Notebook: One of these mornings, the chain is going to break …

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

There’s nothing more boring than waiting, and the supply chain crisis, with its stories of boats waiting at harbor, shipping containers waiting for trains, truckers waiting for shipping containers, trucks and trains waiting for parts, businesses waiting for workers, me waiting for books to send to my reviewers, feels like it’s become a collective manifestation, in the country’s very circulatory system, of how blocked in and trapped we have been over this last year-plus. Frustrations over the inconveniences of the supply chain crisis and its contributions to inflation (more money spent on storage, more money spent on arranging expedited or alternative supply routes, more money spent trying to lure in additional workers, build additional capacity) is apparently already being expressed as frustration at the ballot box.

The impacts of the supply chain snarl on the book business are even somehow rising to public consciousness. The New York TimesUSA TodayThe Today Show, and The AV Club have covered it, and in reporting a 7 percent bump in unit sales of books, Publishers Weekly theorized that consumers had taken note of the message that they should do their holiday book shopping early to sidestep it. Barnes and Noble CEO James Daunt urged us not to panic, and as publishing observer Jane Friedman observed, “the average book buyer is likely to choose another book rather than not buy one at all” if the book they are looking for has not made it to bookstore or warehouse shelves, but the bare facts remain that the book business, and especially independent bookstores, are perilously dependent on holiday sales; that readers’ tastes can be unpredictable (especially in the time of—who’d have expected it—BookTok!), and holiday sales have historically floated on publishers’ ability to rush back to the presses to meet demand for the books readers surprise the professionals by wanting. One of the freshets nourishing independent bookselling in recent years has been the ready availability of speedy reprints through digital print-on-demand to respond to readers’ unpredictable tastes.

Coverage of the supply chain crisis keeps returning to the fact that American manufacturing and fulfillment could have been more prepared for it—with more up-to-date infrastructure, more cooperation among competitors, more government coordination, all things that major corporate interests have lobbied against, preferring a market that defers to their zest for competitive advantage. Similarly with books. A ruthless business environment for the small player has given unprecedented advantage to size, leading to waves of consolidation that have left us served by clumsy giants just when we need nimble elves.

One shadow looming over book publishing’s variant of the supply chain story is the disappearance of competitive distribution. Time was, American booksellers were served by a variety of distribution outfits, some quite local and humble, which offered various services and speed in exchange for a cut into sales; booksellers could get a more advantageous rate, but a more ponderous apparatus, by dealing directly with publishers, and they mostly operated with a menu of all of the above. But in recent years all of these businesses have collapsed into one corporate behemoth, the mighty Ingram Content Group, which now serves not only as a national wholesaler but also a channel for publisher sales, and oh, by the way, also the principle print-on-demand manufacturer and a competitive self-publishing operation. When Ingram’s most substantial competitor, Baker & Taylor, left the distribution business in 2019, American Bookselling Association CEO Oren Teicher said it was “not a good day” and “bad news for booksellers,” crediting “the ‘competitive wholesale environment’ for playing a key role in the resurgence of indie bookstores over the past several years.” (Baker and Taylor’s owner, Follett, said they were leaving book distribution to focus on their educational division, but then last September, as I wrote here, they reluctantly closed their school book fair unit, leaving that field to the Scholastic monopoly.)

In 2016, Ingram bought from the Perseus Books Group their distribution arm, consolidating their hold on the “publisher services” business, fulfilling bookstores’ direct orders to publishers. So Ingram handles both the direct orders and the wholesale business that competes with it. In May they concentrated all the publisher services operations in Perseus’s Jackson, Tennessee, hub, promising efficiencies, but since then booksellers and publishers alike have sent up a howl of pain at the doubled-or-more time it is taking them to process and ship all the country’s orders through a single apparently understaffed and ill-prepared facility, one whose worker pool has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, even as supply chain delays are slowing books down at every other level of the manufacturing process. Ingram is also handling distribution for the Amazon-alternative, which even though it has only managed to cut into 1 percent of Amazon’s book business went from a zero to an $18 million operation in the first six months of 2020 alone. Publishers for their part, trying to get a cut of wholesalers’ business and also taking advantage of the spike in at-home shopping during the pandemic to sell directly to consumers, are resorting to the same network of strained warehouses. In 2019, publishing giant Penguin Random House (whose effort to become even more gigantic by acquiring rival Simon & Schuster was challenged last week by the Department of Justice) bought the Reno warehouse left behind by Baker & Taylor, providing faster access to their books for bookstores in the west but stepping in front of every other remaining publisher to serve them in the wake of Ingram’s departure for Jackson (Random House, itself comprised of 275 imprints internationally, acts as distributor to fifty-five other publishers).

That Ingram has heaped upon the supply chain crisis its own gratuitous mismanagement only compounds damage throughout the system. The printing industry is also in disarray, abandoned over the years by many large-volume clients for cheaper Chinese counterparts (those books are all floating in Los Angeles harbor now) and facing a threat of diminished reading and perceived overcapacity. In 2018 one of the country’s last three major printers, the 125-year-old Edward Brothers Malloy, closed; the remaining two, Quad and LSC, got out of the business and filed for bankcruptcy, respectively, when the Department of Justice prevented their merger in 2020. (Constance Grady had an excellent explainer in Vox of this and other issues plaguing the book supply chain.) The paper executive John Maine was saying as far back as 2018 that publishers should seek alternatives to China (Europe, maybe?); Belt publisher Anne Trubek wrote in the midst of the pandemic that she was able to get a job that was backed up a month with high-tech print-on-demand facilities done at a traditional local printer in eight days. If only we could build more printers right here! But as Constance Grady explains printers are expensive to power up, and labor, as throughout the warehousing and distribution system, is in short supply. Ironically, Constance Grady reported that Amazon, which has the deep pockets to absorb losses and is “doing whatever it takes” to minimize the impact of the supply chain crisis on its own customers, is luring away the very workers in the rural areas where many of these wholesale and distribution centers operate.

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Paucity of the very stuff of the analogue reading experience is also a factor. Paper shortages contributed to the supply chain crisis that led to bookstore shortages in 2018, due partly to a decrease (for environmental reasons!) in paper manufacture in China, on which publishers had come to rely, punitive tariffs on paper from Canada during the Trump administration, and increased demand for cardboard to serve the packaging needs of the online customer as well as the ecologically-driven turn away from plastic packaging. Publishers report rumors that a kind of paper on which they depend may cease being manufactured altogether. Constance Grady explained that even ink has been subject to shortages springing from the same changes in Chinese manufacturing; China’s centralized system means policy decisions at the top can have far-reaching effects for global manufacturing (see also, recycyling). The dependence of high-volume customers on cheap exports from China has become a part of this story, as has the weight that the online buyer, requiring to-my-doorstep delivery at ever-faster rates, has added to the shipping and distribution system as a whole.

A less baleful morsel of news is that an increase in irl book reading is fueling more demand for books! But unfortunately the bend toward consolidation has given this happy development a negative consequence: the threat of shortages and delays gives more deference to big sellers, more invisibility to smaller books or books responding to a more individual taste. Publishers will pull out all the stops to keep their big books to schedule, so they’ll arrive in stores just as you see that author on TV or (God forbid) read a review of their book; smaller books will find their publication delayed; smaller publishers will be less able to muscle into the manufacturing schedule. Bigger books will get bought up in advance by Amazon and the bookstores to prepare for a predictable holiday rush; smaller books will be harder to reprint and ship if they do find their audience. Amazon will use its marketing might to negotiate deals for purchasing, shipping, and manufacture, leaving independent booksellers with less access to stock with which to lure customers into the stores. Smaller publishers will have less access to distribution, printing, paper, even ink; they are more threatened by the danger of overprinting to meet hypothetical demand and suffering heavy returns later. (Jane Friedman reported that there are rumors in the UK that Amazon is stockpiling big books, leading to pressure among other retailers to overbuy and publishers to overprint.) Publishers had already been predicting internally that book prices are likely to go up; all these pressures make such an outcome all but a certainty, just when the country has more need than ever of its books.

When you walk to a bookstore to buy a book, you save that individual wrapping that would encase it had it been brought to your doorstep, and the special trip just for you, with its pint of fossil fuel, by a worker who is straining to meet their quota in order to serve the everything-has-to-be-now economy—the everything-has-to-be-now economy that is also using more pints of fossil fuel to take goods out of waiting trains and ships to put them on trucks and planes to get them faster to you. When you buy a book from a smaller publisher or a lesser known author, you plant a flag for difference on the balance sheet of the whole, all-too-consolidated system. This year, if you buy that book now, you save the bookseller, the publisher, the distributor, the printer, and the author a little bit of worry about whether their book will indeed sell, or be returned, or need to be reprinted to meet your wish for it.

Every now and then here I wax lyrical on the benefits for all of investing in the book economy. How good for everyone for there to be jobs for people selling books in towns, or looking after libraries, or translating the world’s literature for us, or editing it and our own literature and turning it into books. How good for everyone also for us to be able to make our books where we can get at them, and not have to chew up the atmosphere loading them into shipping containers and carting them around the world to get the best deal. And perhaps to plant forests, which themselves store and gather carbon, that we can make our books out of, to bring us wisdom, and solace, and learning, and not just a job. It is often pointed out that small businesses can be just as nasty, or quite a bit nastier, than the big ones. The eponymous Small Press Distributor indeed went down in a wave of scandal; and librarians, independent booksellers, and other “knowledge workers” have been organizing against the low pay, meager benefits, poor working conditions, and powerlessness that they are expected to endure for their exalted professions. But these businesses need to exist for us to make a thriving and healthy book culture out of them. Putting all our book making into the hands of however well intentioned corporate overlords does not even seem to be working as a practical matter, much less a spiritual one.

This Wednesday! Secrets of the Book Review Editors Revealed!

Join editors Ann Kjellberg, Laurie Hertzel (Minneapolis Star Tribune), and Donna Seaman (ALA Booklist) in e-conversation, hosted by our partner bookstore, Seminary Co-op. Register here.

Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
She thanks Stephen Sparks, Barbara Epler, Erik Rieselbach, Lexi Beach, and Jillian Kravatz for helping fathom printing and distribution; errors here are all hers!

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Image: Penguin Random House warehouse