighs), and a milk frother for the occasional hot chocolate or iced latte.
With a higher demand for shipping material, and a higher demand for — well, just building *everything* — a little flutter of butterflies buying a home trainer in Tokyo can definitely produce a shortage of electronic supplies in New York.
Of course, higher demand by itself doesn’t cause a shortage, but when you add that to factories closing due to virus outbreaks and drivers having to quarantine for weeks for the same reason, it becomes impossible for industries to keep up with the demand and for items to arrive at their rightful places.
Add to that the fact that most companies trade worldwide, and the fact that major ports have closed down also due to virus outbreaks, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The rotten cherry at the top of the unbaked cake was the ship stuck in the Suez Canal, an event the world is still recovering from.
I mean, the memes were immaculate. The results, not so much.
How Can You Help
We have all been waiting for this pandemic to be over, and by now we know things aren’t going to go back to what they used to be as quickly as we all hoped. But while this is mostly out of our hands as individuals – though I can argue that individual action does make a difference (please get vaccinated if you can) – there are things we can do to specifically help bookshops at this particular moment.
When I asked Christie from Print Bookstore which books are more difficult to get at the moment, they shared that new releases are especially challenging.
“New releases are causing the greatest difficulty, since they are unavailable once they sell through their print run and are awaiting a reprint. Backlist titles are still running into the delays on the shipping side, but because they’ve already been printed don’t run into the production issues. Hardcovers and full color books also always take longer for reprints, and that problem has just been exacerbated lately,” Christie says.
As for tips to costumers: “Order now! The easiest way to ensure you’ll get the books you want (if you know what they are) is order them right now, particularly if they are pre-orders for books that haven’t yet been released. Beyond that, the simple fact is that if books run out of stock the capacity isn’t there to print more, so don’t wait in hopes of a miracle reprint before the holidays. Backlist titles are widely available, as are the books already on your local bookstore’s shelves, so rely on the booksellers’ expertise for recommendations rather than pining for the one book you won’t be able to get. Many independent bookstores also sell both ebooks and audiobooks, neither of which will run into these stock issues, so those remain an option.”
What You Should Do
Though there are certainly complications from the supply chain issues in publishing, there are things you can do to ensure you’re able to access print editions of books now.
- Buy something you see rather than something you want
It is a wonderful feeling to visit a bookshop and find books you were not looking for. If you were to head to your local bookshop right now, I bet that you would find a blurb or cover to love and add to your TBR without a problem.
In the same fashion, when shopping for friends or family, try to find something that fits their taste amongst the options already available at the shops. And if you are lost for options, your local bookseller will be more than happy to help you find something (and to complain together about delays).
You’ve heard Christie. If a new book is coming out in the next months, it is imperative that you pre-order. This is especially vital for independent publishers who need to know what the demand is to be able to print to that demand. If you wait until the last minute to order a book, you may just miss the chance to get it for a while if it goes into reprint.
The best way to assure you get the book you want before Christmas is to have it ordered by yesterday (or today, if you lack a time machine).
If you can, buy in-person. There’s nothing wrong with buying online if that is the only way you can for whatever reason, but if you can order in-store, it is a lot more convenient and fast. This will avoid one more box for shipping, and it will mean you are buying locally.
If you really want to offer a certain book to someone, but the book isn’t available by the time you need it, you can buy a gift card. I know it is not the same as the actual book, but this is your chance to be creative and spread the word, by explaining what you meant to give them and why you couldn’t.
Your friend or family will still be able to enjoy a gift from you, and the intention will be clear.
When a shortage of material hits, ebooks and audiobooks are your best friends, and the greatest news is that you can still support your indie with digital content! Libro.fm allows you to buy audiobooks directly from your indie bookshop of choice, and many booksellers that do not sell ebooks will have an affiliate link that you can use to support them. You can also use Bookshop.org to search for your indie – and ask them if you don’t. They’ll gladly help.
This, of course, supposes you have access to a digital reader and doesn’t account for the challenges libraries may be having acquiring new print material.
I asked Christie if they would like to share any message with book lovers at these trying times, and this is their advice: “Honestly, I just like to encourage kindness towards booksellers as these supply chain issues continue. These global production and Transit issues are completely out of their control, and nothing is to be gained by getting angry that a book isn’t available.”
Now you know what you have to do. Happy book shopping!