General

The Publishing Supply Chain: What is It and Why Do I Have to Care About It All of a Sudden

Have you guys noticed that a lot of books seem to be getting delayed lately? Dates are being moved back by publishers by a few weeks, sometimes even a few months. Some of you who follow the bookish bits of Twitter might have seen that lately, people have been saying that this is because of issues with the publishing supply chain. This is true! The publishing supply chain is at the root of these delays but the various issues are fiddly and interconnected and require some explaining.

MY TIME HAS COME.

GET READY WE’RE TALKING ABOUT LOGISTICS. (image: giphy.com)

So first of all: what is the publishing supply chain?

First things first: when I say “publishing supply chain”, I’m not talking about the publishing workflow process that I’ve talked about on this blog before. This has nothing to do with manuscripts and cover design etc., as most publishers all handle that digitally until you get right to the final stages. The publishing supply chain refers to the process of physically making books.

Broadly speaking, it’s this:

  • Wood pulp goes to the paper mill and becomes paper
  • Paper goes to the printers and is made into a book
  • Books are shipped from the printers to the warehouses
  • Warehouses send books to the shops

The bad news is that more or less every part of this process is shafted.

Paper

We’ll start at the very beginning, because I pay attention to the things that Julie Andrews sings about. The first thing you need to know is that right now, there’s a lumber shortage affecting a lot of industries, not just publishing – I hear construction is being hit pretty hard as well, but I don’t know anything about building stuff. How this affects publishing is that the raw material for making paper is scarcer and more expensive.

Noooo put that back we need that paper for the new Sally Rooney! (image: giphy.com)

Then you have the paper mills themselves. Ordinarily, wood pulp can get turned into a bunch of different things, including book-grade paper. But then there was a pandemic. The bookshops closed, and without footfall traffic into stores, a lot of publishers decided they were going to move the titles out of the Spring 2020 span and only print them once the shops had opened up again, because that way they wouldn’t have to pay warehouse costs for books that weren’t going to be published for several months. But at the same time, because all the shops had closed and people still needed things, the demand for cardboard packaging went WAY up, and as we’re still coming out of various lockdowns and people aren’t always comfortable with hitting up the shops yet, this demand is still really high. What this means is that some paper mills that would be producing book-grade paper have found it way more profitable to produce cardboard packaging instead.

Now the demand for books has risen again, because bookshops are opening up again. Even though e-readers are a thing now sales of physical books are still on the rise, because people like a physical object and screen reading doesn’t always work for everyone. But even though the demand for book-grade paper is rising again, there are much higher amounts of cardboard orders to meet, and switching back to producing a different kind of product is a) a business decision that needs to be fully considered and b) not something that can happen overnight.

Printing

So you’ve got your paper and the files to print your book. It should be plain sailing from this point, right?

WRONG!

I mean we are barely halfway through, what did you expect (image: giphy.com)

Printers are having some serious issues too. Publishers moving all their titles to counteract the effects of the pandemic meant that for several months, printers were earning substantially less, and then demand for books exploded when the shops started opening back up again. Printers went from printing a fraction of their normal output to everyone wanting everything printed immediately, and that kind of all or nothing switch is always going to be difficult to handle. If you’ve had to cut costs to accommodate a lack of demand, you don’t always have the support structures in place to accommodate a drastic rise in demand again.

This is all aside from the fact that (and I don’t know if you guys will have noticed this) there is a pandemic on. People need to be able to work safely so that they don’t catch Covid, and putting safety procedures in place can mean that things slow down. Also, as with a lot of other industries, people are needing to self-isolate if they come into contact with Covid, so sometimes printers are short-staffed at short notice.

You’d think that if this was a problem at one printer, a publisher would just be able to switch to another printer until this had all sorted out. Well, that’s not as easy as it looks. Aside from the fact that it takes time to set up a business relationship – negotiating scales prices and stuff takes aaaaaaages – when you get right down to it, there aren’t actually all that many printers to choose from.

This isn’t a problem which is unique to printing. Over the past few decades – centuries, even – we’ve seen a general shift away from a lot of smaller businesses to a few big ones. This is definitely the case in printing, where instead of having a range of printers to choose from you have a small handful who got big by buying up smaller presses. At the same time, readers’ expectations for what a good finished book should look and feel like have risen. If you take a look at old, cheap paperbacks, you won’t see any finishes apart from a simple varnish to the cover. But now, the range of finishes you find on even a standard-priced paperback has increased. As well as a cheap varnish you can get matt lamination, spot varnishing, embossing, debossing, 5th-colour inks and foil – and that’s not even talking about hardbacks, where you can get sprayed, patterned and foiled edges.

See above for the NICEST patterned edges in town, I am not smug at all no sir

Because people have higher expectations of what a book should look like, what this means in practice is that printers need to be able to offer a wider range of finishes, which costs more money and requires specialist equipment, which prices smaller printers out of the market. If you want a fancy-looking book you don’t actually have all that many places you can print it – and cover finishes on a book are a really important selling point for publishers these days, so if you decide to take the sprayed edges off that book then some of your customers are going to get annoyed about it. There’s always been a been a bit of a bottleneck to get the good finishes on books, but when you add the current issues we’ve been having with the pandemic onto that, print times go way, way up. Add onto that the fact that autumn is always a really busy time of year for printers anyway, and the pile is just going to get bigger.

Shipping and Warehousing

And now it’s time to talk about shipping! Ready your Ever Given memes. We all know that having the Suez Canal blocked slowed things down, and publishing was no exception. A lot of books are printed internationally, so shipping is a really important part of the process, and the delays caused by the Ever Given definitely caused a few knock-on effects that we’re still dealing with now. Add to that all the hurricanes we’ve been having lately and that’s another layer of disruption.

Shipping and warehousing were already industries under a lot of pressure before all of the memes got stuck in port. The demand for delivery shopping, as opposed to shopping in physical stores, has gone way up over the past few years. Customers expect things to be delivered to their homes promptly and in good condition, and without having to pay too much for them. What that means is that warehouses are getting bigger and bigger to accommodate bigger and faster orders, and that more pressure is being put on warehouse workers and delivery drivers to meet increased demands. We’ve all heard about what goes on in Amazon warehouses, and it isn’t fun for anyone.

But – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the pandemic is causing some issues as well. In shipping, people need to load books onto and off of the ships in a way that’s Covid-safe and complies with local protocol for managing the disease. But the new procedures do slow things down, because you can’t have a lot of people in close proximity and sometimes ships need to quarantine. If your book is printing in China but selling in the US, you’ll need to make sure that both Chinese and American Covid protocols and restrictions are followed, and sometimes that can mean a two-week quarantine at both ends of the same journey.

In the UK we also have a fun new flavour of chaos: Brexit! Turns out deciding to leave the EU before all the details of what would happen after we left the EU were worked out has caused some problems. Who could have guessed? As you may have seen from the news, a lot of the protocols for goods leaving the EU and entering the UK haven’t been clearly worked out. Official guidance does not cover every circumstance, it’s not clear what kind of paperwork you need to have to be let through, and the new border checks take way longer than everyone was told they would.

But what both of these shipping situations have in common is this: they’re terrible for the people actually working in transport. Ships are stuck at sea waiting to dock at port, and once they get in they have to quarantine. There aren’t enough facilities for HGV drivers in Dover, which means that all of these poor lorry drivers stuck queuing for customs inspections for twelve hours don’t have somewhere to have a sandwich or go to the loo. Would you want to work in those conditions? I wouldn’t. So there’s a shortage of qualified workers in shipping as well, which is adding more delays.

Some of these issues are also affecting warehouses as well. Books have to be unloaded and stores in a way that keeps warehouse workers safe from Covid, and of course, sometimes workers will need to quarantine at short notice. And when more skilled warehouse workers are off sick, that means more accidents in the workplace and worse labour conditions for the people who have to keep working, because bosses won’t pause their companies to let their workers catch up on things. And, to make things worse, because publishers are coming up with extra costs and delays in printing and shipping, they want to get their books unloaded and in warehouses as fast as possible – and that’s a problem that tends to fall on warehouse workers. It’s a very physical job which can lead to exhaustion and burnout, and when you add to that the fact that some studies of recent Covid deaths have shown that people working in warehouses are more likely to catch Covid and die – well. You’d just quit, wouldn’t you? And you’d be right to. No job’s worth your life.

So what can we actually do?

Well, this is a good question. There’s a ton of different factors at play here, none of which are actually controlled by the publishing industry, so it looks like the delays and shortages are going to go on for quite a while.

Stick the kettle on, waiting is thirsty work (image: giphy.com)

If supporting authors is your priority, then the best thing you can do is pre-order the books of the authors you love. (Oh look who left this preorder link here?) This demonstrates demand for their work to the author’s publisher, which will still be in place even if the book is delayed. Also, it may well work out cheaper if you pre-order an author’s book now, because all of these extra production costs are almost certainly going to mean that some publishers end up raising their prices.

If you just want general reading material, you’ve got a couple of other options. If you are comfortable with reading across a range of different formats, you might consider switching to buying ebooks instead of hard copies, or giving audiobooks a try. These are usually released day-in-date with the hard copies for new books, so if any physical publication dates are pushed back the digital ones will be too, but if it’s a backlist book that you can’t get a physical copy of this may well work for you. If you have to have a physical copy, you might have to wait for new releases, but you’ll still have options! Libraries and second-hand bookshops are much more cost-effective, and still provide an income for the author if they sign up for the right schemes. (Side note: if you’re a writer in the UK, SIGN UP TO PLR, you can thank me later.)

And while we’re on the subject of reading material: support your local independent bookshop. The big chains of bookshops will be coming through this crisis more or less fine – it’ll be hard, but they’re big enough to have support structures in place to stop the businesses from folding. It’s going to be much, much harder for independent bookshops to weather the storm.

Hoo boy, this got long. 2000-word story short: it’s not all because of Covid, this has been years in the making – but a lot of it is Covid. Support your local independent bookshop, join a union, pre-order your favourite author’s books if you can, and cross your fingers. It looks like this one is going to last for a while.

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