If Your Books Isn’t Shipping During the Quarantine, Here’s Why

Everyone knows that the current quarantine is throwing a wrench in the book publishing works, but what does that really mean?

Earlier this month an editor with a leading SF publisher explained on Facebook just what is happening behind the scenes.

First, you need to know that the vast majority of our business remains in hardcover and paperback books. Hard copies, physical objects. The second strongest sector has been audio books. Ebooks are a distant third.

Selling books is a very long and complicated supply chain. Ignore editorial — writers and editors can work at a distance and electronically. It really starts with the paper. Storing paper for the big presses takes an enormous amount of warehouse space, which costs money. Printers don’t store a lot — they rely on a “just in time” supply chain so that when a book is scheduled to go to press, the paper is delivered to the printer. Most of that paper is manufactured in China. Guess what isn’t coming from China? Anything, for the last three months. Some of it comes from Canada. Guess what the Trump administration put a big tariff on at the beginning of the year?

So, we don’t have adequate paper supplies. Then consider, big printing plants are not “essential businesses”. There are only a couple printers in the US that can handle the book manufacturing business. One of them shut down last week. Covid-19. We started rescheduling books like mad to deal with that.

But supposing we had paper, and a printer and bindery, the books have to be shipped to the warehouse. Again, non-essential movement. The freight drivers moving books? Staying home, as they should. Not all of them. I hope they remain healthy, because dying to get the latest bestseller to the warehouse doesn’t seem quite right to me.

Now then, our warehouse. We have a gigantic facility in Virginia. Lots of people are working there, bless them, but it’s putting them at risk. There they are, filling orders, packing boxes, running invoices. Giving those boxes to the freight drivers who take the books to the bookstores and distributors. Again, truck drivers risking their lives to bring books to the bookstores.

But think again. The bookstores are closed. The distributors are closed . No place open to deliver the books to. Some bookstores are doing mail order business, bless them, but they aren’t ordering very many books from our warehouse. Amazon isn’t ordering very many, either — because they have (correctly) stopped shipping books and are using their reduced staff to ship medical supplies and food.

So the books that distributors and sellers ordered months ago are not being printed or shipped or sold. And because of that, they aren’t making any money. And because of THAT, they are not ordering any books for months from now. Plus they aren’t paying for the books they got from us last month and the month before. Cash flow has ground to a halt.

Now, audio books….turns out that people mostly, almost 100%, listen to audio books while they commute to work. Sales of audio books collapsed about three weeks ago. Fortunately, there isn’t a physical supply chain there, so theoretically that business can restart immediately upon resumption of commuting.

I understand the situation the industry is in. I don’t have a supply chain issue, but the shutdown of all public events has cost me all of my carefully laid plans to meet new clients at conferences and trade shows. I’ve had to pull out all the projects I didn’t have time or interest for before, and see which ones can still be implemented during a quarantine.

I would expect publishers are doing the same.

image by MacBeales via Flickr

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.

11 Comments

  1. Xavier Basora19 April, 2020

    Nate
    so book publishers bet on paper and lost. They’re not a cultural industry but a lumber distribution one.

    Bottom line publishers not offering ebooks or audiobooks ate out of business.

    xavier

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder19 April, 2020

      pretty much

      Reply
  2. Disgusting Dude20 April, 2020

    One minor point: Amazon doesn’t have a reduced staff. They’ve hired 175,000 added workers to deal with the increased demand. They probably now have the largest staff they’ve ever had. They aren’t ordering print books because they have more important uses for those workers, not because they don’t have the staff.

    And, if ebooks are a distant third at a publishing house, it is by choice. They decided to overcharge on ebooks to protect dead tree pulp sales. Not every publisher did so. BAEN is still releasing their ebook bundles on schedule and hopefully making enough to survive.

    Reply
  3. tired20 April, 2020

    “But think again. The bookstores are closed. The distributors are closed . No place open to deliver the books to.”

    This is incorrect. Walmart is the biggest brick and mortar store front, which is open. And Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Books a Million are all offering online ordering which is probably where most of the business has been anyway in the past ten to twenty years. And I’m certain those large chains are paying their bills.

    And new releases are still coming out. Even from Tor without any slow down! I’m sorry but this is just BS. This exec makes it sound like the industry is ground to a halt when the truth is just that the revenue stream suffered a cut. Yeah it is severe but not bankrupting.

    What Tor really should be worried about is how much money they’re going to lose by shifting most of their resources into printing high profit margin hardcovers. We’re looking at a crippling recession. Nobody is going to buy their overpriced hardcovers anymore.

    Reply
  4. […] Here is what is going on with print books that are traditionally published right now. […]

    Reply
  5. Allen F20 April, 2020

    As someone else pointed out ebooks are third only because they priced themselves out of the market to prop up their paper. I’d say ‘adapt or die’, but the paper and bookstores were the only reason a writer would risk a crap trad-pub contract and not just self-publish these days.

    And now with the paper/bookstores cut off the writers that went trad-pub are swinging in the wind …

    Reply
  6. Xavier Basora21 April, 2020

    @tired.
    Well the publishing industry has pretty much ground to a halt. On the the 23 is Sant Jordi. Spanish publishers pretty much make their year sales on that day. Since it’s been postponed the publishers and everyone else is ree ing hysterically

    Sure they’ve worked out alternatives but no one can get the books nor are the ebooks available especially from the small independent publishers.
    It’s exasperating for a reader like me that I can’t buy books in my preferred format ’cause of some fetish For wood pulp and ink

    xavier

    Reply
  7. […] Here is what is going on with print books that are traditionally published right now. […]

    Reply
  8. “Now, audio books….turns out that people mostly, almost 100%, listen to audio books while they commute to work. Sales of audio books collapsed about three weeks ago. Fortunately, there isn’t a physical supply chain there, so theoretically that business can restart immediately upon resumption of commuting.”

    The almost 100% commuters accounting for audiobook sales had about as much connection to reality as the “ebooks a distant third to print” – publishers get what they ask consumers to pay for. High ebook prices deter sales.

    Simon & Schuster this week report a 16% surge in ebook and audiobook sales in Q1 – most of which of course was not impacted in the US by Covid-19 – and S&S audiobooks show a very different story from Tor’s experience, with the initial dip as commuters downloaded less quickly balanced by more downloads from those at home.

    In unlimited subscription terms audiobooks have soared, not fallen, perhaps reflecting the economics of US publishers putting too many audio eggs in the Audible basket.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder9 May, 2020

      There are several problems with starting argument over this.

      One, your Aha! refutation has no actual stats to back it up, merely vague statements. Two, you are taking an anecdotal report from the Tor editor and are treating it as industry-wide stats. And three, S&S confirmed the audiobook sales trend reported by the Tor editor. S&S said that trend reversed itself, but it still happened.

      Reply
  9. […] narrative gained steam when a Tor editor posted on Facebook in early April – later picked up by The Digital Reader […]

    Reply

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