New books delayed due to logistical issues

Mr Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books, said that there are probably 100 titles he has't been able to restock. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Days after the release of Rebecca Donner's book All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days, its hardcover edition sold out on Amazon, then at online retailer and at Powell's Books.

When it made its debut on The New York Times bestseller list, the country's largest book retailer did not have any copies.

"I spent the better part of a decade researching and writing this book," Donner said.

"So, of course it's frustrating. Of course it's disappointing. And it's entirely out of my control."

The churning disruption in the global supply chain, which has touched everything from minivans to dishwashers to sweaters, has now reached the world of books, just as the holiday season - a crucial time for publishers and a period that can make or break the entire year for an independent bookstore - approaches.

Publishers are postponing some release dates because books are not where they need to be. Older books are also being impacted as suppliers struggle to replenish them.

To get a book printed and into customers' hands, there are essentially two supply chains. On both paths, at virtually every step, there is a problem.

Books that require a lot of colour, such as picture books, are often printed in Asia. But transporting cargo to the United States has become excruciating, with every imaginable product jostling for position.

First, there are not enough shipping containers. Publishing professionals say that a container, which can hold roughly 35,000 books, used to cost them about US$2,500 (S$3,400), but can now be as much as US$25,000.

Once books get into a container, the ship carrying it is likely to wait in line to dock at a backed-up port. Last month, a record 73 ships were bobbing around in the water near the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach.

The trouble began last year, when a drop in demand meant that containers were not where they needed to be to move goods around the world when demand snapped back.

After a series of other setbacks, many containers are now stuck in transit, like those aboard ships waiting to dock.

Worker shortages are also slowing down operations at warehouses and distribution centres.

Companies are raising wages to attract more staff, but they are competing with other businesses and employers doing the same thing.

Covid-19 has exacerbated staffing issues as some workers get sick and others are told to quarantine. At some book distribution centres, one executive said, the vaccination rate is as low as about 30 per cent.

When publishers print books in the United States, those workforce and transportation issues still apply, but they face other complications as well.

After years of printing plants shutting down and going out of business, the demand to print books domestically now exceeds the available capacity.

The plants that remain sometimes do not have enough people to run them, so badly needed machinery sit idle. All of these problems compound one another.

"Trucks are more expensive, containers are more expensive, labour is more expensive," said Mr Jon Yaged, president of Macmillan's US trade-books division.

"And all the extra touches. It used to be that you would place a purchase order and it would just arrive two weeks later. Now, it's 10 touches and 15 e-mails. It's a lot more work."

A cargo ship filled with containers waits offshore for entry to the Port of Los Angeles in California on Oct 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

This mess has led to a cascade of changes in publication dates, sometimes postponing a book a few weeks, other times for months, missing the holiday shopping season altogether.

Move by Parag Khanna was previously slated for release last Tuesday (Oct 5), but is now due out next week.

Princeton University Press pushed The End Of Ambition by Mark Atwood Lawrence from this month to next.

Smahtguy, a graphic novel about former US Representative Barney Frank, was delayed by Metropolitan Books, a Macmillan imprint, from autumn until spring.

Publishers consider such shifts a last resort because a date change can lead to events or news coverage being scrapped, retail promotions cancelled and fewer orders placed.

Publishers have prioritised the schedules of the coming books that they expect to be their biggest sellers.

There is not much anyone in the book business can do to fix any of this.

Retailers, authors and distributors are pleading with readers and customers to shop or order early.

Publishers are planning further out in advance and sometimes even putting shipments of books on planes.

One publisher said it costs roughly 35 to 50 cents a book to send titles across the water, and US$5 to US$8 by air.

No one knows when things will go back to normal, but it will not be until long after this holiday season. Perhaps the biggest issue going into the holidays will be reprints, which are necessary when the initial order of a book runs low and needs to be replenished.

Usually, this kind of order takes about three weeks. Now, it can take three months.

One factor compounding these problems is good news for the industry. Demand for printed books is strong. Publishers' trade-book revenue, which includes most fiction, non-fiction and general-interest titles, was up nearly 10 per cent last year compared with 2019, according to the Association of American Publishers, and was up 17 per cent for the first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

"No one is getting any sleep and people have been at this for 18 months," said Ms Sue Malone-Barber, director of publishing operations for Penguin Random House.

"It's brutal. But the industry is managing to supply a big surge in demand."

This balancing act extends to bookstores.

Mr Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books, which has stores in and around Seattle, said there are probably 100 older titles he has not had in stock for more than a month, books that his suppliers would usually never run out of.

That includes some staff favourites such as Ottessa Moshfegh's story collection Homesick For Another World (2017) and Haruki Murakami's novel After Dark (2004).

"It feels like it will add up at some point," he said. "This is probably the beginning of the snowball going down the hill and it's a question of how big it's going to be by the time it hits the bottom."

As a retailer, however, there are advantages these days to being a brick-and-mortar store rather than an online retailer - and advantages to being in the book business.

"If you walk into a supermarket needing bleach and there's no bleach, that's tough luck. You really can't go and buy milk as a substitute," said Barnes & Noble chief executive James Daunt.

"Whereas in bookstores, we've got plenty of books to read. If you can't get the Sally Rooney, we'll sell you the Richard Powers or Anthony Doerr or anything else."

That said, he added, when they sell out of the runaway hit or the blockbuster that did even better than they expected, "I'll be tearing my hair out and wailing along with everybody else. But it will be a book".

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