Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street is one of the prettiest shops in London with its glass ceiling and oak-paneled galleries. However, during this festive season, the Edwardian setting is a little less elegant than usual. Between the aisles and above the shelves in some parts of the store are boxes and piles of disorganized books.
Like booksellers across the UK, Daunt is concerned that the crisis in global supply chains will cause customer demand to become unmet in the run-up to Christmas. To reduce the risk of shortages, it has ordered far more stock than usual. The chain’s storage rooms are almost full with nowhere else for inventory.
Rose Cole, general manager, warned some stocks could still run out of shipments by the end of this month. “More titles won’t come in time,” she said. “It will [get] getting worse.”
She is right to be concerned. Bottlenecks have been developing further up the supply chain for months. Fabrice Holler, chief operating officer of CPI Books, the largest printing company in Europe, said there was “very strong pressure on the system”.
The problems start at the top of the chain, where raw material supplies are scarce. The paper industry has been in decline for years, not least because the digitization of books and a multitude of other media forced factories to close.
Figures from the commodity data provider Fastmarkets show that the industry in Europe has lost 1.3 million tons or around 20 percent of its capacity in so-called mechanical grinding, a primary production technology, in the last five years.
During the pandemic, the demand for the raw material rose unexpectedly strongly. The boom in e-commerce left retailers looking for cardboard boxes, while book sales soared as locked-up people started reading again.
Lars Lundin, CEO of Holmen, one of Europe’s largest manufacturers of paper for books, said it was still honoring its supply contracts but admitted that it took the Stockholm-based group longer to deliver paper than it did earlier in the year.
Such delays cause problems for printers. CPI, which accounts for about 40 percent of Europe’s printing market, said it now took the company three weeks to produce books – much longer than the usual seven days, due to difficulties in sourcing supplies.
Expenditures have also risen sharply in the last six to twelve months, said Holler: paper by 20 to 30 percent, energy by 25 percent and transport, glue and plastic packaging by as much as 15 percent.
“We need to pass the increases on where we can,” he said, adding that the printer has raised prices for publishers by an average of 5 percent.
The demand for paper was so strong, according to Holler, that CPI also had to limit sales to some customers. Amazon has been particularly aggressive in building inventories for both packaging and books, he added.
Raids in paper mills and printing plants are just the beginning. Publishers too are grappling with the same shortage of containers, blockages in ports and the shortage of truck drivers that have plagued a multitude of consumer industries.
Factories in the UK can print normal black and white text, but the country lacks the facilities for color publications that need to be imported. Therefore, according to publishers and retailers, the risk of scarcity is greatest in genres such as children, cooking and gardening: titles that are often given away for Christmas.
The delivery delays are “getting worse every day,” said Karina Stevens, operations manager at the children’s publishing house Nosy Crow. Hong Kong delivery times have roughly doubled from the usual five or six weeks, she added.
Smaller publishers in particular lack the bargaining power to secure space on ships. Larger companies, especially those with higher quality stocks, can pay more for the slots.
Recently, a ship had unloaded a container full of Nosy Crow products destined for Southampton, Singapore, Stevens said. “You have literally just unloaded our container at the port in Singapore. We had to wait for the next ship a week later. “
“We tried to bring dates forward and gave more time. But there is a limit to what we can do. . . There are still things like last minute port closings that cannot be planned. “
Andrew Franklin, co-founder of Profile Books, publisher of authors such as Francis Fukuyama and Jonathan Dimbleby, said, “We have some big titles in the works right now. Can we keep it in print? We do not know it.”
Book presentations and signings already had to be postponed.
The complications related to Brexit would have made both exports and imports problematic, Franklin said. “It used to take us a day and a half to get our books to Ireland. It currently takes between six and ten days. “
The onslaught of retailers like Daunt to order well in advance has boosted publishers’ sales in recent months: for example, Bloomsbury, listed in London, saw sales jump 29 percent year-on-year in the first half of the year, to a record high of 101 million pounds.
However, given the difficulty of balancing supply and demand, publishers cautioned that retailers would likely return more unsold books than usual after the holiday season. “We see large gaps in what has been ordered [by retailers] and what was sold, ”added Franklin.
Consumers, meanwhile, are encouraged to place orders now if they want to make sure they get their selected titles in time for Christmas.
Cole said none of Daunt’s customers had encountered unexpected bottlenecks yet. But she added, “If you ask me the same question in a month, it will be different.”