Love giving or receiving books as holiday gifts? You might want to order them a little earlier this year. Book industry experts are warning that a range of supply chain issues from a paper shortage to chaos at ports and a lack of available truck drivers could conspire to ruin a booklover’s Christmas.
As readers across the globe spent more time at home last year, U.S. print book sales rose 8.2% from January 2020 to December 2020, according to NPD group, with sales rocketing in nonfiction, adult fiction, juvenile, and teen categories.
Candice Huber, owner of Tubby and Coo’s Mid-City Bookshop in New Orleans, is already seeing this now. Books that used to take two or three days to arrive are now taking up to eight weeks to arrive at her store.
She’d heard about delays because of supply chain disruptions, but didn’t know what other contributing factors were making it increasingly difficult to restock her store. After doing some digging of her own, Huber took to Twitter on Monday to share what she’d learned from suppliers, and it all starts with the lumber shortage.
PAPER: There's a paper shortage, which is driving up costs. Demand for wood is SUPER high (you may have heard about lumber shortages), & there isn't enough to go around, which causes delays in obtaining materials to make paper AND increases the cost.
— Tubby & Coo's (@tubbyandcoos) September 13, 2021
“When you think about a wood shortage, you don’t immediately think of books or whiskey,” she said. “Most people think about construction,” Huber said in an interview with Yahoo Finance.
Lumber shortages drove the cost of wood up to a record-breaking high of $1,686 per thousand board feet in May, according to NC State’s College of Natural Resources. The overall cost increase was 406% from May 2020, up from the $333.
Those shortages also caused paper prices to jump significantly. The New York Post reported this week paper, pulp and corrugated paper board prices were 18.1% higher last month than August 2020 and 1.6% higher since July, based on the Bureau of Labor’s producer price index. The paper price spike is also being compounded by the rise in e-commerce during the pandemic, Business Insider reported.
The issues exist beyond product shortages, too. During a webinar hosted by Book Industry Study Group Executive Director Brian O’Leary in July, O’Leary and several panelists laid out the various shipping and freight issues leading to supply chain issues including overcrowding at ports, drastic increases in shipping costs and a shortage of freight drivers.
“We have a whole year of pent-up demand working its way through the U.S. supply chain,” Ryan Forbes, logistics and transportation at Readerlink, a book-industry distributor, said during the webinar, pointing out the severe shortage of freight drivers.
Even when international shipments reach our shores, Forbes said the lack of drivers is a key component of supply chain breakdowns. He detailed how a retiring group of baby boomer drivers ages 55 to 57 aren’t being replaced by younger drivers. When COVID began, driving schools were forced to scale back, Forbes said, either capping enrollment at 40% to 50% or closing entirely, making it difficult for new drivers to get on the road.
“Carriers are literally turning down business. It’s not a matter of opening up the checkbook and saying we’ll pay you more... Carriers go out and they’re trying to recruit drivers, and they’re finding out that they can only attain 10 to 15% of those recruitment goals.”
David Hetherington, Book International’s vice president of global business development, said he’s never seen this kind of pressure on the supply chain before, and a boost in online ordering only threatens to worsen the shortages and demand problems.
Huber typically makes orders as needed, filling shelves with the most popular books as they sell. This fall, she won’t have that luxury.
“What I’m having to do right now is make decisions on books coming out in the last quarter of year and essentially forecast if we think a book will sell a lot and whether we’ll need it through the holiday season,” Huber said.
One example Huber said booksellers are already fretting about is the number of copies they’ll be able to get of former President Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen’s collaboration, “Renegades: Born in the USA.” The former president’s biography, which came out last fall, was the best-selling book of 2020, according to Publisher’s Weekly.
“Normally, we’d just order copies and if we sell out, order more. But we can’t do that now. Once you sell out, you’re out, and I’m not getting any kind of projected date on when things will be back in stock. If a book goes on backorder, we just can’t get it.”
Huber can’t stress it enough: pre-order any books on your list. If you miss out on its release, she said, a little patience is key.
“And it’s not just books right now, either. That goes for retail in general,” she said. “Be flexible and be prepared to wait.”