Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Books are the latest good to suffer from the nation's supply chain woes


We've all heard about how supply chain disruptions are affecting all kinds of goods - right? - furniture, clothes, toys, computer chips. And it pains me to say this, but books are on that list, too.

WBEZ's Greta Johnsen found that the publishing industry is on edge this holiday season.

GRETA JOHNSEN, BYLINE: Sandra Law has a lot of worried clients right now.

SANDRA LAW: Definitely a lot of emails from customers - where are my books? Where are my books?

JOHNSEN: Law is the Midwest sales rep for Abraham Associates, which represents more than 30 small publishers. She says there are supply chain issues at practically every step of the bookmaking process. There's a paper shortage. There's a glue shortage. Law says 98% of the books we read here in the U.S. are printed in China. So even if a publisher can find a printer overseas and they can find paper and all the books get made, the publisher still needs a shipping container.

LAW: It's a little wild. Shipping containers used to only cost around $2,500. Now some publishers are having to spend upwards of $25,000. Definitely as, like, a publisher operations person, oof (ph), (laughter) it's just not the time to have that job.

CLARK MATTHEWS: There aren't as many mills as there used to be. They've all shut down. They're going bankrupt. They're retooling for diapers. And everybody knows about the ships that are off the coast of California right now and off the coast of Boston. It's real.

JOHNSEN: That is Clark Matthews. He is the vice president and general manager of IPG Ink, a book distributor and printer based in Chicago. At IPG, there's a giant room with industrial paper cutters, conveyor belts, massive rolls of paper and huge printers.

Oh, I see a red light. That's probably not good, huh?

MATTHEWS: Yeah. The red light means no good. In the bowels of this machine, an important belt broke. And that important belt cannot easily be replaced.

JOHNSEN: Is that partly because supply chain?

MATTHEWS: Yes. Our technician is going to another site and stripping an existing machine somewhere else of that part and putting it on this machine.

JOHNSEN: Because of all these issues, Matthews has found as many logistical redundancies as he can.

MATTHEWS: My supply chain is stronger now than it's ever been 'cause I've got a Plan B and a Plan C for everything.

JOHNSEN: And booksellers are also trying to think about their Plans B and C, especially now as people start buying gifts for the holidays.

JAVIER RAMIREZ: It's going to be an issue for sure. Don't ignore it.

JOHNSEN: Javier Ramirez co-owns and runs Exile in Bookville, an indie bookstore in Chicago. Only about half of the shop sales come from new books. They sell used books, too. So he thinks he'll be safer from shortages than the stores that rely only on shiny new releases.

RAMIREZ: I think it's those big titles - you know, the Sally Rooneys and Colson Whiteheads and Jonathan Franzens. I think that's where bookstores are going to be impacted.

JOHNSEN: Now, of course, if you have your heart set on the new Colson Whitehead, you could download an audiobook or an e-book. But someone who waits till the last minute to do any holiday shopping is definitely going to feel the impact.

RAMIREZ: Somebody's going to walk in looking for a gift for their uncle who loves military history nonfiction, and he's going to get a book on how to press flowers, you know?

JOHNSEN: So essentially, customers are going to have to have a Plan C, too. And who knows? Maybe instead of the history of the panzer tank, Uncle Dave will get into pressing pansies. So when shopping for the book nerd in your life, be flexible about what books you're giving this holiday season. And if you unwrap a book you weren't expecting, hey, flower pressing is kind of awesome.

For NPR News, I'm Greta Johnsen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greta Johnsen