New books will be hard to come by for the rest of the year

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Book buyers, beware: New books will be in short supply for the rest of 2021.

Publishers are warning sellers and consumers that supply chain issues have forced a major slowdown in book production and threaten a shortage of certain titles for the rest of the year. Supply chain problems have touched almost every aspect of book production, storage, and delivery, mostly as a result of Covid-related bottlenecks. Printer capacity issues plagued the publishing industry last year, too, though 2021 is expected to be worse.

Supply chain issues start during the printing process 

One issue is that more people want physical copies of books these days, says Cindy Raiton, president of sales at Bookazine. According to Publishers Weekly, publishers saw print sales jump 18.5% in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period last year.

A lumber shortage and reductions in workers at paper mills have contributed to a paper shortage that’s affecting not just book production but paper towels, toilet paper, and envelopes as well. And because many books are printed in China, the route from printer to the bookstore is currently fraught with bottlenecks. Port congestion, lack of shipping containers, a shortage of dockworkers, and trucking staffing problems are impeding the movement of books from warehouses to stores.

Raiton points out that the disruption isn’t a shortage, so much as a delay. “You have to get them here by ship—where you’ve got all the challenges with ocean freight, if you can get a vessel. Then once the goods get to the US, we’ve got trucking issues of our own in this country with the shortage of workers,” she says, adding that trucking delays affect delivery even once books get to the publisher’s warehouses.

Raiton says new gift books, box sets, art books, cookbooks, and coffee table books will be the most impacted this year. Bookshelves in those sections won’t necessarily sit empty, but customers may have a harder time finding specific titles. And if a seller does run out of a title, there won’t be enough time for printers to turn around a reprint order before the end of the holiday season. That reprint limitation is particularly troubling to publishers, literary agent Alex Slater told Quartz via email.

Support independent bookstores

Candice Huber, owner of New Orleans independent bookstore Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop, recently penned a Twitter thread about the supply chain issues their store is facing ahead of the holiday season. While the last quarter of 2020 was also difficult, Huber says early data suggests 2021 could be worse, and told Quartz their plan is to stock up early with popular titles. That approach is easier for large chain bookstores than it will be for indies, which are working with limited space and financial resources. As a result, publishing delays are likely to hit independent booksellers harder.

On Sept. 15, Slater tweeted that he was pushing back the publication date of an anticipated book from October 2021 to December 2021 due to supply chain issues. He told Quartz that he hasn’t seen delays on this scale in his 15-year publishing career, and said publishers and retailers should focus “on pre-orders and keeping pre-sale momentum going.”

Once considered a somewhat seasonal industry, book publishing now has year-round demand. Raiton says one silver lining might be strong first- and second-quarter performance for books whose on-sale date is pushed into the beginning of next year.

As for consumers, the key for the 2021 holiday season is to start purchasing books early. Huber said to preorder any books you’re looking forward to, start your shopping early, and be flexible—independent-bookstore employees have expertise that can help customers find a suitable replacement gift if the one they want is not in stock. Most important, they say: “Be nice to retail workers, as we cannot control the supply chain, and the shortages aren’t our fault.”