“It’s lose lose,” said Dennis Johnson, the co-publisher of Melville House. “Heaven help you if that printing was a reprint of a book in demand. The delay can really be devastating to the book’s chances.”
Publishers have been struggling with capacity issues at the printers for several years. In 2018, the 125-year-old company Edwards Brothers Malloy closed. A proposed merger between Quad and LSC fell through last year after the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit to block the deal. More than a decade ago, when e-book sales were growing, many printing companies believed that digital would eventually overtake print sales, and so for years there was little capital investment in printing infrastructure. But then sales of print books started to rebound and have held steady; printers have been playing catch-up.
In recent months, the pandemic and shutdown have put even more financial strain on printing companies, as printers have faced a sharp drop in academic and textbook sales.
There are no quick solutions to the supply chain issues, publishing executives say. Printing books overseas, or using on-demand printing services, can provide a stopgap if a book is out of stock, but are costly alternatives.
Some worry that the current crunch could reverse the yearslong trend of stable and sometimes rising print sales, sending readers back to digital books, which are less lucrative for publishers and authors, and especially brick and mortar retailers. “With a lack of capacity and growing uncertainty in a printing world, will that force the marketplace back to digital?” said Corey Berger, senior vice president of marketing for Readerlink, the main book distributor to Target, Walmart and other outlets.
Booksellers are worried that as publishers release a massive number of new books this fall, titles will run out of stock, leaving them unable to fulfill customer orders.
“We’re concerned about the unknown author, the first-time novelist who may be down the pecking order in terms of print priorities,” said James Daunt, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble. “Booksellers want to get their hands on them, and the copies aren’t there.”
Elizabeth A. Harris contributed reporting.