In the rushed, waning hours of the holiday season, books are one of the ultimate last-minute purchases for shoppers who have run out of time or ideas for those on their lists.
Waiting would not be a good move this year.
Add fictional escapes, over-the-top recipes, and big-name memoirs to the growing list of products that have fallen victim to a global supply chain in convulsion. The trusty neighborhood bookstore owner is increasingly nervous about empty shelves and display tables at the height of holiday shopping, and is urging customers to treat books this year as a first priority — not a last resort.
“October is the new December,” as one trade group for bookstores put it.
“The pieces of this chaotic supply chain puzzle have been piling up over the last year and a half,” said Alex Meriwether, the general manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “We can’t make books magically appear.”
A confluence of obstacles — with paper, printing, and labor — have left publishers struggling to meet release dates. Like so many other products, many books now, and the paper they’re printed on, come from Asia.
The disruption has forced shops to revisit when and how they buy books. In Before Times, bookstores relied on a just-in-time strategy, ordering titles in small quantities as they were purchased by customers. This year, those same books can take weeks, rather than days, to place on shelves.
So sellers are stocking up sooner, and in bulk.
Wendy Hudson, who operates Nantucket Bookworks and Mitchell’s Book Corner, said her approach this year was “just ordering everything.”
Rachel Cass, buying and inventory manager at Harvard Book Store, chose titles from publishers’ fall catalogs in August, one month earlier than usual, and completed the store’s “Holiday 100″ recommendations list in October. She also increased the quantity of her fall order by 50 percent.
“If I didn’t do that, we could’ve been in a situation where the holiday season is in full swing, and the book we need is on a cargo ship somewhere,” Cass said.
Of course, buying in bulk like that is a roll of the dice, an educated guessing game predicting what titles will sell.
That can inevitably place a burden on sellers with limited ability to buy and store large orders. Meriwether, for example, cleared event chairs from the Harvard Book Store basement to accommodate dozens of boxes.
But bookstores say it’s worth the investment. One in four print books is purchased in November and December each year, according to the market research group NPD. Some bookstores do 30 to 60 percent of their annual business in the last six weeks of the year, said Allison Hill, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association.
Navigating supply chain hurdles to keep up with the demand, though, can be a tedious task. (Print book sales saw their best year since 2009 during the pandemic, NPD found, with more than 750 million sold nationwide. So far in 2021, sales are up nearly another 19 percent, according to Publishers Weekly.)
The problem starts with a paper shortage, driven by widespread closures of Chinese paper mills and the rising price of wood pulp, according to a report from the printing company Sheridan.
Then there are difficulties with printers, which are increasingly hard to find in the United States. Major printing presses within American borders have closed steadily since 2008, when print sales started to decline, and books with heavy color printing were largely outsourced to Asia. That means publishers cannot reprint popular titles that sell out quickly.
“Front-line titles that sell through their entire print run can’t be reordered in time,” said Katherine Nazzaro, general manager of Porter Square Books: Boston Edition. “Once something is off the shelf, it could stay that way until January.”
Then there’s transportation. The cost to rent shipping containers has increased tenfold, and truck drivers to haul them are in short supply. Labor shortages also plague warehouses and bookshops. Even after boxes ship, they reach beleaguered cargo ports grappling with container ship traffic jams.
“I don’t even know if I’d call it supply chain disruption anymore,” Hill said. “It’s supply chain devastation.”
Take Candlewick Press. The Somerville-based publisher said its children’s books travel from Asia to the West Coast and then to Chicago, two executives said in an e-mail. The rail yard transfer there first felt trouble early in the pandemic, and the effects have compounded. Candlewick titles sometimes arrive six to 10 weeks late, and multiple release dates have been pushed by two months.
“We have been working to avoid the critical chokepoints,” wrote president Karen Lotz and chief financial officer Hilary Berkman. “But since everyone is doing this, backlogs quickly develop in new areas.”
Dan Wackrow, chief financial and operating officer of Harvard University Press, agreed. The academic publisher has seen a fifth of its titles delayed by one month or more, after sitting in ports for up to two weeks. Prices of the press’s freight containers more than doubled this year — from 12 cents to 25 cents per pound.
And delays abound in bookshops.
Nazzaro of Porter Square Books: Boston Edition postponed the Seaport store’s soft opening by a month to October because much of the inventory had not arrived. She was also waiting on shelf ladders and cash registers — another consequence of the fractured supply chain.
Nicola Orichuia, cofounder of I AM Books, said 15 of every 100 titles he orders are not immediately available. He operated online during the pandemic and will open a North End storefront in November. Shipping fees increased by 10 to 20 percent for Orichuia, while USPS media mail rates went up 30 cents per pound.
“It’s all a little heavier on the wallet,” he said.
Despite their best efforts, sellers acknowledge that supplies of fan favorites — “Song of Achilles” or Stanley Tucci’s memoir, “Taste: My Life through Food” — may eventually run thin. The situation has worsened since 2020 when the books shortage was less noticeable. Still, this is the moment for which independent bookshops were created, Nazzaro said.
If a customer walks in and can’t find what they came for, they might go elsewhere, she acknowledged, or buy it “from Amazon, God forbid.” But also, a savvy bookseller can recommend something unexpected, and open up a whole new world.
“Stores are still going to have books,” Hill said. “Sure, they won’t have every book. But they are still going to have things they love that may not be mainstream bestsellers. Often, those make the perfect gift.”