When publishers print books in the United States, those work force 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 don’t have enough people to run them, so badly needed machinery can sit idle.
All of these problems compound one another. “Trucks are more expensive, containers are more expensive, labor is more expensive,” said Jon Yaged, the president of Macmillan’s U.S. 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 emails. It’s a lot more work.”
This mess has led to a cascade of publication date changes, 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 on Tuesday but is now due out next week. Princeton University Press pushed the “The End of Ambition” by Mark Atwood Lawrence, from October to November. “Smahtguy,” a graphic novel about former Representative Barney Frank, was delayed by Metropolitan Books, a Macmillan imprint, from the fall until the spring. Publishers consider such shifts a last resort, because a date change can lead to events or news coverage being scrapped, retail promotions canceled and fewer orders placed. Publishers have prioritized the schedules of the coming books that they expect to be their biggest sellers.
There isn’t 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 farther out in advance and sometimes even putting shipments of books on planes. One publisher said it currently costs roughly 35 to 50 cents per book to send titles across the water, and $5 to $8 by air. No one knows when things will go back to normal, but it won’t 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. Normally, this kind of order takes about three weeks. Now, it can take three months.
This is where “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days” got into trouble. The book, which chronicles an American woman who helped lead the German resistance against the Nazis, didn’t run out everywhere, but it took weeks to get new stock into warehouses, then additional time to get it to retailers. (Barnes & Noble, along with many independent stores, had copies all along — its nonfiction buyer loved the book, according to Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble, so the chain ordered a lot of it.) It took Amazon more than seven weeks to get copies back in stock.
Indeed, 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, nonfiction and general-interest titles, was up nearly 10 percent last year compared with 2019, according to the Association of American Publishers, and was up 17 percent for the first six months of 2021, compared with the same period in 2020.