Publishing Dilemmas, Distribution, and Disruption

The holidays are coming! As writers, we know this is a powerful gift-giving season, and we hope that people will give our books as gifts. As readers, we treasure these hand-chosen gifts of entertainment or enlightenment, knowing that friends have given us something they know we will love.

But this year, there’s a problem…or rather a whole bunch of problems. I’d already been working on this article when I was invited to attend a summit meeting on the state of the publishing industry right now. Every speaker started with, “I want to say something positive. But…”

Have you heard?

There’s a paper shortage.

Not a toilet paper shortage…a paper shortage.

The cost of wood has increased. Paper mills were reducing production before the pandemic due to decreased demand, but that demand is increasing.

Problem: the pandemic has made it very difficult to increase production of anything due to labor shortages. We could theoretically import paper, but shipping costs are outrageous and the shortages are global.

Much of the material that would normally become paper that could be printed on is instead being made into cardboard boxes. Book manufacturers are wondering if we can use different grades of material to make the paper used in books. Printers are being allocated only so much paper. The problem isn’t with the size of their orders, but how much their suppliers can send. Publishers and printers are having to decide which of the many orders they have that they can fulfill. In essence, they are considering rationing the supplies they have.

I’m not even going to talk about the shortages of packing tape, glue, or the special fibers used in making hardcovers.

There’s an ink shortage.

Ethanol is used in making ink. Ethanol is also used in the production of disinfectants and the products we use to sanitize surfaces. Medical environments are being given priority access to this limited resource.

There’s also a labor shortage.

People are nervous about returning to work while the pandemic continues to make itself felt. Those who can retire early are taking this opportunity. In the book world, this means that we’re dealing with a shortage of people to run the presses, stock the warehouses, and drive the trucks.

The printing industry tends to run on an older workforce.

One statistic quoted in the summit was that 1.2 million people over 55 have retired due to COVID. One printer said that Walmart is paying their employees better than they can afford to, and they get full benefits right away. The manual labor needed to run presses, box up the books, and put them on trucks is getting harder and harder to find.

Many printers have closed their doors or gone bankrupt.

Then there’s the shipping crisis.

Shipping prices have increased dramatically over the last year as snarls in the Panama Canal and major shipping ports all over the world have caused disruptions. Bottlenecks are causing shortages of shipping containers, while many shipping containers sit on ships around the world, waiting to be unloaded. The cost of shipping has quadrupled.

And of course, the post office is slowing down, too.

In short, the supply chain is a mess.

Holidays are always busy times for printers.

Publishers know they need to plan print orders carefully around the end of the year. What will be the most popular gift book of the season? They need to make sure those are in stock. Chatter in the publishing industry is growing more concerned as publishers place their holiday orders earlier, hoping to get the stock they need in time.

What does this mean for the book industry?

Ingram, one of the largest printers and wholesale fulfillment centers, has announced that they are raising prices for printing in November. We’re seeing other printing venues, many of which rely on printers run by Ingram, raising their printing rates as well.

Ingram has asked publishers to consider switching to a print-on-demand model, the same model used by indie authors and publishers.

Traditional publishing and the distributors that manage their books have decided to increase their large orders and order early for the holidays. They have no intention of switching to print-on-demand except under extreme circumstances. (One statistic showed that during the Black Lives Matter movement, when the NYT bestseller list was full of unpredicted titles, 70% of the books sold during that time were print-on-demand.)

My Thoughts About All This

I’ve been watching this develop and doing a lot of thinking.

  • Print books aren’t going away. People love books.
  • Print books are going to be more expensive to produce. People are going to have to get used to paying more for the privilege of reading printed books, at least in the short term.
  • It is possible that alternative fibers may be used.
  • Automation is increasing, so more books can be printed with fewer human hours invested.
  • People will need to be patient. Deliveries will be delayed. Giving physical books as gifts may become more of a challenge.

Is there an upside?

Actually, there are a few.

  • Book sales are increasing, depending on what genre you’re looking at.
  • Authors have an opportunity to disrupt the publishing industry as we move into this holiday season.

What if we promote audio and digital products?

Embracing the new normal.

Ebooks and audiobooks have advantages over physical books.

  • You can increase the font size or change the playback speed
  • An entire library can fit in your pocket
  • Better for the planet
  • No shipping required

What can we do to make giving an ebook or an audiobook more desirable?

If you want to give something tangible, think inside the box.

What if we create beautiful gift cards for ebooks and wrap them up? Ebooks are generally cheaper than printed books. We can give more books for the same price!

7 Ideas for Enhancing eBooks as Gifts

I polled several groups of authors that I know and we put together some ideas to increase the fun factor of egifts.

  1. Put the download link into a QR code. Then work that QR code into the image on a pretty card, making the card interactive and fun. You can do this with a physical or electronic card.
  2. Buy a book from a used book store and then put the digital gift code inside as a bookmark -—bonus points if you are giving a book in a series.
  3. If your gift comes in the form of a code, create a puzzle that reveals the code: put the puzzle in a card. You can get as creative as you’d like with these, from crossword puzzles to quizzes from other books you know this author loves, or even teasers about the gift. Again, this could be a physical card or an email.
  4. Put the gift code in a box of tea or other reader-friendly experience.
  5. Give a gift that relates to the book, and attach the ebook code to it.
  6. Attach the code to a picture of the book cover. Bonus points for framing the image or being creative in how you use the image.
  7. Create an ultimate reader gift: a warm cozy blanket, mug with supplies for their favorite hot beverage, and a gift code for an ebook you know they’ll love.

What about the dilemma around the different technologies that people use to buy their ebooks?

We don’t have an easy way to guess what format our gift recipient needs. And yet we face this same dilemma when we give sweaters or jewelry — what size does the person wear? We’ve grown adept at guessing and being sneaky to figure out our loved one’s size. Learning our friends’ digital preferences can become part of the gift-giving adventure.

BookFunnel or similar tools may offer a solution

If we do know what type of technology our reader loves, we can give them a gift directly from their chosen venue. Not all, but most, ebook retailers offer the option to give an ebook as a gift to someone. They can email it directly to the recipient. Or, if you “give” it to yourself, you can get a code to give to the recipient to redeem.

One more advantage to ebooks, especially for indie authors.

Generally, a higher percentage of the profits from digital goods go to the authors. By making the move to giving digital gifts, we won’t only be saving the planet, we’ll be feeding the creatives, helping them to continue creating new and exciting stories for us to share with our loved ones.

What do you think? Who’s with me in creating a digital gift-giving disruption this holiday season? Let’s discuss in the comment section!

Links for more info:

Top Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

Originally published at Writers in the Storm, October 20, 2021 Publishing Dilemmas, Distribution, and Disruption | Writers In The Storm (

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *