Books and Supply Chains: A Christmas Challenge for Authors, Publishers and Booksellers

Source: Canadian Coast Guard

On October 22, the Malta registered giant container ship Zim Kingston, enroute from South Korea to Vancouver, lost 109 containers overboard in heavy seas off the coast of Vancouver Island. Although four containers washed ashore further north up the coast, most are assumed to have sunk. Two days later a fire broke out aboard the ship. The fire was eventually contained, with water and smoke damage to some of the remaining 1900 containers. The ship was escorted to an anchorage off the Port of Victoria, where it remained for several weeks pending a decision as to when and where to offload it. It has now been decided that it will be moved to the nearby port of Nanaimo for unloading, inspection, disposal and triage. While the containers that went overboard were known to have contained everything from fridges to stuffed toys, no one has been able to do an inventory of the contents of the containers that remain on board to see what they contain and what condition the contents are in.

Somewhere on that ship, if they did not go overboard, are 15,000 books that Orca Book Publishers of Victoria were expecting from the printers in China. The books, which Orca reports were new stock of five bestselling nonfiction titles for children, were to fill pre-holiday orders for bookstores and schools, and were expected to be on the shelf for Christmas sales. Four of the books were written by local authors. Orca is an independently owned Canadian book publisher with “1200 active titles in print and digital formats and 95 new titles each year”. It states that it prides itself on publishing Canadian authors.

Why was Orca having Canadian authored books printed in China? Printing books is expensive and in a trade with low margins, saving on printing costs is a key consideration. The savings from printing in countries like China are so great, in terms of cost of labour and materials, that even the expense of shipping does not negate the cost savings. Most publishers in Canada, the US and elsewhere outsource their printing, and much of this is done in China or Korea. This leads to situations like the one faced by Orca Books when supply chains are disrupted. Orca’s experience with the Zim Kingston is rare; most supply chain blockages are not a result of containers going into the drink, catching on fire, or the ship having to wait while it is declared safe for unloading. Yet supply chain issues abound. As reported in the Canadian Press, quoting Kate Edwards, Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Publishers;

“The trouble starts with a worldwide paper shortage, which alongside surging demand for adhesives and ink, has made the book production process more expensive and more complicated…The scarcity of raw materials has, in turn, jammed up book printers…leaving publishers jockeying for press time at premium prices…(T)he obstacles stack up further on the distribution side as shortages of workers, shipping containers and storage space cause delivery delays.”

In an industry where a sizeable share of book purchases is gift-related, missing the holiday season can be catastrophic for booksellers, resulting not just in disappointed customers (who may not return, giving up on their local bookshop to buy on Amazon) but also in a surfeit of books after the holiday season when they have lost their market appeal. I am not in the book trade, but I can imagine that it is a tricky proposition to ensure that books that suddenly gain prominence through winning awards such as the Man Booker in the UK, National Book Award in the US, Governor-General’s Literary Awards in Canada and similar awards in other countries are printed in sufficient quantity, distributed and shelf ready for the holiday season. For some reason these prizes are normally all awarded in November, leading to the Christmas scramble. Supply chain issues arising from a shortage of workers, and shipping and port holdups arising in part from COVID, only exacerbate the problem. At the end of the day, some reshoring of book printing may solve part of the problem, but closer access to local printers has to be balanced against increased costs. Supply issues are just one more problem faced by the industry, and by those who provide the industry with the content that makes it all happen, authors.

It’s a tough time to be an author. A couple of years ago, The Writers’ Union of Canada released the results of a survey showing that Canadian writers made on average $12,789 annually, about a quarter of the national average income. Figures for the US and UK are similar. Changes in technology offer some hope, especially for independent authors seeking new audiences, but any benefit is arguably more than offset by rampant online piracy of titles. And it’s not just guerrilla piracy that is the problem. Organized, widespread, “legitimized” piracy like the Controlled Digital Lending program of the Internet Archive represents a fundamental challenge to the digital licensing models of the publishing industry. It is not surprising that CDL is the subject of a major lawsuit brought in the US by several large international publishers against the Internet Archive.

In Canada, the business model for educational publishing has had the rug pulled out from under it by the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in the cross appeal of the Access Copyright v York University case. The Court ruled that the basis of collective licensing, the mandatory tariffs certified by the Copyright Board of Canada, were not reciprocally binding on rights-holders and users. Users could decide to opt-out and decline to pay the tariff to the collective, leaving litigation by individual rights-holders as the only recourse. This presents a further challenge to writers and publishers in Canada and, as I wrote shortly after the decision was released (“Supreme Court of Canada Decision Undermines Canada’s Collective Licensing System: A Parliamentary Fix is Needed”), it would seem that the only alternative is for Parliament to remedy deficiencies in the legislation if Canadian publishing and the ability of Canadian writers to earn a living is to be preserved.

The good news is that books and writers continue to be in demand. COVID, if anything, has strengthened an interest in reading. But an interest that cannot be satisfied because the book has not arrived from the printer in China leads to frustration rather than satisfaction. As Scott Fraser, president of Canadian publisher Dundurn Press has been quoted as saying, missed sale opportunities for writers can be devastating;

It is a major, major source of anxiety because they don’t get paid if the books don’t sell”.

All those Orca books aboard the Zim Kingston, (if indeed, they are still aboard) won’t earn their authors one penny until they are in the hands of readers. Children’s books tend to find their way into Christmas stockings and Santa only comes but once per year. Ironically, in a statement Orca Books indicated that it had been planning to phase out printing in China and the Zim Kingston shipment was one of the last to be printed there. According to publisher Andrew Woolridge;

Earlier this year, we made the decision to transition the bulk of our printing away from printing overseas in favour of printing in Canada. There are many reasons for this shift; politically, socially, environmentally we are endeavouring to match our printing decisions more closely to our overall mandate and goals. These books were amongst the last planned printings in China and Korea”

Too bad they didn’t make the switch sooner. This was one overseas printing too many. Let’s hope that these and other books enroute, clogged in the supply chain, will get through to consumers in a timely way. Writers need the income, publishers need the cash-flow, booksellers need the customers and readers need their book fix. In a world where many books are pirated online, copied without compensation or loaned digitally without the necessary licenses, the sale of the good old fashioned bound book remains a staple of the industry. But when it is printed halfway around the world, what can go wrong will go wrong. Just ask Orca Books.

© Hugh Stephens 2021. All Rights Reserved.

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