Printer Jam: Serious Supply Issues Disrupt the Book Industry’s Fall Season

From The New York Times:

This spring, when the pandemic forced bookstores across the country to close and authors to cancel their tours, many editors and publishers made a gamble. They postponed the publication of dozens of titles, betting that things would be back to normal by the fall.

Now, with September approaching, things are far from normal. Books that were bumped from spring and early summer are landing all at once, colliding with long-planned fall releases and making this one of the most crowded fall publishing seasons ever. And now publishers are confronting a new hurdle: how to print all those books.

The two largest printing companies in the United States, Quad and LSC Communications, have been under intense financial strain, a situation that has grown worse during the pandemic. LSC declared bankruptcy in April, and the company’s sales fell nearly 40 percent in the fiscal quarter that ended June 30, a drop that the company attributed partly to the closure of retailers during the pandemic and the steep fall of educational book sales. In September, LSC’s assets will be put up for auction. Quad’s book printing business is also up for sale; this spring, the company had to temporarily shut down its printers at three plants due to the pandemic.

At the same time, there has been a surprising spike in sales for print books, a development that would normally be cause for celebration, but is now forcing publishers to scramble to meet surging demand. Unit sales of print books are up more than 5 percent over last year, and sales have accelerated over the summer. From early June to mid-August, print sales were up more than 12 percent over the previous 10 weeks, according to NPD BookScan. The surge has been driven by several new blockbuster titles, including books by Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, John Bolton and Mary Trump. Publishers have also seen an unexpected demand for older titles, particularly books about race and racism, children’s educational workbooks and fiction.

“The infinite printer capacity hasn’t been there for a while, now enter Covid and a huge surge in demand, and you have an even more complex situation,” said Sue Malone-Barber, senior vice president and director of Publishing Operations for Penguin Random House, which is delaying titles at several of its imprints as a result of the crunch.

The backlog at the printers is creating havoc for authors and publishers. Reprints for books that are selling well, which normally take two weeks, are sometimes taking more than a month.

. . . .

Print runs for new titles are getting squeezed and pushed back. Carefully calibrated publication schedules are being blown up as books are moved into late fall and even next year.

Knopf and Pantheon are shifting the release of more than a dozen fall titles, including a memoir by the cookbook author Deborah Madison and a biography of Sylvia Plath, due to “severe capacity issues with our printing partners.” The imprints are also delaying fiction by Robert Harris, Martin Amis, Jo Nesbo, Alexander McCall Smith and Tom Bissell, whose story collection, “Creative Types,” is being bumped to 2021.

The reshuffling is impacting prominent, award-winning authors and first-time novelists alike. Doubleday has postponed the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick’s forthcoming book, “Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and

America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World,” until February of next year.

St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan, pushed back “Tsarina,” a debut novel by Ellen Alpsten, from October to November, a month many publishers had been avoiding because of the election.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to DM for the tip.

Supply issues will disrupt the fall season

From Nathan Bransford:

Pandemic-related capacity issues at printing companies are wreaking havoc on publishers’ fall schedules. The crunch has, ironically enough, been exacerbated by a surge in print sales and underinvestment in printing infrastructure in anticipation of increasing adoption of e-books. Reprints for hot-selling books now take a month or more and publishers are pushing back publication dates.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Digital Printing: The New Normal

From Publishing Trends:

Everyone’s looking for silver linings in their COVID-19 playbooks, and for publishers – along with their distributors and wholesalers – the answer is, paradoxically, print. 

In the olden, pre-pandemic days when most books were printed offset, digital files were stored in case a book needed to be reprinted quickly. But this March, that dynamic was upended: everything shut down, some publishers’ warehouses and bookstores closed, and even Amazon slowed its bookselling to prioritize sanitizer over bestsellers.  

All of these abrupt shifts resulted in enormous strains on the supply chain, says Ingram Content Group’s Kelly Gallagher. Publishers couldn’t access their inventory; books couldn’t be shipped even to the few retailers who were open; printers couldn’t get their titles where they were supposed to be. Within weeks, Lightning Press, Ingram’s print-on-demand division, found itself creating everything from “virtual warehouses” for some clients, to print-to-order titles that were delivered direct-to-consumer via orders through bookstores and online retailers. 

Then, just as stores were coming back, protests erupted around the country and readers rushed to read up on social justice – often opting for backlist titles with low or no inventory on hand. Again, publishers looked to Ingram and other printer/distributors to supply those titles. While some, like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018), went on to sell hundreds of thousands of ebooks, print versions often had to be produced using short-run and print-on-demand (i.e. digital) techniques just to satisfy immediate demand.

“The pandemic has accelerated the move from print to digital by three years,” estimates Books International’s David Hetherington. Now, “more and more titles are born digital.” This isn’t simply a shift to ebooks, though some outlets, such as libraries have doubled their ebook downloads. Instead, “born digital” content refers to the shift from traditional first printings using offset, to smaller first runs that are printed digitally. Though the quality is not (yet) as good and the costs are higher, savings come in time and the ability to customize. 

Baker & Taylor’s Eric McGarvey agrees that digital-first is on the rise but says the shift has been taking place over the last five years, especially with university presses eager to keep overhead down while making the full range of backlist available. University presses have been in the forefront of innovation over the last few years, in part because of funding issues that forced efficiencies, and in part because some have been folded under their academic libraries, which have long embraced digital resources.

Many of these transitions are a result of improved technology. Digital presses can now handle everything from roll-fed printing and heavy paper stock to full color, a range of formats, and customization. Even the Big Five are looking to third parties to ensure books can be quickly printed and distributed through the appropriate channels. McGarvey cites a new largescale backlist title effort between a new PRH Publisher Services client and Baker & Taylor as an example. 

And BISG Executive Director Brian O’Leary sees a possible “broader conversation” than one dedicated solely to how the book is printed. “This technology enables the shift in publishing from fixed to variable expense and the ability to match capacity to demand,” he says. In other words, the old model of looking at the unit cost of a manufactured book has morphed into looking at the cost per unit sold. 

Link to the rest at Publishing Trends

Ingram Upgrades Printing

From Publishers Weekly:

Citing industry shifts as well as disruptions in the publishing supply chain caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Ingram Content Group said it is investing millions of dollars in an upgrade to its global printing and distribution network.

In the U.S., Ingram said it is investing “millions of dollars” to increase capacity in its print-on-demand manufacturing plants located in Allentown, Pa., Jackson, Tenn., and La Vergne, Tenn. New printing, binding, trimming, and shipping/sortation equipment will be installed now through October, which the company said will increase U.S. capacity “by double-digit percentages,” adding that it expects to “hire hundreds of new associates in these facilities.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

If this pans out, PG suspects the number of people in the business of acquiring, distributing, selling and reselling remaindered books is likely to decline steeply.

Publishers may be the last people on the planet to realize it’s bad business to consistently generate more inventory than you can profitably sell and that books sitting in warehouses are engendering real expenses in all sorts of ways.

Who knows where this will end? Perhaps with recruiting mathematicians instead of literature majors from the Little Ivies.

Quad, Quadrat

From Print Wiki:

When used as a verb, quad means, in typography and typesetting, to space out the blank portion of a line to its full measure. See Quadding.

When used as a noun, quad means, in metal typography, a blank piece of metal—more formally called a quadrat—used to fill up a line of type, forcing the rest of the characters into a desired position on the line. Quads were used to set a line flush left, flush right, or centered.

Link to the rest at Print Wiki

Book Typography

From TypeTogether:

Book-making has not become any easier, even with centuries of progress since Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible. New technologies have made the process faster but no less challenging. From typesetting to binding, every single step requires the eye of a conceptual artist, the keen attention to detail of an editor, and years of practice to perfect. In the realm of type design, making a great type family for books is as complex as it gets.

Great book fonts do not scream, draw attention to themselves, or require a multitude of styles to be useful. Since their task is to relay content while creating an enjoyable reading environment, any spectacular and eye-catching lettershapes are more of a hindrance than an advantage in these settings. Text typefaces rely on controlled contrast, pleasant proportions, even texture, and thoughtfully cohesive text setting. Add to these requirements the most subtle sense of personality, and a typeface will have the ability to influence the reader by pleasing the eye and engaging their receptive mind.

. . . .

Sirba

Sirba is a friendly, low-contrast serif that’s warm and even in complex settings. It was designed for use in demanding environments such as dictionaries, academic texts, annual reports, novels, and magazines. As such, Sirba includes a full set of IPA symbols for phonetic pronunciation and coverage for Greek and Cyrillic scripts.

Sirba has a classic touch revealed by its beauty in such design details as the asymmetrical bottom serifs, curved bracketing, and terminals with calligraphic undertones. Because of its open counters, large x-height, and short ascenders and descenders, it provides a pleasant reading experience and high legibility even in texts of demanding scope. Furthermore, annual reports and tables benefit from the low cap height and consistent width of the tabular numerals between the weights. With font weights from sparse to stark, Sirba can handle many levels of hierarchy and text differentiation in books.

Link to the rest at TypeTogether

TypeTogether provides examples of a variety of different Book Fonts that it licenses/sells.

PG acknowledges that he sometimes has difficulty discerning the details that differentiate fonts from the written description of those fonts. For example, he’s not certain he can distinguish between fonts with pleasant portions from fonts without pleasant proportions. He is certain he will not be able to identify a font that’s “warm and even in complex settings” from one which is not. He hopes that he’ll know it when he sees it.

PG notes that fonts used in ebooks may not display in the same manner on various ebook reading devices. He suspects that in many cases Serif and Sans-serif will be the font choices offered for ebook consumption.

What Are the Top Strategic Issues Facing the Book Value Chain?

From Book Business:

As we head into the middle of the year it is time to reflect on the state of our business and what might lie ahead. We have seen some significant changes in the past year as it relates to the Book MFG platform in the U.S.

I will not go through the litany of changes, but the end result is going to be a significantly consolidated platform of book printers with the bulk of the traditional offset capacity, production inkjet capacity, and book finishing solutions for mainstream book publishers being at Quad/LSC, or in one of the many plants that are now part of the CJK Group.

As the various mergers, tuck-ins, and acquisitions are integrated into their new companies, we will see ongoing consolidation of capacity and rationalization of the overall number of available press hours for one and four-color book work. For the first time in decades, book publishers are going to have to think and work on their manufacturing plans for the year, especially as they relate to work on the offset platforms during peak demand seasons.

. . . .

Supplies of book papers will continue to decline as mills close or redirect capacity to more profitable grades. Again, more planning is now going to be required by publishers and printers.

The health of book publishers is a mixed bag. The trade book folks continue to see stability and some growth of their printed products along with significant ongoing growth of downloaded audio books. K-12 publishers struggle for profitability as they are all focused on moving the revenue model from printed books to a stronger digital curriculum platform that can either supplement or even replace print. In either event, print — which in this segment is primarily four-color text books — continues to decline.

In higher education, the print decline continues in what many are experiencing as a double-digit rate. The issues for this segment are more dire than K-12. Here the publishers are dealing with a complete repudiation of their product model because of pricing issues by a significant number of their primary adopters, the professors and universities. This is a segment whose current business model may be stuck in a doom loop and, again, here we see four-color printing as one of the area’s of manufacturing that will feel the decline, which is why you may see some significant capacity rationalization in the four-color area from all the merger and acquisition activity among printers in the past 12 months.

. . . .

The retail distribution model is already changing in a dramatic fashion. Brick and mortar is in decline, especially in the big box store model. We see this in trade with Barnes and Noble as well as education with the college book store models. Amazon continues to grow its presence in both trade and higher education. Publishers and printers both need to be planning for the possibility that big box book brick and mortar might fail. How will publishers replace those sales and the bandwidth of all that shelf space? How will printers plan for the reduction in print demand when all the books sitting in stores and warehouses come back to the publishers through the return channel?

Paper continues to be an issue and it is not going to go away. There is no new domestic capacity coming online for uncoated book free sheet or groundwood for the mono books. Coated graphic arts papers of all grades are in short supply for the same reasons. Mills are closing or switching capacity to more profitable and easier to manufacture packaging grades.

. . . .

As publishers work toward reducing turnaround times with tighter SLA’s, the printers will need a distribution system that can move product quickly and effectively. The primary method for moving books is by truck. There is a critical shortage of over-the-road truck drivers in the U.S. and the shortage is growing as baby boomers leave the workforce and trucking companies struggle to attract good candidates into the jobs. How will publishers plan for this emerging problem?

Offset print plants require skilled craftsman to run one and four color offset presses, as well as high speed soft cover and case binding lines. There is a significant amount of labor required in a medium size and large book plant, especially in the bindery. Many of the markets where these book plants exist today have a shortage of the skills and labor required for these plants to run at full capacity. This is an ongoing issue, which was experienced by many mainstream book printers this past year and will continue as the talent pool who used to fill these jobs find better paying and less demanding jobs. This issue has a compounding effect. It creates capacity shortages caused not by lack of equipment, but rather by the inability to utilize all the theoretically available time on that equipment for lack of operators. This then reduces the potential ROI on those expensive investments in web presses and new and more automated binding lines.

. . . .

We have some really tough issues facing the book business and the structure of the future book value chain. This is a very conservative industry and the nature and past behavior of the industry as a whole would suggest that movement and change will not take place until crisis is upon us. We should all be learning from what is happening in the higher education business.

Link to the rest at Book Business

PG suspects that most people in the traditional publishing world take printing capacity for granted. He hasn’t seen a potential printing capacity problem discussed in any publication that the managers of traditional publishers are likely to read.

Obviously, POD doesn’t work if there isn’t enough P.